“Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion,” a paper recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, finds that half of Americans consistently endorse at least one conspiracy theory.
Tom Jacobs writes: It’s easy to assume this represents widespread ignorance, but these findings suggest otherwise. Oliver and Wood report that, except for the Obama “birthers” and the 9/11 “truthers,” “respondents who endorse conspiracy theories are not less-informed about basic political facts than average citizens.”
So what does drive belief in these contrived explanations? The researchers argue the tendency to accept them is “derived from two innate psychological predispositions.”
The first, which has an evolutionary explanation, is an “unconscious cognitive bias to draw causal connections between seemingly related phenomena.” Jumping to conclusions based on weak evidence allows us to “project feelings of control in uncertain situations,” the researchers note.
The second is our “natural attraction towards melodramatic narratives as explanations for prominent events — particularly those that interpret history (in terms of) universal struggles between good and evil.”
Stories that fit that pattern “provide compelling explanations for otherwise confusing or ambiguous events, they write, noting that “many predominant beliefs systems … draw heavily upon the idea of unseen, intentional forces shaping contemporary events.”
“For many Americans, complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal,” write Oliver and Wood. “A conspiracy narrative may provide a more accessible and convincing account of political events.”
That said, they add, “Even highly engaged or ideological segments of the population can be swayed by the power of these narratives, particularly when they coincide with their other political views.”