Conspiracy theories pervade modern culture. They are more popular than ever: 9/11, Roswell, Princess Diana, JFK, man on the moon – almost every significant global event has a theory attached to it. The internet has become the perfect vehicle to perpetuate conspiracy culture with its freedom of individual and group expression, ubiquity, and ability to seed and propagate ideas and hypotheses with ease and rapidity.The 9/11 internet documentary ‘Loose Change’ (which I should add has since been largely discredited – for some at least) is approaching its 10 millionth download. Conspiracy culture is alive and well.
And yet there’s been surprisingly little research into the subject. Strange, when you consider how powerful they are and the insight they can offer: on how ideas spread, the interpretation people place on information, and on modern ways of thinking. Such theories can sow mistrust, open up opportunities for exploitation, and have potentially serious global repercussions but equally they can foster new thinking, encourage us to question norms, and help bring the big guys to account. They can sometimes even be true.
In an intriguing article I read earlier this week, Psychologist Patrick Leman has set out to answer some of the more fundamental questions surrounding conspiracy culture. Are some people more likely to believe in them than others, and if so who and why? What kind of events create better theories? What makes a great conspiracy? Based on his own and others research into the subject, here is Patrick’s guide to creating the perfect conspiracy theory:
1. Pick your antagonist
Studies in the US and UK have found that ethnic minorities and those who are on low incomes are more likely to be conspiracy believers. It is as if a sense of anomie, disempowerment or dislocation from society and authority, fuels belief. A big bad organisation of some sort (Government or corporate) is therefore a very good place to start.
2. Choose your event
A big, newsworthy event is best. Work carried out by Leman has explored a way of thinking he calls “major event, major cause“, the assumption people have that a critical event with big consequences must be caused by something significant and substantial. This way of reasoning, says Leman, is seductive because the alternative (major events having insignificant or mundane causes) “presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect”. Generally, we are more comfortable with stability so ironically, conspiracy theories can in a funny way help us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.
Sudden, shocking visual occurrences are more likely to create what Leman calls “Flashbulb memories”, a vivid and indelible memory of that event. People aged 20-35 are more likely to be able to create such “Flashbulb memories”, so these should be your target. Leman’s research has shown correlations between age and the level of belief in different theories. People aged 36+ are more likely to believe in JFK conspiracies, 20-35 year olds are more likely to believe in 9/11 conspiracies. The youngest group (19 and below), surprisingly, were the least likely to believe in any theory.
3. Developing your story
Use carefully selected information that “weaves together into a compelling story” to construct your theory. Studies around what’s called “confirmation bias” have shown that people give greater attention and attribute greater plausability to information that fits with their existing beliefs. Ambiguous or neutral information can be seen to fit into widely different explanations depending on what you believe to be true about a particular theory. This means that the same piece of evidence might be used by different people to support very different accounts of events. So reinterpret evidence to fit your story, generate uncertainty by questioning that which does not support your theory.
4. Prepare your defence
Theories can mutate over time as new or contradicting evidence appears. A good conspiracy theory may change around the edges but the central belief (“they did it”) never changes. Instead, those who question your theory can actually help perpetuate it if they are seen as simply widening the circle of conspirators.
Leman is keen to point out that conspiracy theorists are no more closed minded than anti-theorists. Rather, both “pursue their own lines of thought and are often subject to cognitive biases that prevent their impartial examination of alternative evidence”. Yet some people, fostered by their social origins and identities, seem more likely to become believers than others. Either way, if only for the insight it gives us into how people construct narratives and how beliefs spread, it’s a subject that undoubtedly deserves more understanding.