CAN PSYCHOLOGY HELP US UNRAVEL WHY CONVINCING THE POPULATION ABOUT WHAT REALLY HAPPENED ISN’T AS STRAIGHTFORWARD AS THE WHITE HOUSE BELIEVES? CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRIST DR RAJ PERSAUD AND PROFESSOR ADRIAN FURNHAM OF UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON EXPLAIN. IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE PSYCHOLOGICAL RESEARCH ON THE SUBJECT OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES YOU CAN TAKE PART IN A CONFIDENTIAL SURVEY DESIGNED BY PSYCHOLOGIST DR VIREN SWAMI AND COLLABORATORS HERE
THE TRUTH ISN’T OUT THERE
Dr Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham discuss the latest psychological research on why conspiracy theories now dominate our thinking about what’s really going on behind the headlines, and why their rise has vital personal implications.
Conspiracy theories about what really happened to Osama Bin Laden are spreading faster than The White House can change its previous version of events. The latest conjectures include: he actually died years ago in Afghanistan. The CIA contrived all those Bin Laden videos and statements, so justifying a succession of Middle East wars, and excesses like Guantanamo Bay, by keeping the world distracted and fearful of a shadowy threatening monster.
The latest supposition is of course, that he’s still… alive. The Americans must have got the wrong man – why else did they dispose of the body so hurriedly? Where are the pictures? And, besides, you just can’t do DNA tests that quickly? So, no proof then! al Qaeda in confirming his death are merely protecting him from future attacks. Or al Qaeda was of course an invention of the CIA all along…
Researchers curious as to the psychological processes responsible for conspiracy theories have recently conducted a series of scientific studies which make intriguing predictions about how likely you are to subscribe to any of the plots above. Adrian Furnham and psychologist colleagues including Martin Voracek from the University of Vienna, Austria, recently surveyed almost 2000 British subjects, in one of the largest studies on conspiracy theory.
The research, just published in the British Journal of Psychology, focused on conspiracy theories over the 7/7 London bombings. Conspiracies which emerged included that the British government either perpetrated or allowed the attacks to happen, so encouraging support for Middle East military intervention, and legitimising civil liberties repression domestically
A previous independent survey of 500 British Muslims reported more than half didn’t believe the official version of events. Furnham and colleagues not only found that conspiracy theories were rampant in their sample, but their research demonstrates that if since reading them, you’ve become more sympathetic to the theories mentioned above, psychologists can predict you are also more likely to be disaffected with, or indeed defiant of, the conventional political system. In other words conspiracy theory belief is not just idle water cooler gossip – it appears to carry implications for your whole world outlook. There are even profound gender differences – women are significantly more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories than men.
Increased academic interest in understanding where conspiracy theories originate and who believes them, and why, arises because of dramatic personal implications. A recent study of almost 1000 South Africans found that belief in the conspiracy theory that AIDS was introduced as part of a white genocidal population control measure, against black people, was one of the strongest predictors of poorer take up of HIV testing, prevention and care. Public Health experts could also argue that conspiracy theories around the MMR vaccine contributed to recent declining take up and child deaths here in the UK. George Bernard Shaw argued ‘professions are conspiracies against the laity’ – and most doctors will have experienced at first hand the suspicions of patients distrustful of medical advice in the face of sturdy evidence. So conspiracy theory invades the consulting room as well, and as a result, it’s useful for physicians to understand how pervasive a phenomenon this is.
The psychological research is also hinting that a vicious cycle seems to be ignited by conspiracy theories – more disillusionment with authority is fostered, which in turn produces heightened skepticism of official version of events, which then infects conspiracy thinking across other domains of your life. The question is when it all starts… and how to break the cycle.
If you believe the Government is covering up Osama’s death, there appears to be a surprisingly short leap psychologically, to a whole spate of other scheming hypotheses being rapidly taken on board as well. What else are ‘they’ covering up? That extra-terrestials have visited earth? That Apollo never landed on the Moon?
A survey of 1000 British adults to mark the release of the film The X-Files: I Want To Believe in 2008 uncovered our favourite Conspiracy Theories. 48% know aliens and spaceships are being investigated at a US military base in Nevada. 38% believed 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government, and 35% are convinced the Apollo landing was a hoax. The very success of TV series and films like the X-Files, attest to the grip of conspiracy on our imaginations. The Da Vinci Code – with sales of over 80 Million is basically about a conspiracy at the heart of Christian belief.
National opinion polls recurrently confirm that up to 90% of Americans believe Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone when assassinating John F. Kennedy. Perhaps more astonishing, is the finding that the proportion of the US public who accept this conspiracy theory, and reject the official or supposedly mainstream account, is increasing year on year. It was only two thirds back in 1968. Is this the power of the web made manifest?
Other research finds that more than a quarter of the US public also believe that their own government either knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks, participated in them, or consciously decided to not stop them. One recent poll of seven predominantly Muslim countries reports almost four fifths of respondents don’t believe the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs. Their conviction is it was the responsibility of the US or Israel.
We seem to be entering an age of conspiracy, abetted partly by the internet. Within hours of Princess Diana’s death, “plot theory” websites challenging the conventional news accounts had been set up. But conspiracy theories took a particularly unprecedented and phenomenal hike following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. Again the psychological research predicts that any event which produces heightened emotional arousal, and maybe engages threat systems in the brain, is more prone to conspiracist attention. Maybe for evolutionary advantage, we are genetically wired up to become hypervigilant for other lions in the undergrowth, if we see a tail protruding. Are we wired to see connections across apparently unconnected incidents? But this does not explain why some people are fervent conspiracists and others not.
Big events must have similarly large causes – runs another hypothesis about the way our mind works. Patrick Leman a psychologist at Royal Holloway College found we are more likely to believe in a conspiracy if a presidential assassination is successful as opposed to a close miss. This might suggest it’s cognitively too stressful to conceive of world events as the outcome from often random interactions of a large number of forces. It’s simpler to imagine everything’s been planned. Conspiracy theories also seem to abound whenever there is incomplete information. It’s a kind of ‘fill in the blanks’ our brains naturally do. There is a stronger drive to do this with emotionally arousing events, and so it follows, assassinations and other unexpected dramatic deaths attract these theories.
The problem is, the kind of bizarre belief psychiatrists would usually expect to be the preserve of a clinic, are now being uncovered to be rampant across great swathes of the so-called normal population. Less than 3.5% of the population was thought by psychiatrists to suffer from psychotic disorders that produced delusions. But in a Scripps-Howard 2006 Poll, 16% of the US population ascribe to the view the World Trade Centre was destroyed, not by planes that crashed into it, nor by the fires that followed, but by explosives or other devices already secretly planted in the building. 36% assent to the claim “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center or took no action to stop them.”
This and other recent psychological research, suggests that conspiracy theories which contradict the official view of Osama Bin Laden’s death, will in future come to hold sway over the majority of the world’s population. In which case the fact he was killed could in fact become the least important aspect of the longer term impact of the event.
Indeed, there are many aspects of the way information is being released by the US Government, which the latest psychological research suggests could be inadvertently fanning conspiracy flames. The implications include an unremitting slide in the faith of the public in their governments and official institutions, and a flee from authoritative sources of news, while turning to overtly paranoid sources. People’s level of trust in all institutions and the officials who speak on their behalf has shown a dramatic decline over the years.
Another intriguing repercussion of the rise in conspiracy as a way of understanding the world, is that it will lead to a growing sense of powerlessness and alienation of the public at large. Might this lead to even lower voter turnouts and worse participation in civic life? After all what is the point of turning out to vote, or engaging in politics, or trying to make a difference, if deep down, you harbour the suspicion everything is controlled by a massive, hidden, all powerful, global conspiracy?
But maybe there are also benefits to conspiracy belief. Arguably the journalistic scoop of the 20th Century was the uncovering of a conspiracy that went right up to President Nixon. The story only broke because of the incessant digging of two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, discerning significance in an innocuous third rate burglary; both being ridiculed at first for constructing such a massive conspiracy out of so trivial an incident.
Perhaps the reason paranoia, which lies at the heart of conspiracy reasoning, has survived, and is even genetically wired into us, is because it has some ancient evolutionary and survival benefit. We know from neuroscience research that the brain detects, and processes, negative facial expressions in others, faster and more efficiently, than it does positive emotions. It seems we are programmed to detect social threat over and above social support. Any small string we notice left untied, is naturally therefore used to construct a negative edifice. It might be it’s better in the longer term to assume ‘they’ are out to get you, even if you are wrong most of the time, because of the massive benefits in getting it right, just once.
The key psychological error the White House appears to have made in the way it has handled the Osama news, is that it assumed we would all be so distracted by the ‘good’ news headlines, we’d ignore the supposedly innocuous inconsistencies.
Unfortunately for them, we didn’t get here, surviving our long evolutionary journey, by not being obsessed with what else might be lurking in the undergrowth.
Conspiracist ideation in Britain and Austria: Evidence of a monological belief system and associations between individual psychological differences and real-world and fictitious conspiracy theories British Journal of Psychology Volume 102, Issue 2, May 2011Viren Swami, Rebecca Coles, Stefan Stieger, Jakob Pietschnig, Adrian Furnham, Sherry Rehim and Martin Voracek Article first published online : 25 FEB 2011, DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2010.02004.x
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