Why Do People
Believe In Conspiracy Theories?
I am going to start with a short introduction to present some
basic characteristics of conspiracy theories. Than I go on to discuss two
questions: first, what is wrong with conspiracy theories, and second, if they
are wrong, why do people believe them. Finally, I try to answer a practical
question: what can be done with conspiracy theories?
What are conspiracy theories ?
Conspiracy theory comes in many varieties, but the underlying structure is
essentially the same in all of them. They try to give an answer to the age-old
question: Why is there evil on Earth? The question is always the same: Why
do bad things happen to us? And the answer is always the same: Because there
are evil people who benefit from them.
Because of this general structure, conspiracy theories have two general characteristics.
First, they explain an unfortunate social process by uncovering the activities
of a group of people. Second, by doing so, they blame this group of people
for intentionally producing the social process in question. Thus first, they
give an intentional explanation: something bad is happening because some people
want it to happen; second, by doing so, they formulate a negative moral judgment:
people who intentionally create something bad are evil people.
Conspiracy theories are folk theories of power and social change. People who
feel themselves powerless and isolated imagine a world in which some other
people have unlimited power and work together to achieve their goals. People
who feel themselves menaced by changes they can't resist and which cause them
painful losses imagine a world in which some other people intentionally provoke
harmful changes and derive benefit from them. People who can't control even
their own lives imagine a world in which other people are masters of the universe.
We can define conspiracy theories as explanations of some unfortunate developments
with reference to a conspiracy. Conspiracy itself is more difficult to define.
Legal definitions don't work, because they aren't specific enough: they include
the Mafia, for example. For a sociologist, a good definition would go something
like this one: A conspiracy is a group of people working together on a secret
project in order to gain illegitimate power and use it to further the group's
'Illegitimate power' and 'particular interests' are the key words in this
definition. This means that organization, secrecy and the use of conspirational
methods are necessary, but not sufficient conditions. Secret services are
not conspiracies, because the power they use is legitimate and they use it
for the public's good. If they use it to further some particular interests,
as it happened in the Irangate case, it is a conspiracy. Pedophil networks
are not conspiracies: they must use secrecy and conspirational methods, because
pedophily is illegal; but members of pedophil networks are seeking sexual
satisfaction, not power. The Mafias present a borderline case. On the one
hand, they are not conspiracies, because their business is business, not power;
on the other hand, since they are in the business of illegal trade, they usually
need social and political power; but, again, they need it only as a means
to conduct business, not as an end in itself.
What is wrong with conspiracy theories?
Given that the two general characteristics of conspiracy theories are that
they offer an intentional explanation and pronounce a moral judgment, they
can be wrong in two respects. First, they can be false explanations; if they
are, they are wrong in a technical sense. Second, they can be unjust accusations,
if they are, they are wrong in a moral sense.
It is important to note here that there is nothing inherently wrong in using
intentional explanations: we use them all the time. What is wrong is the inappropriate
use of intentional explanations. Similarly, there is nothing inherently wrong
in pronouncing moral judgments. Even blaming people isn't inherently wrong;
what is wrong is blaming innocent people.
Since the inappropriate use of intentional explanations is the crucial point
in the criticism of conspiracy theories, it deserves some elaboration.
Intentional explanation is a useful tool to explain a large segment of the
social world, but its applicability is obviously limited.
Human actions typically have unintended consequences beside the intended ones,
but it is not the problem of unintended consequences which makes the use of
intentional explanations problematic. What makes it problematic is this interesting
peculiarity of the social life that the results of human activity, whether
intended or not, typically tend to crystallize into rigid structures which
work and evolve on their own, quite independently from human desires. So the
existence and the working of the social system and its macro-structures are
not the results of intentional actions and therefore can't be explained with
reference to human intentions. That's why conspiracy explanations become necessarily
false as they extend the use of intentional explanation beyond the limits
of its applicability. Where these limits exactly are is a difficult question,
but the general principle is simple and can be stated with absolute certainty:
macro-processes &endash;like wars and revolutions, economic and political
crisises, the workings of the markets and the bank system, the upward or downward
mobility of social classes and ethnic or religious groups, the rise and decline
of nations and empires, the weakening of belief systems like ideologies and
religions or of social institutions like the family and the norms of sexual
behavior, etc.&endash; these macro-processes can not be explained with reference
to human intentions.
Unfortunately, these are the favorite subjects of every enthusiastic conspiracy
But the main problem with conspiracy theories is not that they are false explanations.
There are many false explanations from astrology to vampirology we are not
especially concerned about, because they are harmless: horoscopes and vampire
movies are stupid, but they don't kill. The trouble with conspiracy theories
is that they blame innocent people and in some cases this can be very dangerous.
I said in some cases, because not all conspiracy theories are equally dangerous.
All are harmful in a way, especially for the establishment, because they express
deep skepticism about the truth of the existing social and political order,
but many of them present no particular danger &endash; except that blaming
innocent people is always bad, of course. However, some conspiracy theories
are extremely dangerous because they generate prejudice and hate against special
target groups. Here a distinction must be made between low-risk and high-risk
target groups. The Illuminati and other imagined conspirators are the absolute
low-risk target groups for the simple reason that they don't exist. Other
low-risk target groups are those people who are powerful enough to ignore
unjust accusations. Power organizations like the CIA are good examples for
this category. On the other end, the typical high-risk target groups are in
every society the defenseless ethnic minorities. Fortunately, they are sometimes
too weak to be the targets of conspiracy theories, as are for example the
Gypsies in Hungary, but in most cases, especially when they are seen as strong
or at least too strong for their minority status, they are the ideal target
groups for conspiracy theorists. The Jews are perhaps the best example for
this category. Actually, they are probably the most targeted group in the
history of conspiracy theories. There are many conspiracy theories whose main
aim is to generate prejudice and hate against the Jews, but the best example
is certainly the infamous Protocols, a fake created at the turn of the century
which proved to be an extremely dangerous ideological weapon against Jews.
Now we arrive at the next question:
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
The usual common sense answer is that not all people believe in conspiracy
theories, but only a certain kind of people. Since conspiracy theories are
false explanations, only stupid people can believe them. Since some conspiracy
theories are dangerous as well, those who believe them are not only stupid
but they must be bad as well.
The few social scientists who attempt to deal with conspiracy theories suggest
basically the same common sense answer but in a more sophisticated, more PC
form: in this version believers are not stupid, they lack the skills of critical
thinking necessary to distinguish between false and true explanations; they
are not bad: they are prejudiced victims of the modernization process.
While there is no doubt that the "stupid and bad" theory of conspiracy thinking
is basically true, there can be no doubt either that this is not the whole
truth about conspiracy theories. Conspiracist thinking is an important modern
cultural phenomenon that can't be explained by simple reference to human madness
and badness. Obviously, it needs special social circumstances to flourish.
The human need to explain the world and the presence of evil in it may be
constant, but the forms of false interpretations vary. In the Middle Ages,
people had witchcraft theory to explain bad things; today they have conspiracy
theory. Instead of blaming people, we have to analyze the social conditions
of conspiracist thinking. It is all the more necessary that only the real
understanding of the nature and various types of conspiracist thinking enable
us to achieve some success in the fight against the dangerous varieties.
Now, for a better understanding of conspiracist thinking we have to allow
that people are not as stupid as they seem to be. We have to acknowledge that
they can have good reasons to believe in conspiracy theories.
The first and most important reason is that real conspiracies do exist: there
are many historical and present-day examples. This is the single most important
fact which keeps alive the conspiracist suspicion and the most uncomfortable
one for those who want to fight against the conspiracist superstition.
The second reason is that today the technical feasibility of conspiracies
is not a problem anymore. The technical possibilities are given, and they
are growing every day with all these smart inventions which facilitate communication
and networking and secrecy and all other things necessary for a successful
conspiracy. Just think about a terrorist network. With modern weapons and
explosives, a handful of man can destroy a whole city without being seen.
With the modern means of communication these same people can communicate,
send or receive money or information, enter in closed and super-secret areas
and do many more things, again without being seen. And with enough money,
they can buy any information, any weapon, any computer, any skill or special
knowledge. People know this because every other week a new action movie is
made in Hollywood which shows them that conspiracies are feasible and teach
them how to do it.
The third reason is that in spite of all this, the establishment don't want
to know about conspiracies. Politicians, social scientists, media people,
all pretend not to know about them; as if conspiracies would be impossible,
something which exist only in the fantasy of screenwriters and unsophisticated
people. Conspiracy theories have bad reputation, so official explanations
avoid even using the word "conspiracy". This is really frustrating for a believer,
especially because there are well-known cases when the official negation of
a conspiracy proved to be false. For him, the credibility of the official
sources of information is close to zero. The consequence of this crisis of
credibility is that the more the establishment is denying the existence of
conspiracies, the more people believe in them
These are the main reasons believers present when they have to defend their
views. We have to admit that these are good reasons. But there is still another
one at a deeper level that they don't present and normally don't even know
about it, and that is the fear of conspiracies.
Even if one is persuaded that the so-called conspiracies are mere products
of fantasy, one does not have to think that people who believe in these nonexistent
conspiracies are simply paranoid. This judgment merely stigmatizes people
but doesn't solve the problem: why this paranoid mentality is so wide-spread
in our modern societies? We should rather ask: what is the meaning of the
fear of conspiracies? Is there a legitimate worry, a rational concern behind
this apparently irrational fear?
The answer is a definite yes. Conspiracy thinking may be irrational, lunatic,
foolish, ridiculous, but the deep anxiety behind the fear of conspiracies
is perfectly rational and legitimate. If conspiracies are defined as secret
attempts to gain illegitimate control over the social world to further private
interests, then we have to admit that worrying about such dangers is entirely
sound in a society of free competition, where secret cooperation between individuals
or groups can result in illegitimate advantages and control over the market
(as in competitive capitalism); and is even more sound in a society actually
dominated by big private interest groups (as in monopoly capitalism).
While precapitalist societies were regulated by interpersonal dependency relations,
capitalist society is the first one in history where important realms of social
life are regulated by impersonal regulative mechanisms such as the market.
It is of crucial importance that people trust in the fair and impartial working
of these regulative mechanisms, because only fairness and impartiality, that
is equality of chances gives legitimacy to the economic and political system.
The undisturbed working of the impersonal regulative mechanisms is guaranteed
by the rule of individual effort and the (relative) equality of individuals.
If the actors are all the same size and if all of them act individually, then
no one is strong enough to influence the working of the regulative mechanisms.
On the market of goods and services, this means that no one is big enough
to influence the prices and exercise uncontrolled power over the economy.
On the market of opinions this means that in the public sphere, no one is
big enough to influence the public opinions, and exercise uncontrolled power
over the political life, in the media business, no one is big enough to influence
the opinions, and exercise uncontrolled power over people's mind.
Hence the interdiction of secret cooperation, an anomaly which would disturb
the fair and impartial working of the regulative mechanisms.
Needless to say, this is an idealized image of capitalist society. Reality
was always different, form the beginning, and today we are miles away from
this ideal state of affairs. This never-existed ideal situation dramatically
reverses with the coming of monopoly capitalism. Now there are big players
everywhere: in the economy, in politics, in the public sphere; and for the
first time in history, they are big enough to exercise uncontrolled power
over everything. But ideals have normative power, so even today, the ideas
of fairness, impartiality and free competition are still governing our thinking,
and much the same way they did two hundred years ago.
To summarize: the real capitalist society is, from the very beginning, continually
moving away from its ideals - without explicitly abandoning them. This is
the growing tension between ideals and reality in modern capitalist society
that makes the ultimate ground for malaise and anxiety that express itself
in several interesting forms of unconscious protest, one of which is conspiracist
Now we arrive at the last, practical question:
What can be done with conspiracy theories?
Not much. We have seen that there is a strong need for conspiracy theories
and I have tried to show that this need has structural causes. So in the rest
of my time I try to explain why it is so difficult to do anything at all with
There are basically two kind of people who can do something in order to lessen
the need for conspiracy theories: politicians and social scientist. Let's
see what they can do.
If there is less evil in a society, there is probably less need for conspiracy
theories, so it would be a good thing if politicians could do something for
a world with less evil. Unfortunately, this is too much to ask from politicians,
because most of the evil things conspiracy theories try to explain are necessary
structural characteristics of modern capitalist societies, so politicians
can do hardly anything to eliminate them. A few of the evil things are perhaps
not necessary, but it seems that politicians are not really interested to
eliminate them either. It seems, on the contrary, that at least som of them
are even interested in some evil things.
Now let's see what social scientists can do. This is a field I know somewhat
If there is less mystery in a society, there is probably less need for conspiracy
theories, so it would be a good thing if social scientist could explain the
social world in a clear and understandable way. If politicians are unable
or unwilling to eliminate evil things, at least social scientist could help
people to understand what is happening and why. Unfortunately, this is too
much to ask for social scientists. The first difficulty is that in order to
explain the social world, one has to first of all understand it, and social
scientist are not very good in that. They try to do their best, of course,
but they have a lot of difficulties and a few results, and then the results
are not very impressive. The second difficulty is just this: they want impressive
results. They are not really interested in finding the so-called objective
truth; they are mostly interested in presenting impressive results. This is
a sad thing, but its causes are mostly structural, not personal. Modern social
science is organized in such a way, that reputation is more important for
the scientist than real knowledge. One can, of course, gain the needed reputation
by producing real knowledge, but this is the hard way and few social scientists
choose it, for there are many other ways to gain reputation. But let's suppose
that some hardworking social scientists don't mind reputation and choose to
work hard in order to understand what is happening and why. Suppose they discover
something very important: how can they explain it to lay people? This is the
third difficulty: many structures and processes of modern society are so complex,
that even if the social scientist have a real understanding of them, which
is rarely the case, there is simply no way to explain things in plain words
so that lay people can understand it. People need some prior knowledge about
money and interest rates and some other things in order to understand an expert's
explanation on the modern bank system. If they lack this knowledge, they will
not understand a word and they have to invent an explanation themselves. Chances
are good that they will invent some kind of conspiracy theory. Finally, there
is another difficulty: even if a social scientist knows how things work and
can explain it in plain words, which is rarely the case, it is not sure that
he wants to. First, he may not want to do it because explaining serious science
in plain words is a low prestige activity which hurts the scientist's reputation;
that's why even haute vulgarisation, as the French call it, is almost exclusively
done by the biggest names in the field, who don't have to worry about their
reputation anymore. Second, it can be the case that telling the truth in plain
words would hurt some powerful interests and for some reasons the scientist
don't want to hurt these interests. I leave it to some marxist scholar to
put this uncomfortable idea in plain words.