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 particular interests.

'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 theorists.

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 thinking.

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 conspiracy theories.

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 better.

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.