Picture a conspiracy theorist. Who do you see? Maybe a skinny, pale teen sitting in the dark with a tinfoil hat, hunched behind a computer screen. Maybe an older man, with long, thin hair, a dark handlebar mustache, and perpetually sunburnt skin. Possibly someone who resembles Dwight K. Schrute in the popular comedy series, “The Office.” But profiling conspiracy theorists just isn’t that easy.
In reality, the millions of people who subscribe to conspiracy theories range anywhere from the homeless person on your street corner to your own immigrant parents, maybe even your best friend. One overarching ethnicity, age, or socioeconomic status cannot encompass all conspiracy theorists. Instead, experts and studies indicate that what drives a desire or even need to latch on to the seemingly bizarre irrational boils down to two things: biology and control.
People’s beliefs are a direct reflection of their lived experiences and the hand dealt to them by the world, according to Dr. Walker Ladd, Brain and Behavior and AP Psychology teacher at the Buckley School.
People who lack control over their lives or the world around them gravitate toward conspiracy theories more than people who experience security and consistency, both Ladd and Jennifer Whitson, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the UCLA Anderson School, agree.
According to the psychologists, victims of a life altering event, such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, are more inclined to accept theories that pose alternate explanations of traumatic for suspicious events, especially if these alternate theories suggest a more predictable world.
Madison Lefler, a senior at the Buckley School, who accepts many conspiracy theories, said she experienced the personal equivalent of a terrorist attack or natural disaster with the divorce of her parents.
According to Lefler, she believes “in any theory someone can provide evidence for.” Conspiracies she sees to be grounded in fact include the conspiracy that the United States moon landing of 1969 was a hoax, founded on evidence that the flag in the video appeared to be blowing in wind that cannot exist in on the moon. The theory also accounts for the deaths of three NASA employees while testing equipment for the mission, claiming the U.S. government, fearing they were about to reveal the truth, executed them.
“There is a lot that is unexplained in the world. I don’t necessarily believe that these theories are the only explanations, or that they’re correct, but they’re an attempt to explain the unknown,” Lefler said.
The appeal of conspiracy theories also reaches people whose jobs and livelihoods are threatened by “creative destruction,” the force causing people to lose their jobs to advances in technology.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics predicts that in the next decade employment in agricultural fields will decrease by 47,500 jobs due to mechanization of their skills. According to Ladd and Whitson, these victims of technological advancement are far more likely to adopt an affinity for conspiracy theories that result in a more stable view of the world.
Whitson researches the moment someone begins believing a conspiracy theory by putting people in situations that temporarily strip them of their control. For example, subjects are placed behind a computer screen and told they will be presented with a series of images, two at a time, and in each pair, they must select one. The computer will then tell them if they are correct or incorrect based on a set program. The catch: there is no set program; it’s all random.
Throughout the experiment people will attempt in vain to decipher the code and choose the “right answer,” feeling helpless when each time they think they’ve discovered the correlation between the images the computer deems correct, “INCORRECT” in mocking letters flashes on their screen. According to Whitson, the experiment is intended to throw people into a state of anxiety as it simulates the lack of control someone feels during a catastrophic event, or from losing one’s stability to technological advancement.
While still raw with insecurity and anxiety, subjects are shown static and asked what they see. Whitson discovered that the subjects exposed to control deprivation are more likely to see patterns in the random static, concluding that an absence of control, such as that experienced by the laborers that can lose their jobs at any moment to a thoughtless piece of machinery, causes people to see patterns in randomness, a behavior known as illusory pattern perception.
“People will latch onto anything that seems to give the world order,” Ladd says.
A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Amsterdam shows that the fear of the unknown, for many people, exceeds that of a known enemy. People would much rather attribute a tragedy to an enemy or diabolical force than to random chance.
The researchers provided subjects with two possible outcomes of someone diagnosed with the Alzheimer’s disease. The subjects who experienced control deprivation were more inclined to choose the more pessimistic explanation that the disease progresses in known stages simply because it provided more structure to the situation, whereas the control group chose the more hopeful outcome that the progression hinges on various environmental, dietary, and biological factors, and someone can live in relative health for many years before showing symptoms. Even if a remote terrorist group carrying out 9/11 is both more probable and more settling, the idea that a mysterious, unpredictable group could strike and destroy or uproot thousands of lives at any point encourages people to attribute the event to a much less ambiguous evil: President George W. Bush.
Conspiracy theorists, however, aren’t exclusive to those robbed of their control or victims great, life-altering experiences, as noted by many psychologists. Biology factors into this murky, complex equation because people, as inherently social creatures, are hardwired to crave a sense of belonging that can be attained in a psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink,” a term coined by social psychologist Janis Irving. This need for camaraderie through like-mindedness can cause people to do and believe things they wouldn’t otherwise entertain as legitimate.
According to Ladd, the safety cushion that the group provides gives people more license to say and believe things many perceive as beyond rational explanation.
“The group’s truth becomes their own truth, and to pull away from what the group believes is to be a traitor,” Ladd said.
People will go to great lengths to avoid the psychological pain of being ostracized by the group, as shown in studies done by psychologists at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. These researchers studied “The Black Sheep Effect,” which demonstrates the tendency of humans to punish ingroup members far more severely for straying from the principles of the group than outgroup members.
University of Kent psychologists, in a study published in the journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science” in January 2012, found that the more likely people were to endorse a conspiracy theory that a radical MI6 agent was actually responsible for Princess Diana’s death, the more likely they were to also support the theory that she faked her own death or has gone into hiding.
The psychologist posited that while this logical paradox may stump the rational mind, these people will simultaneously support both these theories simply because other members of their group do.
According to Whitson the thought process is, “People who believe what I believe, believe in this conspiracy, so I’m not really going to examine the evidence I’m just going to believe, ‘yup that conspiracy totally exists because [my] other in-group members see that [I’m] also an in-group member.’”
In recent times, not a week goes by that you don’t turn on the news to an account of a terrorist attack. The Global Terrorism Database reports that in 2015 alone there were 14,806 incidents of terrorism, compared to the 635 incidents in 1970. The instability bred by these attacks can create a generation of conspiracy theorists in coming years.