The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

What's so sexy about conspiracy theories? Why are people so drawn to notions that add seemingly unnecessary complexity to events that, on the surface, seem fairly straightforward? That's what a British researcher tried to find out recently, when he tested a bunch of students on the likelihood of conspiracy in a fictional political assassination.

First thing that comes to mind is, these students must not have been particularly savvy. The news articles they read were about a fictional country and a non-event. I realize not everyone has even a fair grasp of geography and geopolitics, but if you're a college student, shouldn't you be able to tell if a country exists or not? I guess ignorance knows no bounds.

In any case, the results of the study were enlightening. I think they're capsulized best from this paragraph:

More surprisingly, Dr. Leman found that if the fictional president “died” after the shooting, readers were much more likely to believe that the gunman was part of a conspiracy. This was true even though the other facts in the story were unchanged, and even if the death was due to an unrelated cause, such as a heart attack. This curious observation is the basis of Dr. Leman's hypothesis that there is some underlying process in human psychology that assumes that the bigger the effect is, the bigger the cause must have been.

In other words, a U.S. presidential assassination, or the 9/11 disasters, or the Columbia explosion, or even the Bigfoot hoax were all too significant and far-reaching to be attributable to merely obvious reasons. That sort of thinking leaves a lot--heck, I'd say most--people dissatisfied.

I've pondered the thought process of conspiracy theorists in the past. Without doing any in-depth research on the subject, it seems to me that placing faith in "unseen forces" is actually a comforting thought for many people. In an odd way, it makes more sense that the improbable is behind monumental events, rather than what's (mostly) apparent. People who subscribe to these points of view can't accept basic facts, and will take the slightest sliver of doubt to keep crackpot theories alive.

On the other hand, maybe the inherent skepticism behind all this hoo-hee is a positive thing. It does breed a healthy disrespect for authority, which (despite what some may think) is a distinctly American characteristic. Besides, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.