I’ve never been a huge fan of conspiracy theories. If a conspiracy theory was actually true, I could never understand how such a significant event could be kept a secret without the public hearing about it, while there are mountains of evidence showing that the conspiracy theory can’t possibly have occurred in the first place. On the other hand, I love discussing conspiracy theories and whether they are plausible or not. I may not believe in conspiracy theories, but I wonder why people are so attracted to them. According to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, 63% of registered American voters think at least one political conspiracy is real. Could it be the appeal to mystery, inclination to doubt powerful people and groups, desire to feel in control of a turbulent situation, or just an honest belief that there is enough evidence to believe in certain conspiracy theories?
There are many different reasons that people believe in conspiracy theories. According to political scientists Joseph Parent and Joseph Uscinski, education could play a large role in whether someone believes in conspiracy theories or not. In one study, they discovered that only 23% of people with postgraduate degrees, compared to a shocking 42% of people who haven’t graduated from high school, are likely to believe in conspiracy theories. This may seem like Parent and Uscinski are claiming that those who believe in conspiracy theories are stupid, but that is not the case. This study is only indicating that people with more practice in searching for actual evidence rather than being persuaded by emotion and instinct can notice more easily when a conspiracy theory has no credence to it.
Another reason certain people tend to believe in conspiracies is to feel in control. Jan-Willem van Prooijen performed multiple studies to demonstrate this assertion. In one study, Prooijen gathered 119 people, telling half of them to write down instances when they felt in control, and the other half to write down times when they did not feel in control. After researchers went on to ask each individual about a certain conspiracy, the results were clear; the people who wrote down times when they did not feel in control were much more likely to believe in the conspiracy theory.
Besides feeling out of control, cynicism, narcissism and low self-esteem are other attributes of people who generally believe in conspiracy theories. According to Viren Swami, a psychology professor, believers in conspiracies are more likely to think poorly of themselves and to be distrusting of others. In similar studies, researchers at the University of Kent conducted multiple studies of over 200 people where they would ask each person if they agreed with certain conspiracy theories or not. The researches would also ask them to assess themselves on their egotism and their self-esteem. The results revealed that, in general, those who believed in conspiracies more often were also more likely to have low self-esteem and be narcissistic.
Considering all of these studies regarding why certain people believe in conspiracy theories, could they actually be right? In some cases, yes. One of the most famous instances occurred in 1953 to 1964 in a project known as MKUltra. The CIA worked with 80 institutions like prisons, hospitals, and universities to perform immoral experiments on people without their permission. The goal was to gain knowledge on biological and chemical materials in order to create better weapons in preparation for the Cold War. Many of these “patients” were tortured in odd and various manners during the program’s existence. Another conspiracy theory that turned out to be true occurred in 1964, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked a US battleship, the USS Maddox. After the USS Maddox had “successfully” defended itself and fired back, President Lyndon Johnson announced that two of the enemy boats had been destroyed, maybe more. Some people created a conspiracy theory that the US battleship had pretended they were being attacked when no one was even there in order to intensify the conflict in Vietnam. It turned out that these people were correct.
Despite these rare cases where believers in conspiracies were actually correct, there are numerous other instances where there is plenty of evidence to disprove conspiracy theories. One of the more ridiculous conspiracy theories is that the 1969 moon landing never happened. Not only would hundreds of people in NASA have had to keep that a secret for over 40 years, but there is also evidence of the moon landing. The Apollo 11 astronauts brought back lunar rocks, which were then studied by scientists, who would have noticed if the rocks were simply from Earth. Also, China’s lunar probe, India’s lunar probe, and other space agencies’ probes have visual evidence of Americans walking on the moon. Additionally, the men took picture evidence themselves. Surprisingly, according to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, 14% of Americans still believe the first moon landing was fake.
In fact, according to Oxford University’s Dr. David Robert Grimes, conspiracies should take no longer than four years to be revealed to the public. Dr. Grimes made an equation to determine the probability of a conspiracy being accidentally, or purposefully, revealed to the public by someone inside of the operation. Consequently, conspiracies regarding the moon landings, 9/11, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, global warming, the flying saucer in Roswell, Princess Diana, and JFK should all be debunked based on Dr. Grimes’s equation. However, it is good to question commonly held beliefs and these conspiracies can be factual in rare circumstances. Yet, if there is solid evidence to support that an event has taken place, one should not continue to doubt it based on blind faith. This is similar to the prayer experiment we discussed in class, where no matter what the results showed, they are rendered useless if certain people can’t be influenced due to their blind faith for a certain belief. In my opinion, based on the studies mentioned earlier, most of these believers are likely to be narcissistic, cynical, have low self-esteem, feel like they are not in control, or are possibly less educated. Once again, I am not saying people who believe conspiracies are bad or stupid people, but based on the science, they are likely to have these certain attributes.