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Closely tied to our conceptions of morality, conspiracy occurs when the truth is deliberately obscured. Conspiracy is often intimately involved with, and precipitated by political entities whom seek to minimise any negative repercussions of such truth becoming public knowledge. But what exactly does a conspiracy involve? According to numerous examples from popular culture, conspiracies arise from smaller, constituent and autonomous units within governmental bodies and/or military organisations, and usually involve some degree of ‘coverup’ or deliberate misinformation/clouding of actual events that have taken place. Such theories, while potentially having some credulous background, are for the most part ridiculed as neurotic fantasies that have no grounding in reality. How then do individuals maintain such obviously false ideas in the face of societal pressure? What are the characteristics of a ‘conspiracy theorist’ and how do these traits distinguish them from society as a whole? What do conspiracy theories tell us about human nature? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

As a child I was intensely fascinated with various theories regarding alien activity of earth. Surely a cliche in today’s world, but the alleged events that occurred in Roswell, Tunguska and Rendlesham Forest are a conspirator’s dream. Fortunately I no longer hold these events in any factual stead; rather, as I have aged and matured so too has my ability to examine evidence rationally (something that conspiracy theorists seem unable to accomplish). Introspection on my childhood motivations for believing these theories potentially reveals key characteristics of believers in conspiracy. Aliens were a subject of great personal fear as a young child, thus encouraging a sort of morbid fascination and desire to understand/explain (perhaps in an attempt to regain some control over these entities that could supposedly appear at will). Indeed, a fear of alien abduction seems to merely be the modern reincarnation of previous childhood fears, such as goblins and demons. Coupled with the ‘pseudo-science’ that accompanies conspiracy theories, it is no wonder that the young and otherwise impressionable are quickly mesmerised and enlisted into the cause. A strong emotional bond connects the beliefs with the evidence in an attempt to relieve uncomfortable feelings.

Conspiracy theories may act as a quasi-scientific attempt to explain the unknown, not too dissimilar to religion (and perhaps utilising the same neurological mechanisms).  While a child could be excused for believing such fantasies, it is intriguing how adults can maintain and perpetuate wild conspiracy beliefs without regret. Cognitive dissonance may act as an underlying regulator and maintainer of such beliefs, in that the more radical they become, the more they are subscribed to (in an attempt at minimising the psychological discomfort that internal hypocrisy brings). But where do these theories come from? Surely there must be at least some factual basis for their creation. Indeed there is, however the evidence is often mis-interpreted or there is sufficient cause for distrust in the credibility of the information ( in light of the deliverer’s past history). Therefore we have two main factors that can determine whether the information will be interpreted as a conspiracy; the level of trust an individual ascribes to the information source (taking into account that person’s past dealings with the agent and personality/presence of neurotic disorders) and the degree of ambiguity in the said events (personal interpretation different to that reported, perceptual experience sufficiently vivid to cause disbelief in alternate explanation).

To take the alleged alien craft crash landing at Roswell as a case in point, it becomes obvious where the conspiracy began to develop within the chronological timeframe of events and for what reasons. Roswell also demonstrates the importance of maintaining a trust in authority; the initial printing of ‘Flying Disc Recovered By USAF’ in a local newspaper was quickly retracted and replaced with a more menial and uninteresting ‘weather balloon’ explanation. Reportedly, this explanation was accepted by the people of the time and all claims of alien space craft forgotten about until the 1970s, some 30 years after the actual event. The conspiracy was revitalised by the efforts of a single individual (perhaps seeking his own ‘five minutes of fame’), thus demonstrating the power of one person’s belief supported by others in authority (the primary researcher, Friedman, was a nuclear physicist and respected writer). Coupled with convenient (in that it is ambiguous) and an aggressive interpretation of circumstantial evidence, the alleged incident at Roswell has since risen to global fame. Taken in the context of historical happenings at this period in history (aftermath of WW2, beginnings of Cold War – increase in military top secret projects) it is no wonder that imagination began to replace reality; people now had a means to attribute a cause and explanation to that which they clearly had no substantiated understanding of. There was also the catalyst for thinking that governments engaged in trickery what with the numerous special operations conducted in a clandestine manner and quickly covered up when things went awry (eg Bay of Pigs incident).

Thus the power of conspiracy has been demonstrated. Originating from just a single individual’s private beliefs, it seems as if the fable twinges a common thread within those susceptible. As epitomised by Mulder’s office poster in the X-Files, people ‘want to believe’. That is, the hypocrisy in maintaining such obviously false beliefs is downplayed through a conscious effort to misinterpret counter-evidence and emphasize minimalist details that support the theory. As aforementioned, the role of pseudo-science does wonders to support conspiracy theories and increase their attractiveness to those that would otherwise discount the proposition. By merging the harsh reality of science with the obvious fantasy that is the subject matter of most conspiracies, people have a semi-plausible framework within which to construct their theories and establish consistency for defending their position. It is a phenomenon that is quite similar to religion; the misuse and misinterpretation of “evidence” to satisfy the desire of humanity to regain control over the unexplainable and support a corrupted hidden agenda (distrust of authority).

There is little that distinguishes between the characteristics of conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalists; both share a common bond in their singlemindedness and perceived superiority over the ‘disbelievers’. But their are subtle differences. Conspiracy theorists undertake a lifelong crusade to uncover the truth – an adversarial relationship develops where the theorist is elevated to a level of moral and intellectual superiority (at having uncovered the conspiracy and thwarted any attempts at deception). On the other hand, the religious seem to take their gospel at face value, perhaps at a deeper level and with a greater certainty than the theorists (perhaps due to the much longer history of religion and firm establishment within society). The point here is that while there may be such small differences between the two groups, the underlying psychological mechanisms could be quite similar; they certainly seem to be related due to the common grounding within our belief system.

Psychologically, conspiracies are thought to arise for a number of reasons. As already mentioned, the role of cognitive dissonance is one psychic mechanism that may perpetuate these beliefs in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. The psychoanalytic concept of projection is one theorised catalyst that is proposed to dictate the formulation of conspiracy theories. It is thought that the theorist subconsciously projects their own perceived vices onto the target in the form of conspiracy and deception. Thus the conspirator becomes an embodiment of what the theorist despises, regardless of the objective truth. The second leading psychological cause of conspiracy theory creation is one that involves a tendency to apply ‘rules of thumb’ to social events. Humans believe that significant events have significant causes, such as the death of a celebrity. There is no shortage of such occasions even in recent months what with the untimely death of Hollywood actors and local celebrities. Such events rock the foundation of our worldviews, often to such a large extent that artificial causes are attributed to reassure ourselves that the world is predictable (even if the resulting theory is so artificially complex that any plausibility quickly evaporates).

It is interesting to note that the capacity to form beliefs based on large amounts of imagination and very little fact is present within most of us. Take a moment to stop and think about what you thought the day the twin towers came down, or maybe when Princess Diana was killed. Did you formulate some radical postulations based on your own interpretations and hidden agendas? For the vast majority of us, time proves the ultimate ajudicator and acts to dismiss fanciful ideas out of hand. But for some, the attractiveness of having one up on their fellow citizen at having uncovered some secretive ulterior motive reinforces such beliefs until they become infused with the person’s sense of identity. The truth is nice to have, however some things in life definitely do not have explanations rooted in the deception of some higher power. Random events do happen, without any need for a hidden omnipresent force dictating events from behind the scenes.

PS: Elvis isn’t really dead, he’s hanging out with JFK at Area 51 where they faked the moon landings. Pardon me whilst I don my tin-foil hat, I think the CIA is using my television to perform mind control…