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Why have we fallen in love with conspiracies?
Here are the seven reasons based on my evidence-based dive into the literature.
The word “conspiracies” has become a bit like the word “crazy” these days – a mudslinging label we apply to anyone we want to discredit.
But it’s lazy and careless to assume that something is untrue just because it sounds like a conspiracy.
Even a cursory review of human history easily disproves such a notion.
Many wars were started with false flags, most notably Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident that accelerated the US’ involvement in the Vietnam War. The NSA’s PRISM scandal and the Twitter Files revealed a level of government surveillance that, until very recently, would’ve been considered clinically paranoid. Massive corporate frauds – from big tobacco to Wall Street – usually require stealth coordination between dozens of players, including those in government. And 60 years later, the JFK murder is still far from being definitively solved, leading to over 60% of Americans – on the right and left - believing in some sort of coverup.
Does this make Pizzagates of the world, the ruling lizard class or satanic alien worship ceremonies any likelier to be true? Of course not.
But, as C. Wright Mills wrote in his classic book The Power Elite, it would be naive to believe that elites don’t use their significant means to gain even more power – even if it means bending or breaking rules along the way.
William S. Burroughs put it more bluntly: “Sometimes, paranoia is just having all the facts.”
Recent studies have uncovered several reasons why around half the population in the West currently believes at least one conspiracy. They range from the personal to the political, and often relate to recurrent features of modern society: the increased power – and lack of transparency - of large institutions, the emotional roller coasters of social media, rising confusion and uncertainty about the state of the world, a lack of authentic social connection.
The studies also suggest that conspiracies are equally popular on the left and right, and that they have little, if anything, to do with the intelligence of the believer. There’s something deeper going on.
I’ve reviewed dozens of such studies, and seven distinct reasons emerge most clearly from the literature. This pushes back against any simplistic “single cause” explanation behind conspiracy thinking - especially when expressed condescendingly or for political motives.
Conspiracies tend to function as information hybrids – combining some aspects of the real world with the internal psychology of the believer.
Understanding them in this multifaceted way can help us better understand the bounds of healthy skepticism – holding those in power accountable, even at the risk of throwing around some wild hypotheses, while not falling prey to the seductive trap of confirmation bias, which can entrench harmful psychological tendencies and create an increasingly delusional interface with the world.
From an evolutionary perspective, there’s nothing “normal” about living in a rapidly changing society, heavily mediated by technology, and bombarded by weaponized and unfiltered information 24/7.
In this context, the massive growth of conspiracy thinking is an invitation to build better belief filters, and learn how to engage with a broad discovery process that sometimes paints outside the lines, ultimately integrating more inconvenient, covered-up truths without slipping into fantasy land.
I hope you all enjoy my video breakdown of this topic – which, let’s be honest, is also a lot of fun ;) - and if you’re interested in the sources and references I cite, I prepared a supporting PDF you can download here.