They’re a topic that have received relatively little attention throughout the advancement of psychological research. Yet conspiracy theories have a large impact on our involvement with society. We may only turn a tolerant scientific smile to those who tell us that 9/11 was plotted by the US government, but what about theories that our politicians are trying to engineer the decline of different systems to achieve their hidden motives? Such topics often grab our attention far more powerfully, and not always for bad reasons.
Early work by Hofstadter (1971) argued that conspiracy theories developed from people feeling incapable of bringing about change through social or political action. Because of this, some researchers even suggest that producing conspiracy theories is symptomatic of psycho-pathological behavior (Swami and Coles, 2010). Much of the current research does suggest that the underlying cause of conspiracy theory circulation is related to negative aspects of peoples lives.
The sharing of conspiracy theories have been found to change opinions, arouse anger and cause people to become more apathetic within the political system (Butler et al, 1995). It has been suggested that they are used as a means of justifying outraged and distressed emotions (Festinger, 1957), or that they manipulate emotions to further their message (Sunstein and Vermeuhle, 2009) and that their use often causes people to take a biased view towards evidence (McHoskey, 1995). All these sources, as cited by Swami and Coles (2010) present research that implies the promulgation of conspiracy theories is abnormal behavior.
But I don’t think that’s fair. As I said above, we may think it a bit odd, that people are making claims like that princess Diana was killed on purpose. But what about on a smaller scale? What if I say that university tuition fee’s have been raised to attack the poor? Or that the capacity of the A65 has been reduced, thus increasing traffic so as to justify gaining funding to build a rail connection to the local airport. Am I spreading an emotion fuelled message without solid evidence because I feel unable to make my voice heard through the proper systems? Yes, I am.
Look at how I changed the wording though. Swami and Coles used the word “incapacity”, while I just used the word “unable”. That is because I don’t believe that I am not physically capable of raising my opinion, I just feel like it isn’t listened to. And that’s what Clark (2002) argues, that they demand greater transparency from government behavior. In some ways, they are a force to unite people in campaigning for much needed changes (Sasson, 1995). This is exemplified by evidence that has come forward in recent years surrounding attempts by the US government to provoke war with Cuba in 1962 (Swami and Coles, 2010, see also Ruppe, 2001)
While certain conspiracy theories can be highly unethical, such as those that discriminate against different races or socio-economic class, the manor of pathologising a behavior that we all exhibit in some form makes me skeptical. The research carried out on this topic is largely subjective, with no common construct upon which to determine if this behavior is healthy or not. We may choose to frown upon certain theories, while embracing others, yet the above evidence suggests this freedom of thought creates an open channel for democratic action, allowing us to put to use our powers of reason that separate us from all other species.