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Just because I think they’re out to get me doesn’t mean they aren’t

Monday, April 7, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

paranoia-240x300Not long ago we blogged about the reality that half of Americans believe in at least one public health conspiracy. The same researchers have now looked into other conspiracy theories and found similar trends: half of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory. So. Let’s take a look at what the researchers say about the sort of personality that lies behind the acceptance of conspiracy theories.

First, you need to have a tendency to attribute the reason behind unexplained or extraordinary events to “unseen and intentional forces”.

Second, you need to also have a tendency to be attracted to “melodramatic narratives” as explanations especially those narratives that interpret historical events as a classic struggle between good and evil. (If you want to stump your friends, this sort of duality is known as a Manichean narrative.)

This time, rather than public health conspiracy theories, the researchers examined various general and ideological conspiracy theories popular among your friends and neighbors (and perhaps even you!) as sampled by a YouGov/Polimetrix survey of 1,935 individuals in 2011. Here are the conspiracy theories they assessed (and the percentage expressing a belief in them).

The US invasion of Iraq was not part of a campaign to fight terrorism, but was driven by oil companies and Jews in the US and Israel. (This was called the “Iraq War conspiracy” and was familiar to 44% of respondents and 19% agreed.)

Certain US government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001 because they wanted the US to go to war in the Middle East. (“Truther conspiracy” was familiar to 67% of the respondents and 19% agreed.)

President Barack Obama was not really born in the US and does not have an authentic Hawaiian birth certificate. (“Birther conspiracy” was familiar to 94% and 24% believed it.)

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. (“Financial Crisis conspiracy” was familiar to 46% while 25% believed it.)

Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents deliberately sprayed in a clandestine program directed by government officials. (This was called the “Chem Trails conspiracy” was familiar to 17% of respondents although only 9% believed it.)

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. (The “Soros conspiracy” was familiar to 31% and 19% believed it.)

The US government is mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because such lights make people more obedient and easier to control. (“The CFLB conspiracy” was familiar to 17% and believed by 11%.)

Overall the researchers say that 55% of the 2011 respondents believed at least one of these theories. The most popular (at 25%) was the Financial Crisis conspiracy, followed by the Birther conspiracy, which was also followed closely by the Truther, Iraq War and Soros conspiracies. The Chem Trails conspiracy theory was far behind the other conspiracies. They do not initially mention the light bulb conspiracy but it was comparably accepted to the Chem Trail conspiracy.

Later the researchers confess to having made up that CFLB theory just to see if anyone would bite. (It’s so hard to trust those conspiracy researchers although they do confide in the reader that there actually are conspiracy theories that CFLB “lights contribute to greater fatigue or may serve as a weapon to induce mercury poisoning through a massive electromagnetic pulse”.)

They remind us that 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.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it’s a good reminder (again) of how often the message you mean to send can trigger associations to something altogether different. And if in voir dire, you make a joke about an absolutely nutty conspiracy theory, keep in mind that a good number of your jurors are going to believe it, while others will be muttering to themselves on break that they had no idea that your theory was true, and still others will think you are out of your mind. This is a variation on our general advice to avoid making jokes during trial about anything or anyone but yourself. And yet, sometimes it is just irresistible…

Oliver, J., & Wood, T. (2014). Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion American Journal of Political Science DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12084

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