Conspiracy Theories! How people create them and why you are so willing to believe!
One hour after the tragic event that took place here last week in Las Vegas where a deranged gunman ended the lives of 58 concert goers on the Las Vegas Strip I joined a Facebook Group. This group had originally been created to help those affected by the tragedy find resources and share reverent details about what had happened. At the time the group had about one thousand members and was a valuable resource for those trying to locate information about where to go for services and how to proceed as the events of that evening unfolded.
Fast forward a couple of days and the Facebook group had expanded to more than seventeen thousand members, many of whom were nowhere near Las Vegas during the event. Somehow seemingly overnight the group transformed into a breeding ground for every possible conspiracy theory imaginable. Everything from multiple shooting events happening at the same time, to government conspiracies involving free masons and defense contractors. It devolved into complete insanity.
At one point I responded in agreement to a thread that simply stated that perhaps there was not more to the events that happened than what we may never know what happened. I was immediately attacked by droves in internet trolls that insisted that I was a narrow-mined jerk. That they already knew what had happened and they I was an idiot for not believing that whatever conspiracy theory they were spewing.
This make me think about why these people are both so quick to form these theories despite not having all the facts or being thousands of miles from the event. It also made me question how it is that people seem to want to believe in these fact less theories based on conjecture and shaky information so badly.
I broke out some old psychology text books and google and as far as I can tell this is why people invent and believe conspiracy theories.
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According to Wikipedia conformation Bias is defined as the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms to one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.
People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).
For example in the recent Shooting in Las Vegas in the early moments as the tragic events were still ongoing police reported what may have been multiple locations for where the shooting was coming from. At the time they had not yet figured out where the shooter was. Making it appear that there may have been more than one shooter.
A conspiracy theorist may take this information and run with it forming a conspiracy that there was more than one shooter. Later after the authorities confirm that there was only one person responsible they discount this new information as it does not support their theory. At the same time placing more importance on the earlier less credible information about multiple shooters because it supports their beliefs.
This information filter will continue in their mind for each piece of new information until they have enough supporting facts to support their viewpoint no matter how many contradictory pieces of information they are presented with later as the importance of contradictory facts in their mind has been reduced to irrelevant even before they are presented.
According to Skeptics dictionary proportionality bias is a tendency to believe that causes are proportional to effects in magnitude. Extreme events with momentous consequences have extreme, momentous causes. Mundane events have mundane causes.
Simply put humans have a hard time believing that something minor can cause a big event. In the wake of the tragedy here in Las Vegas it is hard for people to believe that a lone gunman with apparently little motive could carry out the worst mass shooting in our countries history.
It is natural to believe that any big event such as this must have a more complex cause. It is easier for our mind to comprehend that a vast government conspiracy caused such mass loss of life not the actions of one person. Otherwise it just seems out of proportion, and also a whole lot scarier, to think that anyone could cause such havoc and kill so many alone.
Scientific American states that people who endorse conspiracy theories may be more likely to engage in conspiratorial behaviors themselves, such as spreading rumors or tending to be suspicious of others’ motives. If you would engage in such behavior, it may seem natural that other people would as well, making conspiracies appear more plausible and widespread.
Research has shown that people who are the most likely to believe in, or spread, conspiracy theories often exhibit such behavior in other areas of their lives. They are much more likely to spread rumors about others, or operate in secrets and speculation around the home or office. Since this is just part of the course for their everyday behavior they presume everyone else is the same.
When presented with a tragic event they naturally just presume that what is presented to them as fact can not be. This is because in their world the truth is often hidden behind deception and lies and therefore they cannot accept facts for facts.
Mean World Syndrome
Wikipedia describes mean world syndrome as a phenomenon whereby violence-related content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Mean world syndrome is one of the main conclusions of cultivation theory. Gerbner, a pioneer researcher on the effects of television on society, argued that people who watch television tended to think of the world as an intimidating and unforgiving place. A direct correlation between the amount of television one watches and the amount of fear one harbors about the world has been proven, although the direction of causality remains debatable in that persons fearful of the world may be more likely to retreat from it and in turn spend more time in indoor, solitary activity such as television watching.
People who operate in the world of conspiracy theory are likely to watch a lot of news either on television or the internet. They also are likely to watch violent images of the events they are obsessed with repeatedly. This alters their perception into thinking that the world is a much more sinister and dangerous place than it is. This altered perception of the world feeds their mind with paranoid thoughts based on a skewed sense of reality. This kind of thinking is a breeding ground for deillusional thinking and conspiracy.
It is human to want the world around you make sense. If your world view is one of danger around every corner then you will want to believe that any danger out there is even more prevalent and important. Believing that they are out there are coming for you fits this world view much more than the reality that despite horrible things that happen in the word, it is still safe out there.
In conclusion I am not saying that all conspiracy theory is the work of mentally ill delusional madmen. I am just saying that humans have certain traps and faults in their thinking that lend themselves to filling in the blanks when things don’t make sense to them.
I think its important in tough times when it seems that evil as struck that we are aware of the idiosyncrasy of human thinking. We must remember that we don’t have all the information, that things are likely not to add up right away or not maybe at all. We must accept that sometimes we will not have answers and that filling in the blanks may feel good but it is ultimately harmful to ourselves and others.
Truth is sometimes uncomfortable but it is always better than deception and distorted facts.