Consider Conspiracies

New research suggests people are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories if they would be willing to personally participate in such a conspiracy. … “At least among some samples and for some conspiracy theories, the perception that ‘they did it’ is fueled by the perception that ‘I would do it. … People who have more lax personal morality may endorse conspiracy theories to a greater extent because they are, on average, more willing to participate in the conspiracies themselves.” (more; HT David Brin)

All the commentary I’ve found on this seems to take it as evidence against conspiracy theories, since it offers a non-evidential explanation for why people might believe in such theories. For example, people are eager to mention birthers in the same breath, to discredit them. But in fact this result tends to support conspiracy theories.

Think about it. Why are conspiracy theories in such disrepute, given that there have in fact been many real conspiracies in the world? One theory is that conspiracy theories just tend to be wrong – that there is some bias which makes people believe them too much, and the anti-conspiracy attitudes you see are a response to that bias. Another theory is that the people who tend to support conspiracy theories are disliked, independently of the evidence supporting their theories. The result above adds support for this disliked theory, relative to the bias theory.  And this gives you less reason to believe there is in fact a widespread bias to believe too easily in conspiracy theories. Which is evidential, if not social, support for such theories.

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  • Nathan Cook

    If we simplify the results a bit and say that the study divides the population into a moral and a less moral sub-population, then don’t we automatically get two non-evidential explanations? As you say, we get an explanation for why the less moral sub-population is more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, but we also get an non-evidential explanation for why the moral population is more likely to dismiss them. There seems to be an implicit proposition here that those less moral are more likely to use fallacious reasoning of the form ‘it could [not] happen if I would [not] do it’. Or, more disturbingly, such reasoning is seen as valid when practised by the moral, and invalid when practised by the immoral.

  • What makes large conspiracies so dubious is that it requires so many people to be in on it. Every person “in” on the conspiracy multiplies the likelihood that the conspiracy will be blown. Therefore believing in conspiracies which require thousands of people to be in on it requires a disregard for math.

    OTOH, in a state where the government controls the media absolutely conspiracies should be easy to pull off, but in that case everyone is technically “in” on the conspiracy and nobody exists on the outside to “out” the conspiracy to.

    “Why are conspiracy theories in such disrepute, given that there have in fact been many real conspiracies in the world?”

    What have been the real large conspiracies in America? Watergate was a conspiracy, I guess, but it was really more like a handful of people committing a crime than a broad conspiracy — and even then someone blew the whistle. JFK probably wasn’t shot by LHO but that doesn’t mean a broad conspiracy was behind the assassination, unless you qualify anything organized crime does as a conspiracy.

    • Nikki Olson

      “Therefore believing in conspiracies which require thousands of people to be in on it requires a disregard for math.”

      -Agreed. This is something that conspiracy theorists uniformally seem to not get. Perhaps it is because they (for whatever reason), over-estimate the ability for others to keep secrets (maybe because they themselves are good at lying and deception)

  • acertainshadeofgreen

    “At least among some samples and for some conspiracy theories, the perception that ‘they did it’ is fueled by the perception that ‘I would do it.”

    This isn’t a fair conclusion. Correlation does not equal causation blah blah blah.

    Maybe people who are willing to participate in conspiracies are less intelligent on average, and people who believe conspiracy theories are also less intelligent on average. You could probably come up with other explanations for the correlation…. the proposed theory isn’t compelling enough to make you think there is a causal link between willingness to participate in conspiracy and belief in conspiracies.

    • Nikki Olson

      Acertainshadeofgreen: ‘Intelligence’ is too broad.

      I would bet critical thinking skills are a better determinate than general intelligence. While there is a correlation between critical thinking skills and general intelligence, you can certainly be intelligent and not have critical thinking skills; this is one of the main things differentiating those with University education from those without, where levels of intelligence are otherwise similar.

      Also, people who believe in conspiracies (as written in the original article) are more likely to believe that other people are easily lead. If you are not of (at least) average intelligence then it’s difficult to see how one could feel as though they could (easily) fool other people.

      Also, you have to consider the different kinds of conspiracy theorists. The hacker community spawned a special breed of conspiracy theorists who are quite intelligent (but probably lack in other areas–like critical thinking skills, and certain kinds of social skills). UFO conspiracy theorists, however, it might be a different story.

      Also, believing in conspiracy theories often involves self-directed investigation, learning of many facts and details, attention to detail, effort to stay informed about world issues, and so on. The average person (nowadays) watches television and doesn’t do much of this on a regular basis, putting the conspiracy theorist in a category of people already more involved in pursuits involving intelligence than the average person.

  • DziecielinaPala

    Ha, this is so true. I know of one conspiracy hunter that cheated on their employer to get one month of paid absence claiming to break a bone abroad. It was funny to see the employer believing and empathizing with everything said on the phone whereas I was collecting suspicious correlations to learn ultimately that the employee was doing a paid gig for someone else at that time.

    Some problems were that the excuse of a broken bone was something that may have come to the employee’s mind after hearing another employee’s problems (such similar events tend not to happen that often), the hospital abroad didn’t send medical documentation through and all the explanation lacked medical details that you learn from doctors and share.

    Fortunately or not there was nothing for me to gain for calling this one out. It didn’t happen in the USA.

  • Conspiracy needs a definition here. For instance, if, remarkably, indeed someone changed the electronic copies of the newspapers announcing Obama’s birth and the electronic copy of the birth certificate, which doesn’t sound completely implausible however unlikely given someone with the technical know-how to do such a thing, it still wouldn’t make birthers correct about the “conspiracy” theory. Such a crime, if it occurred, was more likely to have been committed by one or two trusted people. What makes birthers crazy is their belief that a large network of people are in on the conspiracy to hide the truth about the birth even though not one person has broken ranks and come forward.

    One could call all private meetings and proprietary information in corporations a “conspiracy” in that large numbers of people are orchestrated to carry out secret plans aimed at hurting their competitors. But if you’ve worked in the corporate world you find out quickly that nothing ever stays secret long. Someone always breaks ranks somewhere. What is said in a boardroom might as well be broadcast on a jumbotron in Times Square a month later. Getting more than 2 or 3 people to keep a secret in a relatively open society never works.

  • Dave

    You are always surfing down the back side of the wave. You say that since the establishment people dislike conspiracy theories, this augments the likelihood of their being true,if I understand you. My own opinion is that reverse is true at least at my own time and place,from what I have been able to figure.

    The reason many people espouse conspiracy theories is that they are anti- establishment .Their default position is to doubt official explanations. The default position of the who trust the established authorities is to believe the official explanation. Many times the official explanation is correct.For example I think Oswald was the lone assassin,vaccines don’t cause autism, AIDS is caused by HIV virus. Fluoride in the water is not a Communist conspiracy.

  • Conspiracy theories were popular and respectable during the anti-Establishment 70s, when everybody wanted anti-Establishment bona fides. The turning point was Oliver Stone’s 1991 “JFK,” which started out popular but elicited a tremendous backlash from the new establishment. Stone, at his peak, was too talented of a loose cannon to be allowed to remain respectable.

  • Evan

    Think about it. Why are conspiracy theories in such disrepute, given that there have in fact been many real conspiracies in the world?

    Conspiracy theories aren’t just theories about any conspiracies. Everyone knows that there have been a ton of conspiracies in the real world. What conspiracy theorists posit are large, massively successful conspiracies, often ones that last for decades or even centuries before being found out. In real life conspiracies usually fail, or at least fail to achieve full fruition, and they’re usually found out fairly fast. What makes conspiracy theorists disreputable isn’t their belief in conspiracies, it’s their belief in large, successful, longlasting conspiracies. The reason believing in that sort of conspiracy is in disrepute is that it would be a logistical nightmare to pull one off and keep it secret.

  • It’s almost built into the definition of “conspiracy theory” that it is something that contradicts the official version of events. Believing in them automatically puts you on the margins of acceptable discourse. People don’t like to be marginal, unless they are forced to be, in which case they may adopt conspiracies or some other fringe belief as an identity and community. This partly explains why people who believe in one conspiracy tend to believe in all of them.

    Anyway, I recently stumbled on a rarity, a generally reputable (perhaps formerly) academic who is also an assassination consipracy buff, and has written some papers on the epistemology of conspiracy and has a website called “assassination science“, which people might find interesting.

    • Both 9/11 “Truthers” and holocaust deniers point out that the official story is technically one that blames a conspiracy. In fact Kenneth Branagh was in an HBO film about the latter event titled “Conspiracy”. The difference is that those are claims of a group conspiring to conceal their nefarious plans before execution, and the “conspiracy theorists” are making claims of an after-the-fact coverup.

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  • Mitchell Porter

    The intellectual state of conspiracy theory is a little like the state that the search for a final theory of physics would be in, if there were no physics departments, but just Internet discussion forums about physics. The physics departments have to be excluded from the comparison because the best academic physicists really are on a different plane of competence when it comes to thinking about unified theories. But on the forums, even really knowledgeable people may be indistinguishable from crackpots with a lifetime’s work to promote, and misconceptions and wrong answers may dominate majority opinion. It is an environment in which truth about the most subtle matters can be hard to make out, and in which consensus only extends to rejection of the most egregiously crazy hypotheses (e.g. “time has inertia”; or, JFK’s head blew up by itself).

    Thus it is with respect to conspiracy theories. Scholarship and careful deduction, if it exists at all, are completely drowned out by popular manias and ideological warfare. The basic concept (conspiracy) is only rarely scrutinized and defined, and the discourse is dominated by advocacy or ridicule of theories in which the conspiracies are of the total and omnipotent kind. Nonetheless, just as there is a physics even if we can’t figure it out, there are conspiracies large and small. As 9/11 truthers love to say, the official theory of 9/11 is a conspiracy theory. (Speaking of 9/11, if you want some unimpeachable cognitive dissonance, look up the parts of the 9/11 Commission report where they say that the people who plotted to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993 weren’t part of Al Qaeda.)

  • njt

    Conspiracy is an original human behaviour. A family conspires with its members against the evil in the world, companies against competitors, states against enemies etc. The advantage of knowledge – not sharing knowledge with ‘the others’ – is an universal key to power and leadership, knowledge is power (Francis Bacon).
    To speak about conspiracy theories can be a mean of psychological defense of ‘conspiracy practitioners’ to dispel doubts of their doings.

    The world has seen many syndications of companies (to control markets), of states and mass media (to control people) and even of collective mindsets. To not accept the existence of conspiracies might be a way to keep a happy but naive world outlook. Kant’s short essay ‘What is enlightenment?’ is still up to date, explaining why so many people do not search for truth and like to believe there is no dark side. As a German I think it’s indispensable to always question authority and to realize to what an unimaginable extent conspiracies can go. Since the internet is spreading knowledge like no media before, the essential key of power – control the flow of information – gets lost. This leads to uncountable disclosures of NDAs, shedding light on the whole ‘game of power’ and its linkings to belief, trust and knowledge.

  • idiot

    Not all conspiracy theories have been “marginalized”. In 2003, 75% of Americans believed JFK was killed in a conspiracy involving more than one person. That was a decrease from 2001, when 81% of Americans believed the same thing. Back in 1963, only 53% believed JFK was killed by more than one person.


    So if we want to say that conspiracy theories are somehow “beyond the pale of mainstream thought”, we have to explain WHY this conspiracy theory is generally accepted by mainstream thought.

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  • lemmy caution

    There are a bunch of birthers on my facebook. Those guys are annoying.

    Groups believe ridiculous stories, it can bind the group together. The truth of the story doesn’t matter much. Our enemies are killing us with witchcraft is very popular one. We are descendants of the “witch killers” rather than the “witches”. For this reason, people are genetically predisposed to believe group-binding non-factual stories.

    Firehouse effect:

  • mwengler

    Secret work for a government feels like a conspiracy to me. Reading for example Cryptonomicon one sees that tremendous effort is made to mislead both the friendly non-secure population and the enemy about what is actually being done. I think there is a vast structure of philosophy and human understanding to be had in examining this, but alas one is impeded in this examination by security laws.

    Once someone is cleared they become aware that a lot of stuff is done that people don’t know about and are deliberately mislead about. How can they not conclude that if they are part of this conspiracy that other people in other places are parts of different conspiracies? That people who are consciously aware that they would participate in a conspiracy are more likely to be consciously aware that other people may participate in conspiracies seems, by itself, a feature, not a bug.

    The hard part I think is the 1,000 percieved tigers for every real tiger effect. Evolution doesn’t punish you for being anxious and nervous in the dark where you percieve 1,000 tigers that aren’t there for every real tiger, because escaping 1,000 imagined tigers plus 1 real tiger is a better strategy than being realistic about tigers and thus having a 20% chance of missing the real ones. So we many of us may have a bias we are unaware of to percieve 1000 non-existent conspiracies for every real conspiracy. How do you overcome a bias like this? What is the proper sensitivity on your conspiracy-detector if you would like to know the truth AND you would like not to be caught by surprise by people working secretly against you?

  • Peter J

    The initiation of central banking (Federal Reserve Act) required conspiracy in the early 20th century. Hundreds of witting and unwitting actors set the stage for private bankers to in-debt our nation for the next hundred years. Some spoke out against it, exposing the corrupt and fraudulent act to any who might pay heed (“those who have ears ought to listen”). People argue that in a large scale conspiracy, someone would expose it. In such cases,there are leaks, some do break ranks, or think critically and/or morally, to speak out. But, they are dismissed as nuts, or disgruntled cranks, etc. In that way, anti-conspiracists, having dismissed the ” leaks”, make their case that large-scale conspiracy doesn’t happen. Consider that the Manhattan Project was a large-scale conspiracy to create an atomic bomb. Thousands kept it under wraps