Conspiracy Theories, why do we believe them?
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, was shot dead in Dallas, Texas, yesterday by a hidden assassin armed with a high powered rifle. But did he work alone, and if not who was he working with.
The circumstances surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, generated suspicions of a conspiracy. These suspicions were lessened somewhat when an official investigation by the Warren Commission concluded the following year that there was no conspiracy. Since then, doubts have arisen regarding the Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible for the assassination of Kennedy, and most Americans today believe that others besides Oswald were also involved in the assassination. Critics have argued that the Commission and the government have covered up crucial information pointing to a conspiracy.
Successive official investigations confirmed most of the conclusions of the Warren Commission. However, the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded that Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy, with “…a high probability that two gunmen fired at the President”. No person or organization was identified by the HSCA as being a co-conspirator of Oswald. Most current theories put forth a criminal conspiracy involving parties as varied as the CIA, the mafia, anti-Castro Cuban exile groups, the military industrial complex, sitting Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Cuban President Fidel Castro, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the KGB, or some combination of those bodies.
Whenever a famous person dies unexpectedly or in tragic circumstances or a tragedy occurs people will create a conspiracy around it. Some people simply do not like the discomfort that a conspiracy theory creates. But for others, conspiracy theories are intriguing. They like to explore all of the possibilities that a conspiracy theory presents, in the same way that they like to explore puzzles or mystery novels. Sometimes a conspiracy theory is ridiculous and learning about it is a form of entertainment. Or you may find that the theory is credible and it makes you think. It’s interesting to consider the theory, weigh the evidence and come up with a conclusion.
In the 21st century, one event reigns supreme in the catalogue of conspiracy theories: the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States. This event is seared into the nation’s consciousness and significantly affected the entire planet. It seems inevitable that people would cry “conspiracy” about any event with this much impact. However, the conspiracy theories around 9/11 have been strong and consistent.
Much psychology research has focused on identifying factors which predispose certain individuals to endorse conspiracy theories. Given that not everyone believes in conspiracy theories, psychological studies have sought to uncover what distinguishes believers from non-believers.
Researchers have explored the relevance of more general demographic factors like gender, socio-economic status, educational level or ethnic background and so on, but also things like distrust with political authority, sense of powerlessness, political cynicism, authoritarianism or alienation from society.
Overall, this pursuit for the psychological profile of conspiracy theorists has produced modest results. Conspiracy theorists have been shown to be quite similar to sceptics in terms of rational thinking. In fact, the only consistent finding is that believers tend to be disenchanted with authority and cynical about the mainstream of politics.
But this is hardly surprising; these are the central drives of any conspiracy theory!