Why Do Folks Embrace Conspiracy Theories?

An article titled Four reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories offers four traits of those who embrace conspiracy theories:
  • patternicity, or a tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise;
  • agenticity, or the bent to believe the world is controlled by invisible intentional agent;
  • confirmation bias, or the seeking and finding of confirmatory evidence for what we already believe;
  • hindsight bias, or tailoring after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened.
I once belonged to a church that spoke pejoratively about groups like the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati.. these groups were seen as last day representatives of that Babylonian system loosely described in the biblical book of Revelation. That second bullet point titled agenticity is reflective of that kind of thinking.

Yesterday we celebrated the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.. there are even theories about that attack.. some even irresponsibly linking President Bush to the attacks. These days other theories abound.. Congressional Representative Paul Broun believes that President Obama Obama already has or will have the three things he needs to make himself a dictator: a national police force, gun control and control over the press.

I could go on but I think that you get the idea. Some folks are predisposed to believe that Elvis is still alive and are energized when they hear reports of someone seeing him at the neighborhood gas station. Others are energized by conspiracy theories around the JFK assassination or the Moon Landing. Good to understand that some simply have those traits listed above.. and it is on the rest of us to let sanity rule the day.

Why do you think people embrace conspiracy theories? Any examples?


  1. I've witnessed (or committed) agenticity and confirmation bias.

    I think there is another reason for conspiracy theories. Most of us are intrigued by a conspiracy story and want at least to think that it is true just to add a little excitement to our typically safe lives. It's like watching a James Bond movie.

  2. I think part of it is people wanting to feel special too, like they know something that few others know, or that they are being specially persecuted.

  3. I think "fear" almost always underlies all conspiracy theories. Right now alot of folks are fearful of their future because of the instability of the economy and the changes which are imminent during times of uncertainty...which...is why I expect conspiracy theories to flourish until things settle down.

  4. Following on Mike's "feeling special" note, I have met some who think it makes them seem intelligent because they know enough about these stories (i.e. moon landing, JFK, etc) to argue with people. They have specialized in these theories and have more knowledge than the average Joe, so they "appear" to be very smart.

    In reality, they just come off as arrogant and annoying.

  5. I embrace them because it makes life more interesting. Sometimes reality it too boring. ;)

  6. I look at it in a slightly different way, that being that some people do not automatically believe everything they are told. Now I will admit that I have a tendency to believe some (not all) of these theories. But let's take a little look at early history; were you a heretic, a conspiracy theorist, or more intelligent than others if you disbelieved what the church told you when they said the earth was flat, or that the earth was the center of the universe. Did the church say these things to continue to exert it's power over the uneducated, or were they truly ignorant.

    You have to consider the power aspect, people lie, people in power lie, and sometimes those lies are told to remain in power.

    As I said earlier, I do believe in some of these conspiracy theories, in my defense I will say this; when my government cannot figure out what happened to 100's of pounds of weapons grade plutonium (which seems to me something that you would want to keep pretty good track of) but they can however tell us almost instantly that the lights in the sky were the result of swamp gas, it makes people wonder.

    The swamp gas example was meant as a joke, but I hope you got the meaning.

  7. I hear you Scully.. there have definitely been theories that were in fact true (wonder what %).. also good point about how folks in power sometimes lie.

    One issue I see though is the idea that usually folks in power are the ones to eventually get exposed. The advocates of many conspiracy theories seem to continue to espouse their theories in modified form.. thinking about the Jehovah Witnesses who continue to massage the details of their predictions of when Jesus will return.

    I am always reminded about the book titled "88 Reason Jesus will Return in 1988".. now that author was accountable.. of course we joked about it after 1988 but I knew folks who really embraced it back in 1988.

    A friend recently told a bunch of us that "the prophets" are predicting a massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault that will split the country in two before the end of the year. I wonder if anyone will apologize in January?

    I guess one who truly embraces a conspiracy theory (or a false prophecy) can always come up with another one when the original theory is proven false.. easier to do that than to a[apologize.


I love to get comments and usually respond. So come back to see my reply. You can click here to see my comment policy.