The Psychologist has a fascinating article on the psychology of conspiracy theories, looking at what characteristics are associated with believing in sinister far-reaching explanations and what role these beliefs play in society.
I was particularly interested in one part where they note that we are influenced by such ideas even when we’re not aware of it:
Other relevant work has examined the psychological impact of exposure to conspiracy theories, particularly in relation to mass media sources (e.g. Butler et al., 1995 [who studied the psychological impact of the film JFK]), but also in relation to the third-person effect (the tendency for people to believe that persuasive media has a larger influence on others than themselves). In one study, Douglas and Sutton (2008) had participants read material containing conspiracy theories about Princess Diana‚Äôs death before rating their own and others‚Äô agreement with the statements, as well as their perceived retrospective attitudes. They found that participants significantly underestimated how much the conspiracy theories influenced their own attitudes.
The piece also covers why conspiracy theories can seem so attractive and discusses compatibility with prior beliefs, the fact they might fill an emotional need, and how they might reflect a general distrust of authority.
However, it doesn’t touch on the fact that truth can often be stranger than fiction, giving even the most unlikely theories a wide margin of error:
The CIA setting-up fake brothels to spike punters with LSD to test its effectiveness as a new generation of mind control drug – been done; secret international network to listen in on telephone calls, faxes and e-mails – old hat; foreign journalists in the pay of intelligence services to spin the media – yesterday’s news.
It is interesting that both conspiracy theorists and conspiracy hiders use this grey area to equal effect.
Link to Psychologist article ‘The truth is out there’.
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