by Jonathan Chang ‘17
Conspiracy theories long have been a staple of American society. Whether it’s the belief that the moon landings were faked or that Tupac Shakur is still alive, people have been creating and believing conspiracy theories in order to explain certain events or phenomena. The use of mass communication like the internet nd social media platforms has also caused conspiracy theories to be spread at an exponential rate. And, despite the outlandishness of these theories, people still thoroughly believe in and passionately defend them.
So, why do people create these bizarre theories? One answer is that people recognize and identify patterns in seemingly random objects or events. This tendency is called “apophenia” in psychology and refers to the human inclination to find meaningful patterns in random sets of data. However, this penchant to perceive meaning and/or coincidences in random events causes people to incorrectly find meaning in the seemingly indiscriminate occurrences that happen around them. Imagine the stereotypical conspiracy theorist with his wall full of newspaper headlines and magazine scraps with strings connecting them all together; the person’s desire to connect the dots between the pieces of information is due, in part, to apophenia.
Conspiracy theories also tend to create a sense of empowerment for people, according to psychologists. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor in social and organizational psychology at Vrije University Amsterdam, noted in an August 2015 Time Magazine article how people who felt powerless in a situation were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. He adds how people who feel vulnerable will want to make sense of a frightening and uncertain event, like a terrorist attack or a high-profile death. People are more at ease when they feel like they know the story behind a situation, since, to them, it becomes less confusing and more understandable; however, this “sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality,” said van Prooijen in the article. In addition, Bob Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and director of its Tanner Humanities Center, noted in a December 2016 Cable News Network article how people are given a feeling of power with conspiracy theories because it provides them a scapegoat to direct their anger and blame.
Another reason that explains why people truly believe and spread conspiracy theories is partly because of motivated skepticism. This term, coined by psychologists and political scientists, describes how people will heavily scrutinize any information that disagrees with their personal views, and will accept any information that agrees with their perspective. Coupled with a growing distrust in the government or the mainstream media, people will soon begin to rigorously analyze news and information from these sources, seeing them as false. In turn, they will then clearly see sources that support conspiracy theories as the real truth and take them at face-value.
It is clear that human behavior plays a role in the formation and proliferation of conspiracy theories. Everyone has these tendencies, thought-processes, and biases that can make one susceptible to even the most ridiculous conspiracy theories. And, it is a result of these innate aspects of humanity that conspiracy theories flourish and continue to grow more and more