Conspiracy theories: why we love them

The families of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School are suing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones who claims the massacre was a hoax.

Jones, an InfoWars broadcaster, is accused of knowingly spreading false information in order to profit from it (he sells herbal supplements through his conspiracy theory-based website).

He also talks about how the Oklahoma City bombing was “an inside job” by the government. Same with the Boston Marathon bombing. He says we knew about 9/11 before the attack and did nothing because we wanted to justify the Iraqi invasion. And no one was actually hurt at Sandy Hook; they were actors.

Donald Trump calls in on Jones’ show every now and then. “Your reputation is amazing,” Trump said to Jones during one call. “I will not let you down.”

Trump hasn’t let Jones down. But what about the rest of America? Millions of people believe conspiracy theories, including people who are smart enough to know better.

some background: the link between media literacy and conspiracy theory

When doing their best work, journalists are almost like scientists, linked to the truth, found through original sources, with the intention of providing accurate information to the public. Okay, they’re better than scientists because they’re also engaging—but that’s a subject for another time.

Reporters are taught to ask questions, then verify their facts (like we all should). Journalists are skeptics, who find facts from which they draw conclusions (or not) and then report them to readers.

On the other hand, arguments from conspiracy theorist are often based on a misplaced burden of proof (say, what??). In other words, conspiracy theorists will often poke holes in an argument in order to justify their position—but that doesn’t make a new theory to be true; the theory needs to stand on its own evidence. An example: Most of us believe ghosts don’t exist. Conspiracy theorists must prove that they DO exist–the burden of proof is on them. It’s not on the non-believers-in-ghosts (because the majority of scientific evidence supports this) to prove to the conspiracy theorists that ghosts don’t exist.

why do people believe in conspiracy theories

Below, two psychologists weigh in on this question.

Christopher French, University of London professor of psychology:

As a species, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to find patterns in the world around us and to make cause and effect inferences from them. We sometimes, however, see patterns and connections that are not there, especially when we feel that events are beyond our control.

French describes three specific biases that compel us to accept or promote conspiracies:

Confirmation Bias

We want to believe evidence that supports what we already believe and ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs.

Proportionality Bias

We tend to assume that big events have big causes. For example, this may help to explain why so many people were uncomfortable with the idea that JFK was the victim of a lone gunman.

Projection

People who believe in conspiracy theories may be more likely to be conspiratorial themselves, by spreading rumors or being suspicious of motives. If you would engage in such behavior, it may seem natural that other people would as well, making conspiracies appear more plausible and widespread.

British psychologist Karen Douglas:

Reasons for believing in conspiracy theories fall into three categories:

1. Our desire for understanding and certainty about the world

2. Our desire for control and security over randomness

3. Our desire to maintain a positive self-image and to be part of a community

 

If we are simply trying to fulfill basic human needs does it make sense to try to shut down conspiracy theories? Let’s talk.

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