Why do People believe in Conspiracies?

What happens when one’s beliefs come in conflict with reality? Not a small conflict, like the shops closing earlier than expected, but a massive conflict, such as believing that a non-existent conspiracy is out to get you.

Both leftists and rightists have their pet conspiracies. I have conspiracy theories. Every now and then, a conspiracy theory turns out to be true, but usually they aren’t.

Here’s an interesting example of a non-political conspiracy theory: Obsessed Benedict Cumberbatch Fans Tried to Have Me Fired:

It started, as so many online flaps do, with a thoughtless tweet. A starstruck friend and I had bumped into the popular actor Benedict Cumberbatch and his pregnant wife, and I made a faintly ironic tweet about it. …

Then the replies started. “How do you know it was his wife?” “What’s his wife like?”

Then, “SHE’S NOT PREGNANT.“ …

Members of the self-named “Skeptics” (a group of exclusively female Cumberbatch fans who believe that his wife is, variously: a prostitute, a hired PR girlfriend, a blackmailer, a con artist, a domestic abuser, mentally ill, and apparently the most brilliant criminal mastermind of all time, and that the marriage, his wife’s pregnancy, and very existence of their child have all been faked in a wide-ranging international conspiracy orchestrated by a 30-something British opera director in an attempt to force a naïve and helpless movie star to pretend to be married to her) had discovered me, and they were not impressed.

These sorts of fans are probably either 14 years old or actually low-level mentally ill.

In a way, I suspect that mental illness is far more common than we generally acknowledge.

If we define mental illness in evolutionary terms as something that interferes with survival and reproduction, then it is relatively rare. For example, depression–one of the most common mental illnesses–doesn’t interfere with female fertility, and at least in some studies, neuroticism is positively associated with having more children.

By contrast, if we define mental illness as including any significant disconnect from reality, then large swaths of people may be ill. People who are convinced that movie stars’ wives are fake, for example, may be perfectly adept at getting pregnant, but they are still delusional.

Here is another conspiracy theory: The Fetid, Right-Wing Origins of “Learn to Code”:

Last Thursday, I received the news that the HuffPost Opinion section—where I’d been opining on a weekly basis for a few months—had been axed in its entirety. … Dozens of jobs were slashed at HuffPost that day, following a round of layoffs at Gannett Media; further jobs were about to be disappeared at BuzzFeed. …

Then the responses started rolling in—some sympathy from fellow journalists and readers, then an irritating gush of near-identical responses: “Learn to code.” “Maybe learn to code?” “BETTER LEARN TO CODE THEN.” …

On its own, telling a laid-off journalist to “learn to code” is a profoundly annoying bit of “advice,” a nugget of condescension and antipathy. … the timing and ubiquity of the same phrase made me immediately suspect a brigade attack. My suspicions were confirmed when conservative figures like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr. joined the pile-on, revealing the ways in which right-wing hordes have harnessed social media to discredit and harass their opponents.

So the journalist does some deep sleuthing, discovers that people on 4Chan are talking about telling journalists they should learn to code, and decides that the entire thing is some coordinated troll attack for no other reason than trolls are gonna troll. Just like some movie stars inexplicably have fake girlfriends, so people on 4Chan inexplicably hate journalists.

Related: The Death of a Dreamer:

The day before the conference, Heinz had apparently been told he would be on for ten minutes rather than the three he’d been planning. To fill some of the time at the end, he decided to speak briefly about some of companies he’d partnered with who’d be using Cambrian Genomics technology. Welcoming one of these partners onstage, Gilad Gome of Petomics, he talked about the idea of changing the smell of faeces and gastric wind and using it as an alert that a person was unwell. “When your farts change from wintergreen to banana maybe that means you have an infection in your gut,” he said. He introduced Sweet Peach as a similar project. “The idea is to get rid of UTIs and yeast infections and change the smell of the vagina through probiotics,” he said. …

“These Startup Dudes Want to Make Women’s Private Parts Smell Like Ripe Fruit” ran the headline at Inc.com later that day. … Soon, the Huffington Post picked it up: “Two Science Startup Dudes Introduced a New Product Idea this Week: A Probiotic Supplement that Will Make Women’s Vaginas Smell Like Peaches.” Gawker called it a “waste of science” and said Sweet Peach “sounds like a C-list rom-com with a similarly retrograde view on the priorities of the contemporary human female.” Then, Inc.com weighed in again: “Its mission, apparently hatched by a couple of 11-year-old boys still in the ‘ew, girl cooties’ stage, is to make sure women’s vaginas smell ‘pleasant.’” Similarly negative stories began appearing in major news sources such as SalonBuzzfeed, the Daily Mail and Business Insider.

Long story short, all of the negative publicity resulted in public ostracism in his real life; funding for his company dried up; the company crashed; and he committed suicide.

Shit like this is why so many people hate journalists at magazines like HuffPo.

HuffPo journalists apparently think it’s fine to lie about a guy’s company and drive him to suicide, but think it is very concerning that some assholes told them to “learn to code.” (That said, a bullying campaign targeted at a bunch of people who just lost their jobs might also push someone over the edge to suicide.)

Over in reality land, the learn-to-code meme is far bigger than 4Chan and stems from society’s generalized attempt to replace outsourced manufacturing and other blue-collar labor with white collar jobs like coding. Earning a degree in computer science is, however, outside both the cognitive and physical resources of most laid-off factory workers. Indeed, as the information revolution progresses and society grows more complex, it is not unreasonable to expect that many people will simply not be smart enough to keep up. These are the losers, and there is nothing to be done for them but eternal bread and circuses, welfare and soma.

They commit suicide a lot.

It’s tempting to claim that being so out of touch with mainstream culture that you believe the “learn to code” meme sprang up ex nihilo is part of why these journalists got fired, but it’s far more likely they were just the latest victims of the contraction of print media that’s been going on for two decades.

People believe many other things that defy logic. The QAnoners fall more into the non-functional loony category, but the also-fanciful Russia Conspiracy is widely believed by otherwise levelheaded and normal liberals. The usually not too insane NY Times just ran an article claiming that, “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong.” Whew. There’s a lot implied in that statement.

(While I can’t tell you what people in New York think of black women wearing fur, I can tell you that around here, the only concern is for the fur.)

And there are many conservatives who believe an equal number of silly things about vast conspiracies–be they run by the Jews or the Gays or whomever–but in general, conservative conspiracy theories don’t get as much attention from reasonable people. Conservative conspiracies are low-class.

Take, for example, the way Alex Jones was deplatformed for getting the Sandy Hook students and their families harassed. Infowars is considered low-class and disreputable. But The New York Times did the exact same thing to the Covington students and their families, resulting in harassment and death threats for them, yet the NY Times has not been deplatformed.

What makes a conspiracy low or high status, published in the NY Times or on Infowars, believed by people who are otherwise kind of crazy or otherwise fairly sane?

Centrists and moderates tend not to champion political conspiracies, probably because they basically like society the way it is. “There is great big conspiracy to make society a nice place!” is not an argument most people will bother with. People who are further toward the political extremes, however, are dissatisfied with much of the way society is run. These people need an explanation for why society is so awful.

“Satan” is the archetypal explanation. The Evil One leads people into evil, and thus there is sin in the world and we are fallen from our original state of utopian grace. Satan has the rhetorical advantage of generally not being associated with a real person, so people of even moderate persuasions can be convinced to rally against the abstraction of evil, but sometimes people get a bit too worked up and actual people are put in prison for witchcraft or devil worship. Our last serious witch-hunt was in the 1980s, when people became convinced that Satanists were operating an international daycare conspiracy to kidnap, rape, and torture people’s children.

Today’s Pizzagaters are disreputable, but the Satanic Daycare Conspiracy was pushed by completely respectable mainstream media outlets and supported by the actions of actual police, judges, prosecutors, etc. If you lived through the 80s, you’ve probably repressed your memory of this, but it was a totally real conspiracy that actually sent real people to prison.

Today’s atheists have had to invent less demonic adversaries. The far left believes that the world is run by a cabal of evil heterosexual patriarchal cis-gendered white male Christians. The alt-right believes the world is run by a cabal of scheming Jews. Both of these are conspiracy theories. (Moderates occasionally delve into non-political conspiracies, like the ones surrounding famous movie stars or vaccinations.)

These theories provide all-encompassing ways of understanding the world. People are inexplicably mean to you? It must be part of a conspiracy by “them” to “get” you. As people encounter new information, the ideology they already have shapes how they react, either incorporating it as corroborating evidence or discarding it as worthless propaganda put out by their enemies.

Unfortunately, this makes conspiracies difficult to disprove.

A conspiracy will be considered reputable and believed by otherwise sane and level-headed people if it comes from an already trusted source, like the New York Times or 60 Minutes. It is normal to trust a source you already trust. After all, humans, even intelligent ones, are incapable of knowing everything society needs to know to keep functioning. We therefore have systems of trust and verification set up–such as medical degrees–that let us know what other people know so we can draw on their knowledge. If a plumber says that my plumbing is busted, it is probably in my interest to believe them. So it goes all the way up society–so if trusted people on CNN or in the government think Trump colluded with the Russians, then a reasonable person concludes that Trump colluded with the Russians.

A conspiracy will be considered disreputable and will appeal more to mentally unstable people if it requires first rejecting an established, trusted source. It is easy to believe a false thing by accident if someone you trust states it first; it requires much more work to first justify why all of the trusted sources are saying an untrue thing. This is therefore much easier if you are already paranoid, and distrusting everyone around you is usually a bad idea. (But not always.)

Of course this does not tell us how a source becomes trusted in the first place, but it does suggest that a false idea, once spread by a trusted source, can become very pernicious. (Conversely, a true idea, spread by a false source, will struggle.) The dominance of Cultural Marxism in universities may simply be a side effect of leftist conspiracies being spread by people whom society (or universities) see as more trustworthy in the first place.

(I suppose the fact that I usually don’t believe in conspiracy theories and instead believe in the power of evolution–of species, ideas, cities, civilizations, the sexes, families, etc–to explain the world as it is, might be why I generally see myself as a moderate. However, this leaves me with the task of coming up with a conspiracy theory to explain why evolutionary theories are not more widely accepted. “Meta-conspiracy theorist” sounds about right.)

(My apologies if this post is disorganized; it’s late.)

9 thoughts on “Why do People believe in Conspiracies?

  1. Short answer, conspiracy theories are a replacement for the devil.

    Long answer, in high school I was “cured” of a tendency towards conspiracy theories, at least outlandish ones by GK Chesterton and a book called the Mitrokhin archive. GKC wasn’t called the apostle of common sense for nothing and he reawakened the importance of naive realism (also called the theory of reality all philosophers believe when they are off duty). Next, the Mitrokhin archive showed a real vast international conspiracy and how hard it actually was and how much it failed. Sometimes massiv4ky, publicly, and comically. The Soviets were smart and ruthless but they weren’t gods and as any basic project manager could tell you, things you don’t plan for can happen at any time.

    A conspiracy theory theory is technically a theory about a group of men as few as two planning to commit a crime or crimes. In that case conspiracies happen all the time. It’s when it becomes a hyper competent, pervasive, malevolent force that it’s obvious you’re now describing the devil. There not just a God sized whole in the human heart, there’s a devil sized whole in the human mind, a need to explain pervasive human and natural corruption; stuff that goes beyond mere selfishness. It’s actually rational to try to understand this. Conspiracy theories fill this need in a secular sense. I would note that Christians are obviously not exempt from this tendency since we have secular needs as much as anyone else and are only human as the saying goes.

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  2. This is a bit of a strawman argument.

    The fact that some mentally ill people believe in ridiculous conspiracy theories for bad reasons doesn’t tell us anything about whether there are actual conspiracies (in the sense of informal groups of highly placed people acting together clandestinel/illegally to achieve long-term goals.)

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  3. I have a completely different view of conspiracy theories. They are part of the idea generation process- the prelude to coming up with testable hypotheses. And really smart people may have extremely weird favorites, but they really indicate their intelligence by being able to cogently state all these different positions. i think I came with this idea back when we were still allowed to talk about the correlation between Neanderthal genetics and IQ at 23&me forums.
    Anyway, we even had one woman on there who was promoting the whole Niburu/planet X thing. Various alt-anthropology stuff ala Texas Arcane, and of course, plenty of the more mainstream stuff, and people dropping various studies in there and then doing some speculating. Many identifying strongly with Neanderthals despite the fact I we were ranging somewhere around 2-3% Neanderthal dna.
    But the point is that the really smart people had captured all these ideas and could use them.

    Something like Q is more like a disinformation campaign. It quickly stops being relevant, especially since the arrests needed to be made, and they have, as of yet haven’t been made. It just reminds me that we probably need to send an army to D.C. to drain the swamp, not one man who has swampy relatives.

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  4. > “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong.”

    I don’t think this is totally outlandish!

    Mink coats are first and foremost a symbol, not a piece of clothing. There’s many ways to clothe yourself, luxuries earn their coin by making a statement. When the poors wear mink coats, the rich must abandon the symbol because it makes them look poor.

    That’s why branded clothing is also a sign that you’re poor, despite its high price. If teachers love to wear a shirt with a big fat Gucci logo on it, then, god forbid, you’d look like a teacher! Branded clothing survives in the higher end market using its brand as a maker’s mark, a sign of quality craftsmanship, not an actual visible logo. Visible logos are gauche.

    You can extend this to opinions. James Damore may have published a document totally odious to the Cathedral (genetic and racial differences?), but he did so in a classy way. Saying that some races are superior to others and that gender differences are genetically encoded is so beyond the boomercon pale that it’s not a “normal” conservative opinion, and thus he remained an aristocrat in good standing and was reemployed elsewhere. By contrast, there was this fellow I met who was a very normal conservative of prole white extraction who dared to wear a MAGA hat and say he supported Donald Trump, and not in an edgy way – he was blackballed and now works as a delivery boy.

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  5. I am guessing that conspiracy theories can provide an escape from some uncomfortable reality; Believing in a conspiracy relieves an individual from having to confront some uncomfortable truth.

    On the other hand,

    Some examples appear to be a case of ‘point deer make horse.’* . Stating an opinion regarding ‘______’ reveals what tribe you are loyal to. Various tribes have various opinions and they wear them like tattooed markings. The more outlandish the theory the more stating it in public differentiates you from others and demonstrates your loyalty.

    * See https://bloodyshovel.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/the-purpose-of-absurdity/

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  6. People believe in conspiracies because they see real effects that require explanation, and the explanation that is easiest for most people to understand is conspiracy.

    It is worth pointing out that in fact, there are a lot of conspiracies. Russia-gate is of this ilk. Either Trump conspired with Putin to sap and impurify America’s purity of essence, or a lot of high-level FBI and Justice Department employees conspired with the Clinton campaign and Fusion GPS to get Trump.

    But back to non-conspiracies. People are really bad at understanding distributed decision-making. So for example, your “black women and furs” example. Assuming something of that ilk did happen, as M. le Baron points out, this is perfectly understandable as standard social signalling. It isn’t even necessarily racist, just classist. It certainly doesn’t require a conspiracy.

    Many sorts of market-related phenomena are like that. The market has all sorts of hidden relationships in it, that normal people don’t see, but which drive all sorts of behavior. For example: in a certain month, all of the airlines upped their ticket prices by 10%. Did their chortling white male CEOs with their monocles and top-hats get together in a smoky back room somewhere and plan that? No: actually what happened was, oil prices just spiked due to war breaking out in the Middle East. They are all responding to the same underlying market price of a variable cost.

    Another broad class of conspiracy theories are results of ignorance. I.e.: “structural racism”. People notice that blacks are on the bottom of society, in spite of decades of state-sponsored pro-black activism, redistribution and privilege. Since everyone is exactly equal, there can be no explanation for this other than a massive conspiracy, basically the entire society conspiring against blacks even as it professes the desire to uplift them. Low black achievement is quite explicable by low intelligence and high time preference, but this explanation is forbidden by the powers-that-be. (Anti-semitic conspiracy theories have the same origin but opposite valence.)

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