Bottom Line: If you are inclined toward conspiracy theories, it's because you are easily influenced.
One man's rumor is another man's reality
Dispelling conspiracy theories and untruths can be difficult when people only hear what they already believe.September 28, 2009 | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that someone's not after you. Over the last few months, a lot of writers have dusted off Richard Hofstadter's classic 1964 essay on the paranoid style in American politics just so they can explain away the loony rumors and conspiracy theories coming from the far right. But no amount of intellectual condescension is going to make those powerful untruths go away.
The real truth is that, as weird as they are, rumors and conspiracy theories can only thrive in the minds of people who are predisposed to believe them. Successful propagators of fringe theories don't just send random balloons into the atmosphere. Rather, they tap into the preexisting beliefs and biases of their target audiences.
Plenty of studies have shown that people don't process information in a neutral way -- "biased assimilation" they call it. In other words, rather than our opinions being forged by whatever information we have available, they tend to be constructed by our wants and needs. With all their might, our minds try to reduce cognitive dissonance -- that queasy feeling you get when you are confronted by contradictory ideas simultaneously. Therefore, we tend to reject theories and rumors -- and facts and truths -- that challenge our worldview and embrace those that affirm it.
It's easy to assume that lack of education is the culprit when it comes to people believing rumors against logic and evidence -- for instance, that Barack Obama, whose mother was an American citizen and whose state of birth has repeatedly said his birth records are in good order, isn't a legitimate American citizen. But one 1994 survey on conspiracy theories found that educational level or occupational category were not factors in whether you believed in them or not.
What was significant? Insecurity about employment. That finding ties into psychologist Robert H. Knapp's 1944 thesis that rumors "express and gratify the emotional needs" of communities during periods of social duress. They arise, in his view, to "express in simple and rationalized terms the uncertainties and hostilities which so many feel."
If, on the one hand, you think you should blame rumor-mongers and rumor believers for not doing their homework, you can, on the other hand, give them credit for striving pretty hard to explain phenomena they find threatening. Rumors and conspiracy theories often supply simplified, easily digestible explanations (and enemies) to sum up complex situations. However crass, they're both fueled by a desire to make sense of the world.