The Pantheon of Conspiracy Theories
Robert Sapolsky opines on conspiracy theories in the pages of the Wall Street Journal in light of the upcoming anniversary of the JFK assassination. He makes a point that will come to no surprise to our regular readers, but it is nice to see it proven out in a study, that if you believe in one conspiracy theory that you are more likely to believe in many, even if they are mutually contradictory.
Recent research by Michael Wood and Karen Douglas of the University of Kent in the U.K. points to the distinguishing characteristics of this frame of mind. In a systematic analysis of online discussions of 9/11 conspiracy theories, they showed that critics of these theories (that is, supporters of the conventional account of 9/11) tend to cite evidence in support of their stance. Conspiracists, by contrast, devote more space to arguing against the conventional view and are far less interested in supporting the validity of their alternative explanations.
Other recent work by Dr. Wood and his colleagues shows how this mode of thinking goes a step further: Conspiracy theorists can be so focused on rejecting all official versions of things that they come to embrace alternative explanations that are mutually contradictory.
The study concerned conspiracy theories surrounding the 1997 death of Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed. The alternative "real" stories listed as options by the researchers included: Queen Elizabeth having Diana killed to prevent the mother of the future king from marrying an Arab, Diana's being killed by business enemies of the Fayed family, and the princess and Fayed faking their own deaths.
Volunteers were asked to rate the likelihood of each story. Conspiracists in the group often endorsed scenarios that were mutually contradictory. Those who believed, for example, that Princess Diana was assassinated were significantly more likely than chance to believe that she is still alive. In other words, when contemplating any given scenario, the fervent conviction that we are constantly being deceived trumped their ability to assess the internal consistency of their own thinking.