It can be easy to mock conspiracy theorists, but here’s a not-so-conspiratorial fact: you’re surrounded by them. Nearly half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, whether it’s who shot Kennedy, who was behind 9/11 or where Obama was born.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Chicago compiled four different surveys that asked Americans about their familiarity with conspiracy theories. Most people had at least heard of the various theories, and 55 percent of them agreed with at least one. These included statements like: “The current financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world’s economy.” That was the most popular theory, with a full 25 percent of people believing in it. Here's another: “Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents deliberately sprayed in a clandestine program directed by government officials.”
The researchers argue that “Americans have a high degree of familiarity with conspiracy narratives and exhibit high levels of agreement with them.” But only to a point. Most people have a pet theory. While over half agreed with at least one conspiracy, very few endorsed two, and even fewer signed on to three. Those who do hold on to a handful of conspiracies do so in a consistent way, the researchers say—people who believe that Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii are also more likely to believe that billionaire George Soros “ is behind a hidden plot to destabilize the American government, take control of the media, and put the world under his control.”
One particularly interesting part of the study is just how willing we are to accept these counter narratives, regardless of their familiarity or plausibility. When presented with the theory that “the U.S. government is mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because such lights make people more obedient and easier to control,” 17 percent of people said they can heard of this conspiracy, and 10 percent agreed. There's only one problem with that: this theory was made up by the researchers. So it couldn't be a theory that anybody had actually heard before.
So why are Americans so taken by these theories? Rita Handrich at The Jury Room walks through one explanation:
Large portions of the population are drawn to the Manichean-style narrative with the struggle between good and evil and that this tendency is particularly strong in “the high proportion of Americans who believe we are living in biblical end times”. The researchers seem to believe that conspiracy theories are simply part of the American experience particularly for the many of us for whom “complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal”. Conspiracy theories are more exciting and engrossing and thus, we choose, in some cases, to believe them.
And sometimes things that seem like conspiracy theories turn out to be true. (Hello, NSA.) As William S. Burroughs once said: “Sometimes paranoia’s just having all the facts.”