On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

There's a science to our faith in conspiracy theories

Share story

Boston Marathon Bombing Investigation Continues
A memorial for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Some speculated the government played a role in the attack.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Agency cover-ups. Faked moon landings. Secret plans hatched in smoke-filled rooms. 

Fear of government — and the belief that it's doing evil — is very real. From the Kennedy assassination to theories the federal government destroyed the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, it's easy to see how cynicism over politics spins into conspiracy theories for some. Sixty-three percent of American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory.

Scientists are trying to understand the psychology behind our willingness to believe in conspiracies. There's been a lot of work published lately on the topic. 

Daily Circuit guests Maggie Koerth-Baker, who recently wrote "Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories" for The New York Times, and Michael Wood, expert in the psychology of conspiracies, broke down the reasons we believe in conspiracies:

1) Conspiracies are sometimes true. "We've had these times in history where things have been hidden from the general public. Look at Watergate. You can go back even further," said Koerth-Baker. "It stretches all the way back to World War I because at the time you had the government working against people and having these spies going out to find out who was against the war and prosecuting them in all these secret ways."

2) We're wired this way. "We've longed talk about the amygdala as being the fear center of your brain, but what it's actually turning out to be is more something that reacts to, not just fear, but also to states of uncertainty, states where you feel you're powerless," said Koerth-Baker. "Paul Whalen at Dartmouth is finding that when these situations happen the amygdala starts activating all these other parts of your brain to, as he described it, start going back through the information and processing it over and over and looking for patterns and things that you could do differently next time to avoid the same problem in the future."

3) The Internet makes it easier to find and share theories. The Internet creates spaces where you can find people who think the same way you do. "You get something that's called 'group polarization' where everybody in the group ends up shifting their opinion over time to a more extreme version of what they already held," according to Wood. The Internet also feeds a faster cycle. In breaking news situations, media often have to go back and correct information. "That legitimately gives you a reason to be suspicious because it's bad reporting," said Koerth-Baker. Wood agreed, "The Internet never forgets."

4) It's all about power. "There was a study in 2008 where psychologists had people write these essays about situations in which they felt like they didn't have control over their lives versus people who wrote a neutral essay," said Wood. "They found that people who wrote the lack of control essay actually ended up believing in more conspiracy theories in a questionnaire they did immediately afterward." This feeling of powerlessness feeds itself. "When you have conspiracy theories it also makes you less likely to participate in the things that you're now more cynical about," said Koerth-Baker, "You're creating a loop of powerlessness." 

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CONSPIRACY:

• Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories
"Crazy as (conspiracy) theories are, those propagating them are not — they're quite normal, in fact. But recent scientific research tells us this much: If you think one of the theories ... is plausible, you probably feel the same way about the others, even though they contradict one another." (New York Times)

• Paranoia and the Roots of Conspiracy Theories
"Conspiracy theories help us cope with distressing events and make sense out of them. Conspiracies assure us that bad things don't just happen randomly. Conspiracies tell us that someone out there is accountable, however unwittingly or secretly or incomprehensibly, so it's possible to stop these people and punish them and in due course let everyone else re-establish control over their own lives. (Psychology Today)