Field Guide to the Conspiracy Theorist: Dark Minds
Created Sep 18 2009 - 1:12pm
Alex Jones is trying to warn us about an evil syndicate of bankers who control most of the world's governments and stand poised to unite the planet under their totalitarian reign, a "New World Order." While we might be tempted to dismiss Jones as a nut, the "king of conspiracy" is a popular radio show host. The part-time filmmaker's latest movie, The Obama Deception, in which he argues that Obama is a puppet of the criminal bankers, has been viewed millions of times on YouTube.
When we spoke, Jones ranted for two hours about FEMA concentration camps, Halliburton child kidnappers, government eugenics programs—and more. When I stopped him to ask for evidence the government is practicing eugenics, he pointed to a national security memorandum. But I found the document to be a bland policy report.
Jones "cherry picks not just facts but phrases, which, once interpreted his way, become facts in his mind," says Louis Black, editor of the Austin Chronicle, who knows Jones, a fellow Austin resident. When I confronted Jones with my reading of the report, he became pugnacious, launching into a diatribe against psychologists as agents of social control.
Conspiracy thinking is embraced by a surprisingly large proportion of the population. Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe President John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, and 42 percent believe the government is covering up evidence of flying saucers, finds Ted Goertzel, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University at Camden. Thirty-six percent of respondents to a 2006 Scripps News/Ohio University poll at least suspected that the U.S. government played a role in 9/11.
We're all conspiracy theorists to some degree. We're all hardwired to find patterns in our environment, particularly those that might represent a threat to us. And when things go wrong, we find ourselves searching for what, or who, is behind it.
In his 1954 classic, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, historian Richard Hofstadter hypothesized that conspiracy thinking is fueled by underlying feelings of alienation and helplessness. Research supports his theory. New Mexico State University psychologist Marina Abalakina-Paap has found that people who endorse conspiracy theories are especially likely to feel angry, mistrustful, alienated from society, and helpless over larger forces controlling their lives.
Jones insists he had a "Leave It to Beaver childhood." I couldn't confirm such an idyllic past. When I asked if I could interview his family or childhood friends, he insisted his family was very "private" and he had not kept in touch with a single friend. When I asked if I might look them up, he became irritated. He doubted he could "still spell their names," and besides, I'd already taken up enough of his time. "I turned down 50 or 60 requests for interviews this week," he wanted me to know.
The number sounded wildly inflated. Conspiracy theorists have a grandiose view of themselves as heroes "manning the barricades of civilization" at an urgent "turning point" in history, Hofstadter held. Jones has a "messiah complex," Black contends. Grandiosity is often a defense against underlying feelings of powerlessness.
Even well-grounded skeptics are prone to connect disparate dots when they feel disempowered. In a series of studies, Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern demonstrated that people primed to feel out of control are particularly likely to see patterns in random stimuli.
Might people be especially responsive to Jones' message in today's America, marked by economic uncertainty and concerns about terrorism and government scandals? "There is a war on for your mind," Jones insists on his Web site, infowars.com. He calls his listeners "infowarriors."
Information is the conspiracy theorists' weapon of choice because if there's one thing they all agree on, it's that all the rest of us have been brainwashed. The "facts" will plainly reveal the existence of the conspiracy, they believe. And while all of us tend to bend information to fit our pre-existing cognitive schema, conspiracy theorists are more extreme. They are "immune to evidence," discounting contradictory information or seeing it as "proof of how clever the enemy is at covering things up," Goertzel says.
Conspiracy theories exist on a spectrum from mild suspicion to full-on paranoia, and brain chemistry may play a role. Dopamine rewards us for noting patterns and finding meaning in sometimes-insignificant events. It's long been known that schizophrenics overproduce dopamine. "The earliest stages of delusion are characterized by an overabundance of meaningful coincidences," explain Paul D. Morrison and R.M. Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London. "Jumping to conclusions" is a common reasoning style among the paranoid, find Daniel Freeman and his colleagues, also at the Institute of Psychiatry.
Indeed, there are no coincidences in Jones' world. In a scene from The Obama Deception, Jones dives "into the belly of the beast," the hotel where purported conspirators will be meeting. As he begins a telephone interview, the fire alarm goes off. "The bastards have set us up," he says.
Jones says that he has been visited by the FBI and the Secret Service but can't discuss the interviews. It may be that federal agents, in fact, wanted to evaluate whether he is a threat to the president. There's no reason to believe he is—but the same can't be said of his listeners. In 2002, Richard McCaslin, carrying an arsenal of weapons, entered the Bohemian Grove, a campground in California that annually hosts a meeting of the political and business elite. He told authorities he had been planning his commando raid for a year, after (he says) hearing Jones claim that ritual infant sacrifice was taking place there.
The "war"continues. In a video promoting The Obama Deception, Jones urges, "We know who they are. We know what they are. We know what has to be done."
Connect the Dots
How susceptible are you to conspiracy beliefs? Rate your agreement with the statements below, from 1=strongly disagree to 5=strongly agree.
For the most part, government serves the interests of a few organized groups, such as business, and isn't very concerned about the needs of people like myself.
I have trouble doing what I want to do in the world today.
It is difficult for people like myself to have much influence in public affairs.
We seem to live in a pretty irrational and disordered world.
I don't trust that my closest friends would not lie to me.
Answer key: 5-11: weakly, 12-18: moderately, 19-25: strongly
Paranoia, 9/11, and the roots of conspiracy theories
A friend of mine recently convinced me to watch "Loose Change", a documentary about the alleged conspiracy and cover-up of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by the U.S. government. I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, and I knew little of the specific theories surrounding 9/11, but I watched the film with the most open mind I could muster.
I found the film to be very engaging, and though I didn't buy the film's conspiracy and cover-up hypotheses, it did make me question whether something important was being kept secret. Seeing the conspiracy theories laid out so confidently and so sensationalistically also helped me to understand why one-third to one-half of Americans believe that our government either was somehow involved in the attacks or covered up information about them.
One reason I generally have trouble accepting conspiracy theories is that they're usually based on far-fetched claims that are nearly impossible to disprove, or prove. My skepticism is further strengthened by the fact that we humans have an assortment of cognitive biases that can distort our judgments and allow us to maintain beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some of these biases include the tendency to see patterns where none exist, and to interpret new information and recall old information in ways that confirm our expectations and beliefs. However, most of the time we're unaware of these biases and overly confident that our perceptions represent the objective truth.
This is not to say that conspiracies never happen, or that I'm immune from engaging in my own conspiracy-like thinking sometimes. It just means that one of my own biases is to doubt these sorts of theories.
Rather than speculating about the existence of specific conspiracies, I find a far more intriguing topic to be the psychology behind conspiracy thinking. Fortunately, an excellent book called Empire of Conspiracy by Tim Melley explores this issue.
Melley seeks to explain why conspiracy theories and paranoia have become so pervasive in American culture in recent decades. He discusses some of the paranoia behind our obsessions with political assassinations, gender and race relations, stalkers, mind control, bureaucracies, and the power of corporations and governments.
Melley proposes that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual's right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one's own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, "intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy" to outside forces or regulators.
When fervent individualists feel that they cannot exercise their independence, they experience a crisis and assume that larger forces are to blame for usurping this freedom. "For one who refuses to relinquish the assumptions of liberal individualism, such newly revealed forms of regulation frequently seem so unacceptable or unbelievable that they can only be met with anxiety, melodrama, or panic."
Although Melley doesn't present any empirical data to show that conspiracy thinking has been increasing for these reasons, some research by psychologist Jean Twenge is consistent with his hypotheses. Twenge's research examines how Americans' personality traits have been changing over the past several decades. She reviews the results of hundreds of studies published from the 1960s through the end of the century, looking at the personality scores for each year. For example, she finds that trait anxiety (or neuroticism) has been rising dramatically in both children and adults over this period.
In another study, she shows that people have come to hold an increasingly stronger external "locus of control"; this refers to the feeling that external forces are determining what happens to you, as opposed to an internal locus of control, the feeling that you dictate your own outcomes. Twenge suggests that the stronger external locus of control reflects our ever-increasing exposure to uncontrollable events and a rise in the "victim mentality" of our culture. (Is this sounding familiar?)
Individualistic values have also been getting stronger in our culture, with greater importance attached to personal freedoms and self-reliance. The U.S. currently ranks highest in individualism compared to all other nations in the world.
The rise in anxiety, individualism, and external locus of control may therefore underlie the rise in conspiracy thinking. This is somewhat troubling because these personality trends show no sign of leveling off. In fact, given the current pace of globalization and the "Americanization" of other countries, it seems likely that these personality traits (and conspiracy thinking) will be increasing elsewhere too.
But what's the actual appeal of believing in conspiracy theories? What purpose do they serve people?
For one thing, conspiracy theories help us cope with distressing events and make sense out of them. Conspiracies assure us that bad things don't just happen randomly. Conspiracies tell us that someone out there is accountable, however unwittingly or secretly or incomprehensibly, so it's possible to stop these people and punish them and in due course let everyone else re-establish control over their own lives. Conspiracies also remind us that we shouldn't blame ourselves for our predicaments; it's not our fault, it's them! In these ways, believing in conspiracies serves many of the same self-protective functions as scapegoating.
In addition to the changes in personality, conspiracy theories are also growing more popular because of the mass media, which circulates these ideas to a wider audience and indoctrinates more believers. Plus, the sheer amount of information in today's media increases the odds that someone will detect "coincidences" or "patterns" that serve to fuel these beliefs. These trends in the media won't be reversing themselves anytime soon either.
Does all this mean we should expect even more conspiracy theorizing and paranoia to come? Will conspiracy theories ever become a dominant ideology in our culture the way scapegoating sometimes is in other cultures?
It's not clear whether we've reached any sort of tipping point yet. But if polls are any indication, the events of 9/11 may have transformed conspiracy theories from "implausible visions of a lunatic fringe" to a mainstream response to the most disturbing of events.
How are we to prevent this kind of thinking from taking us hostage?
Is this a mental disorder?