(Photo-Illustration: Dana Hursey/Masterfile/Coribs)
By Tanya Basu
Between the recent firing of the professor who believed that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax (and subsequently, reporters arguing that President Barack Obama’s tears recalling the victims of Sandy Hook during an executive order for gun control were faked), a group of internet naysayers who believe Bristol Palin actually delivered her second child before the date of the Instagram post announcing her birth on Christmas, and former reality-TV star Tila Tequila’s sincere belief that the Earth is not a sphere but rather a flat disc, conspiracy theories are having quite a moment.
Mocking conspiracy theorists is easy (and sometimes rather defensible), but psychologist Rob Brotherton argues in a new book that the tendency to create a backstory about an incident isn’t just something that’s done by fringe members of society. “Many more people believe conspiracy theories than you’d expect,” says Brotherton, a psychologist at Barnard and the author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. Brotherton cites the JFK assassination among the most enduring conspiracy theories of the modern era, along with the September 11 attacks, which sparked a movement of doubters who believe the American government hatched a plan to attack itself and hide information that continues to this day. “It’s not just the deluded loner stereotype sitting in a basement posting on the internet in all capital letters.”
Instead, Brotherton argues, all of us fall prey to the same cognitive biases that are at the root of conspiracy theories. “What it seems like is that we all have mental biases, mental shortcuts,” Brotherton said. “We seem to be hardwired to suspect that a conspiracy has taken place.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; being mildly paranoid can work in our favor. “It’s beneficial to be perceptive or on the lookout,” Brotherton said, adding that this was especially true for our earliest ancestors, who needed to be highly alert to potential attacks.
He’s essentially talking about the intentionality bias — that is, the belief that people are acting without our best interests in mind, intentionally trying to harm us. This bias is likely an evolutionary holdover because, of course, if someone really is “out to get us, knowing that would be beneficial,” Brotherton said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.” In other words, it’s actually quite normal — perhaps even good for you — to be suspicious of official explanations of events.
Or consider the proportionality bias, which is a seesaw sort of view of the world: If there’s something big that happens — say, 9/11, or the recent terror attacks in Paris — then there must be an equally large reason behind it. This is particularly true for huge, significant tragedies like 9/11 — the U.S. government has come out with an official story, but conspiracy theorists can top that with a bigger, more nebulous story. You can see a similar train of thought in the way people retroactively think of a one-night stand. If it leads to marriage, you’re likely to think that you and your partner were fated to meet. If it doesn’t, you’re probably going to be less likely to think of that night as a product of divine intervention.
Then there’s pattern-seeking, which is what the name suggests, and is innately part of human nature: We look for patterns in explaining a story, and when things don’t fit neatly into a story, we start raising questions. Think about how satisfying it is to finish a mystery novel, whose clues build up to a solid conclusion. “This [pattern-seeking] is essential for science,” Brotherton said. “Scientists gather all this data and look for data and meaning, using strict statistical methods and criteria so they don’t get fooled. But here we’re using our gut reactions and intuition to find patterns where sometimes they don’t exist. We want to spot these dots and connect them together.”
And finally, there’s the grand mama of all biases: the confirmation bias, where we judge evidence and select which piece fits into the story, rejecting others that don’t. Look at your social media feed for examples in your own life of this one: You’re probably not following people on Facebook or Twitter who adhere to a political philosophy different from yours, for instance. Brotherton says the confirmation bias is at the top of the list of how we become conspiracy theorists, “so pervasive because we all do it. We’re all prone to it, not just conspiracy theorists. These are the seeds: Confirmation bias nourishes a theory to grow.”
Throughout our conversation, Brotherton emphasizes again and again that conspiracy theorists aren’t all that different from the rest of us. Consider the recent Netflix phenomenon Making a Murderer, which chronicles the exoneration of Steven Avery for a violent rape he was wrongly jailed for, followed by his subsequent arrest for a brutal murder. The documentary pieces together a botched investigation and clues that sometimes indicate Avery is behind the murder and sometimes point to his being innocent. Avid viewers have created petitions, one that has gone so far as to require the White House to address the case. As this piece from Vanity Fair recently pointed out, we’ve all tapped into our conspiracy-theorist sides. “Even with its twisting diversions (and the room it leaves for plenty of different theories), Making a Murderer really puts you on only one of two sides. Either Steven Avery is guilty of murder, or the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office conspired to frame him,” writes Scott Beggs. “Either he shot an acquaintance and burned her body behind his garage, or the blood and bones and bullets were all planted. Either he’s the bad guy, or dark, petty forces truly are out to get a man who’s already been through one brand of hell.”
In the case of Making a Murderer — or any other conspiracy theory, for that matter — the intrigue around the story makes the conspiracy that much more attractive. “I’m not saying the conspiracy can’t be true in this (or any other) case — maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” Brotherton says. “But it is certainly alluring.”
So what, then, separates the Making a Murderer conspiracy theorist from the Sandy Hook Truther, the 9/11 Truthers, the legions of people who believe Tupac is still alive, the Loch Ness monster is real, the man with the umbrella on the sunny day JFK was assassinated was actually a Soviet plant with sinister connections? Think of it in terms of a spectrum. “Some people deny every single conspiracy allegation, and some people wholeheartedly accept them all,” Brotherton says. “But most people are somewhere in the middle, accepting some, doubting some, but mostly harboring some degree of uncertainty.” He points out that with many politically motivated conspiracy theories, there are political and ideological factors at play — there’s a reason why so many conspiracy theories have blamed Jews for centuries, why ardent gun-rights groups have anti-government, staunchly libertarian stances.
There’s also the fact that some conspiracy theories do end up being true, like the case of a 1950s-era media-driven propaganda drive called Operation Mockingbird, where the CIA used foreign correspondents — some complicit in the scheme — to gather intelligence abroad. Most recently, there was the slew of documents from the Edward Snowden leak that pointed to the fact that the American government was tapping into phone conversations without consent; what initially began as a conspiracy theory turned into a national conversation on privacy rights.
So whether you’re debating late into the night about whether President Obama has a fake American birth certificate, or you’re convinced that vaccinations lead to autism, or you’re sure that Nicolas Cage is most definitely a vampire from the Civil War era, rest assured that you’re united by this simple human truth: All of us — including you — are conspiracy theorists.