from the New York Times Magazine by Naggie Koerth-Baker, Sure You Saw a Flying Saucer (hard copy) or Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories in the online version.
Since Hofstadter’s book was published, our access to information has vastly improved, which you would think would have helped minimize such wild speculation. But according to recent scientific research on the matter, it most likely only serves to make theories more convincing to the public. What’s even more surprising is that this sort of theorizing isn’t limited to those on the margins. Perfectly sane minds possess an incredible capacity for developing narratives, and even some of the wildest conspiracy theories can be grounded in rational thinking, which makes them that much more pernicious. Consider this: 63 percent of registered American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory, according to a recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University.
In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.
Surprisingly, Swami’s work has also turned up a correlation between conspiracy theorizing and strong support of democratic principles. But this isn’t quite so strange if you consider the context. Kathryn Olmsted, a historian at the University of California, Davis, says that conspiracy theories wouldn’t exist in a world in which real conspiracies don’t exist. And those conspiracies — Watergate or the Iran-contra Affair — often involve manipulating and circumventing the democratic process. Even people who believe that the Sandy Hook shooting was actually a drama staged by actors couch their arguments in concern for the preservation of the Second Amendment.
Our access to high-quality information has not, unfortunately, ushered in an age in which disagreements of this sort can easily be solved with a quick Google search. In fact, the Internet has made things worse. Confirmation bias — the tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports what you already believe — is a well-documented and common human failing. People have been writing about it for centuries. In recent years, though, researchers have found that confirmation bias is not easy to overcome. You can’t just drown it in facts.
In 2006, the political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler identified a phenomenon called the “backfire effect.” They showed that efforts to debunk inaccurate political information can leave people more convinced that false information is true than they would have been otherwise. Nyhan isn’t sure why this happens, but it appears to be more prevalent when the bad information helps bolster a favored worldview or ideology.
In that way, Swami says, the Internet and other media have helped perpetuate paranoia. Not only does more exposure to these alternative narratives help engender belief in conspiracies, he says, but the Internet’s tendency toward tribalism helps reinforce misguided beliefs.
Even the educated and the intelligent tend to believe what they expect or what they want. They are also subject to rationalization of emotional responses. Nassim Taleb pointed out that rationalization is quite different from rationality.
We want to explain with conspiracy what can be better explained with randomness or incompetence.