No matter how implausible, we’re drawn to tales of power and plotting.
Virtually every major event in history has spawned conspiracy theories.
The Freemasons (as well as the Federalist Society, the Trilateral Commission and Bilderberg Group) have designs on global domination; the Apollo moon landing was faked (with Stanley Kubrick directing the footage, in one variation); the Challenger space shuttle was purposely blown up as part of the coverup for the faked moon landing.
The list of events with alternate theories is endless, as is our fascination. So why are so many Americans taken by conspiracy theories?
Part of it is a natural tendency to find order in things. Psychologists say we’re loath to acknowledge that random events and lone screwballs can fell world leaders and cause so much havoc on our world. Assigning blame to the Mafia and other powerful networks is a way to make sense of it all.
“If people see an event like the assassination of a president or the death of a princess, they’re more likely to see that as the result of a major cause,” says Patrick Leman, a psychologist at Royal Holloway University of London. “That keeps our view of the world as stable and consistent. It’s casting around to find an explanation with what we want to see.”
The idea that such elaborate deceptions are being orchestrated at high levels offers a much more satisfying explanation than simply acknowledging that accidents happen.
Guaranteed big sellers
And, says Robert Robins, we love a good story. And a good conspiracy theory has it all — truth-seeking, battles between the powerless and the powerful. The novels of Don DeLillo, the X-Files and, of course, The DaVinci Code, are all testament to this.
“It gives you a story line; it’s good against evil,” says Robins, co-author of Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred. “If you look at the Jacobean period, the standard literary form was the revenge drama. One of the most popular literary forms today is the conspiracy.”
Dan Brown knows this. He’s made a fortune by tapping into our fascination with elaborate machinations of the powerful in The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003. He’ll make a second fortune in May, when the movie version starring Tom Hanks comes out.
According to those who study the science of conspiracy theories, it’s possible that some of us are hard-wired to sense high-level plotting.
Some research indicates that an excess of dopamine in the brain can cause people to spot patterns where others see only random data. Dopamine is the chemical in our brains most commonly associated with pleasure. Too little of it can lead to attention deficit disorder and Parkinson’s disease. Too much, though, leads to schizophrenia and other mental disorders.
Researchers at University Hospital at Zurich found that subjects given a dose of dopamine were more prone to seeing faces and words when scrambled patterns appeared on a screen in front of them. Peter Brugger, the neurologist who led the study, says the results show that dopamine not only plays a role in detecting patterns in visual displays but probably in perceiving patterns — real or not — in events. A tendency to spot patterns and connect the dots is the foundation of conspiracy theorizing.
“If there is too much [dopamine], you begin to develop hallucinations and delusions, including delusional ideas of reference,” Brugger says in an e-mail message.
A long tradition
Conspiracy theories are nothing new. For centuries, theories swirled that Pope Sixtus IV was involved in the assassination of the powerful Medici brothers in Florence, Italy. There was no dearth of speculation about what really happened in Lincoln’s assassination. And suspicions about the Freemasons’ world domination plot originated in the 18th century. But it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy that marked the point when conspiracy theories took on a whole new dimension in American culture.
“The Kennedy assassination is the first mass-mediated traumatic event that spawned conspiracies,” says Mark Fenster, author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. “It was the advent of cheap publishing for paperbacks. There was a greater ability to spread their ideas, and more competing ideas.”
Fenster is wary of scientific explanations for conspiracy theories. They can make it too easy to dismiss questions about major events. As Henry Kissinger said, “Even a paranoid can have enemies.”
“Conspiracy theories in the U.S. are related to populism,” Fenster says. “It means that Americans have a healthy skepticism of the concentration of power.”