Conspiracy Believers

The July 11 New Scientist, says we believe more in conspiracy theories when we have less wealth and power, when the questioned event happened in our early adulthood, and when the event had greater consequences: 

A survey in 1968 found that about two-thirds of Americans believed the [JFK] conspiracy theory, while by 1990 that proportion had risen to nine-tenths. … Over 20 per cent of African Americans believe that HIV was created in a laboratory and disseminated by the US government in order to restrict the growth of the black population, … The people who believe this theory also tend to be more sceptical of government health messages that condoms can stop HIV transmission. … People who believe in one [conspiracy] theory are more likely to believe in others. …

Beliefs in JFK conspiracies are highest among people aged 36 and over, while those between 20 and 35 are most likely to see a conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks. Surprisingly, perhaps, the youngest age group – 19 and under – are least likely to endorse any theory. … Ethnic minorities – particularly African and Hispanic … are far more believing of conspiracy theories … People who describe themselves as "hard up" are more likely to believe in conspiracies than those with average income levels, while the least likely to believe are the well off. …

I gave volunteers variations of a newspaper story describing an assassination attempt on a fictitious president. Those who were given the version where the president died were significantly more likely to attribute the event to a conspiracy than those who read the one where the president survived, even though all other aspects of the story were equivalent.

Of course none of this says whether we are on average too eager or too reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories.  I just watched Platoon again, where army grunts say:

Politics, man, politics.  We always getting fucked around here.

I’d love to see studies of such workplace conspiracy theories, to see who tends to believe in what illicit workplace influences, and how often they are right.

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  • Hopefully Anonymous

    It occurs to me that self-identified ethnic minorities may perform belief in conspiracies as a way of maintaining adhesion in relatively open societies. Us against them. Also to encourage endogamy in female members of the minority (majority men are existential threats, don’t procreate with them). It would be interesting to see the relationship between minorities and conspiracy belief in different societies, and also controlling for income/wealth.

  • josh

    “Over 20 per cent of African Americans believe that HIV was created in a laboratory and disseminated by the US government in order to restrict the growth of the black population,”

    That is the most depressing sentence I’ve read in a long time.

  • Luke G.

    This study corresponds to my own observations (heh, confirmation bias on my part, perhaps?) of about four guys who are heavily into conspiracy theories. They are in the 20-30 age range, single males in low-end jobs or in college. They are more intelligent than the average person but also more insecure–bright people who have a tendency towards outbursts and meltdowns. They all had big dreams of success (ie, becoming a famous musician, or a writer) that tanked.

    I think they like the feeling of control that the conspiracy theory gives them–“Everyone else is fooled, but I know the real truth.” I wouldn’t be surprised if resentment and insecurity is at the root of most conspiracy theories.

  • Stan

    Can we say there is such a thing as a rhetorical bias? The term “conspiracy theory” seems to me to have a negative connotation. Perhaps it has just been framed negatively, or maybe it’s negative because most people who believe conspiracy theories are seen to be whackos.

    Either way, we need a new way to think about them.

  • Stan

    I must admit in my earlier days I wasn’t properly skeptical of conspiracy theories. Looking back, it seems that a large part of conspiracy theorists psychology is that there are so many strong exogenous influences that they do not seem to control their own lives or fate. This coupled with the fact that they assume people have the worst motivations possible, and you have the recipe for a very paranoid individual. I was a militant leftist, whereas now after some substantial work in economics and a book or two by Ayn Rand, I am a peaceful libertarian.

    The key difference is the realization that you are in control of your life and destiny, and the people in positions of power and control are not very different from you.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    There may be an issue of definition – what the powerless see as conspiracies might be “standard business practices” to the powerfull.

    Ex: a division manager employes the incompetent daughter of another division manager. To the workers, saddled with a new incompetent boss, a conspiracy against those without family contacts. To the division manager, a reasonable compromise to maintain company unity.

  • dydal

    If your statement about HIV and African-American population restriction is true, how would you explain HIV problems in Africa (not to mention all over the world)?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Luke, mirror biases could afflict the powerful, who want to believe that power is in general well justified.

    Stuart, yes, which is why I’d like to see workplace data.

  • TGGP

    Also to encourage endogamy in female members of the minority (majority men are existential threats, don’t procreate with them).
    Among African-Americans, men are the most favorable toward inter-racial relationships and women are the most opposed to it. The reverse is the case among asians (I don’t know how prone to conspiracy theory they are, or what opinions hispanics have on interethnic relationships). Steve Sailer has a bunch of writings on the subject here which caused an angry asian guy to set up the (unintentionally) funny sailerfraud sites.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    TGGP, is it empirically verified that asian men are more opposed to interracial relationships than asian women? I thought the controlling factor was the preferences of non-asian women, not the preferences of asian men. Data I recall seeing (unfortunately I don’t have it handy) is that women across ethnicities are less inclined to date interracially than men. But some women may be more predisposed to it than others and to some “races” of men more than others, resulting in the gendered elements of interracial relationships.

  • TGGP

    From what I’ve read, dating sites show that Asian women are the only ones who prefer partners not of their own race. I can’t remember where, but I’ll post the link if I recall.