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Osama bin Laden is dead and (simultaneously) Osama bin Laden lives!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Conspiracy theorists are strange. While they can provide both consternation and entertainment value in mock trials, the idea they could show up on your jury is not in the least bit funny. New research shows us that not only are they strange–they are also contradictory.

Researchers wanted to find out if the suspicion of conspiracy theorists was so strong that they would simultaneously endorse competing beliefs. And, as you likely know since we’re writing about it–indeed they will! And it even makes sense in a strange sort of way.

First, the researchers defined the term conspiracy theory:

A proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some [usually sinister] goal.”

In reviewing the research, they also find that if you believe in one conspiracy theory–you are likely to believe in others (even those unrelated) as well. For example, those who believe that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were actually orchestrated by the American government are also more likely to believe that Princess Diana was deliberately assassinated. Why? Theoretically, because the ‘truth’ of one conspiracy shows other conspiracies are possible and thus supports the larger belief system [in conspiracies].

On the other hand, some conspiracy theories emphatically contradict each other: take for example, the varying theories about Princess Diana’s death. Some say she was killed by British Intelligence, others allege she was killed by business enemies of Dodi Al-Fayed’s father [who targeted Dodi but also killed Diana as a cover-up] and still others believe she faked her own death to escape the endless interest in her activities. Researchers wondered whether contradictory conspiracy theories could be endorsed by the same individuals.

Two studies were conducted: one related to the death of Princess Diana and the second related to the death of Osama bin Laden.

The more strongly participants believed there had been an official campaign by the British Intelligence Service to assassinate Princess Diana [because she was the mother of the future King of England and was involved with a Muslim], the more likely they were to believe that Diana faked her own death to simply be left alone.

For the second study (regarding Osama bin Laden) researchers explored whether the endorsement of contradictory beliefs was due to an over-riding suspicion of authorities. In this study, participants who believed Osama bin Laden was dead before the raid, were also more likely to believe that he is still alive.

In other words, from the conspiracy theorists point of view, authority figures and those in power are seen as liars and are not to be trusted. Whatever position they take– is automatically wrong. When an official explanation is offered (e.g., Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals and buried at sea) it is at extreme disadvantage and alternate theories will immediately be proposed. The government simply lies and therefore, as the researchers conclude:

Believing Osama is still alive is no obstacle to believing that he has been dead for years.”

Trial lawyers and litigation consultants have long marveled at the potential for jurors to pull novel causation theories out of thin air.  It was somewhat easier teasing out hints of this tendency a few years ago if you could work questions into voir dire about which people were fans of  the TV shows “The X Files” or “Lost”. You want to pay attention to any “far-fetched” theories that come up in pre-trial research. What is important to observe is not whether they will set it aside, but rather that they wanted so badly to have an alternate theory that they dreamt one up.  If you debunked it, a new one would pop up like the game whack-a-mole. The question, then, isn’t whether you can debunk the theory– it is in getting rid of anyone who is drawn to a negative conspiracy about the case.

Wood, M., Douglas, K., & Sutton, R. (2012). Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611434786

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