In my endless obsession with all thing sociological and psychological, I was perusing Psychology Today. On the site’s front page, they were doing a special on Conspiracy Theories and the psychology behind it all. Having a curiosity about conspiracies (I’m one of those people who still believe there was a conspiracy behind the JFK assassination and I’m pretty sure there’s something going on at Area 51 that we should probably all be aware of). I started reading of few of the articles…and I’m a little more interested in it all now.
The first article I read was Is The Truth Out There? A group of 3 psychologists recently published a journal about a study they did on 9/11 and conspiracy thoughts, using personality traits and feelings about previous well-known conspiracy theories. They said some of the strongest predictors in belief that 9/11 was a conspiracy was believing that JFK was not killed by a lone gunman and that we did not actually land Apollo on the moon. Well, we have an issue here. I’m pretty confident that Kennedy was not killed by a single bullet. In my mind, there is absolutely no way that the way his body reacted (How he jerked both forward and backward) was a result of a single bullet. I’m not saying it was some huge governmental setup but I think more than one person was gunning him down. And as far as the Apollo landing…I really want to believe that we landed on the moon and the government wasn’t lying to us all. Nevertheless, I’m also aware of all the inconsistencies that are seen in the video of the landing. I’ve watched quite a few shows discussing the possibility of the landings being staged and know that the video has some stuff that is pretty much impossible on the moon, but I’m going to continue to believe that we were not lied to.
So I kind of believe in both of those conspiracies but I don’t think that 9/11 was a conspiracy. I think there was some seriously sketchy stuff going on. The fact that the 911 calls were handled so unprofessionally and that some of the stupidest questions I have ever heard were asked on the other side of that phone call blows my mind. I feel like if you are getting calls about plane hijackings, you take that seriously. You don’t continue to make a flight attendant answer the same question a copious amount of times and have to identify herself like 10 times (I know that it was possible they thought it was a drill but I just find it all really shady). The government had basically the who, what, when, why, and how. They were only missing one or two answers or else there would have been no way for them to not be able to stop it. I know that it was said that letting the attacks happen gave us an excuse to declare war and the Cheney (If I’m remembering correctly) talked about going to war the next day before it was really possible or necessary for the topic to be considered. Okay, I realize all this makes me sound like I think it was a government setup (or, at least, they knew way more than they let on) but I’m considering it being educated on the matter yet still not willing to accept a conspiracy. I’m going to be blissfully ignorant.
The other thing from the study that interested me was how they looked at the Big 5 personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). The article warned me that the ones that mattered probably weren’t the ones I would think but that didn’t stop me from being positive that neuroticism would be the most important and that extraversion (okay, I was considering it being introverted) and agreeableness (or disagreeableness as it was in my head) were close behind.
So I kind of over shot because only 2 of the 5 were really important. But, score one for me because agreeableness was number one. They said that those who are less agreeable are more likely to believe in 9/11 conspiracies. And as for the second one (I’m thinking this is the one that was supposed to shock us), I was pretty far off. Openness was important. Those who are more open-minded, mentally curious, and creative are more likely to believe. Okay, I get it. That actually makes a lot of sense. However, I’m still not willing to accept that my other two aren’t playing a fairly sizable role. I think that introverts and overly neurotic people are more likely to believe. I may be playing into the stereotypes for serial killers with this belief but it’s what I think (You can never trust the quiet ones and, well, neurotics are pretty self-explanatory).
The other article in this special that I found interesting was Personality and Conspiracy Theories: What Your Beliefs Say About You. Mostly this really struck me because out of all the different types of psychology behavioral and, more specifically, anything dealing with personality are my favorite. Plus, they started talking about anomie and I love me some Durkheim. Apparently, those who experience high levels of anomie and are lacking in the trust department are more likely to be believers in conspiracies. Okay, well, maybe I do have some trust issues but I’m not very anomic. Maybe a little cynical, but I’m not anomic. In typical (and smart) research article form, they point out the flaws. Like this shows correlation but not causation and that more research must be done in order to be valid. And, of course, there comes the issue of measurements. There is no set, valid, and reliable way to measure belief in conspiracy theories. Well, how about doing what we learned in my Methods of Research class (and considering this was a terribly taught class, this should be a fairly easy solution to come up with)? Define everything clearly and concisely. Make everything exhaustive and study it. If you come across any issues in your definitions, make a note and rework your study to make it better. I’m not big on conducting qualitative research because I’m more of a numbers person but I would have thought this would be a no brainer for someone with more experience in the field than me.
Curiosity got to me and I took the test that was linked in the article. I found some flaws in it as someone who knows about how to conduct research studies. There was an overuse of the Likert Scale and because it was that type of scale there is no set distance between your answers (What’s really the difference between disagree and strongly disagree?). Plus, you run the risk of having people answer questions they have no prior knowledge about (It covers JFK, 9/11, Princess Diana, 7/7, AIDS, vaccines, UFOs, and climate change). It didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know about myself. It was a little off (because you can’t really tell the difference between disagree and strongly disagree. See it’s an issue) but it said I somewhat believe in JFK (I definitely do), UFOs (Yeah, pretty much), Princess Diana, 9/11, and 7/7. I find ones about vaccines and climate control generally untrue or not particularly true (The only reason I believe any of this is because I think that the medical field is corrupt and basically running payola-type scams to make more money). And as far as AIDS, I think conspiracies are untrue (Come on. Does anyone actually think there are people evil enough to intentionally inflict that on others and cover up cures for the disease? I’d like to think not). One thing I found really good about this study is that questions were reworded and asked in different ways a few times to ensure you were consistent in your answers.
In general, I’m not sure that there’s anything specific in the brain that causes belief in conspiracies. I do think it’s personality related but then you get into the everlasting debate of nurture versus nature. Which one plays a bigger role in forming ones personality? Well, in the social science, there are no losers because no matter what you think, it’s right (Because we all know that both play big roles on determining how you act).