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The psychological — and deeply American — roots of conspiracy theories

The psychological — and deeply American — roots of conspiracy theories
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Anti-government paranoia does not completely explain the bizarre conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook shooting.

Yes, the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings are ridiculous and repugnant, but they’re also part of a long American tradition, as political reporter Alex Seitz-Wald points out in an absorbing article published earlier this week on Salon.com.

Turning to several experts on conspiracy theories, including University of Utah history professor Robert Goldberg, who’s written a book on the subject, Seitz-Wald details our country’s historical relationship with such theories, starting with the one in the Declaration of Independence that claimed King George III was engaged in a secret plot to establish “absolute Tyranny over these States.”

America has always had a culture “where fearing the government is not only accepted, but patriotic,” writes Seitz-Wald.

The psychology behind the paranoia

But anti-government paranoia does not completely explain the bizarre conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook shooting. Psychological factors are also involved, as Seitz-Wald explains:

There are many different psychologies at play here, from hardcore anti-government paranoids who are likely to see a false-flag operation in everything from Waco to Sandy Hook, while others are trying to make sense of a nonsensical tragedy. Conspiracy theories often seem entirely irrational or even insane, [but] they may actually be far more logical than they appear. At their core, conspiracy theories are like folk tales, a search for an explanation for the unexplainable, a way of making sense of [the] world. There’s no logic or meaning to what happened at Sandy Hook — a mentally unbalanced lone gunman targeted defenseless children for no particular reason — and that is deeply disturbing. So some people would rather invent an explanation to apply some kind (even if twisted) logic to the event and to add some meaning to death of innocent children or deny their death entirely and thus absolve the emotional trauma a bit. …

That’s why there’s such an obsession with trying to find multiple gunmen at Sandy Hook. … “Without more than one shooter, you don’t have a conspiracy,” Goldberg said. By definition, you need co-conspirators. The same was true, of course, with the assassination of President Kennedy, perhaps the most theorized about event in American history. “If it’s just one nut the purpose and meaning in the tragedy is gone, it’s stripped away. There’s no meaning, there’s no purpose to deaths of these kids,” Goldberg added.

Humans are “almost conditioned to think in conspiracy theories,” writes Seitz-Wald. And "once the seed of belief is planted," he adds, "it’s very hard to change people’s minds, thanks to a few powerful and related psychological forces: Cognitive dissonance, motivated reasoning, and confirmation bias. Put simply, these forces — present in everyone but critical to conspiracists’ worldview — make believers disregard any evidence that contradicts their preexisting belief, and seek out only evidence that confirms it. Anything else is explained away — or the source is discredited as bought off or part of the conspiracy."

Fueling the conspiratorial flames

Seitz-Wald discusses other factors that give fuel to conspiracy theories, such as “conspiracy entrepreneurs,” who make money from peddling the theories; Hollywood, which helps prime us to believe in government conspiracies through movies like the Bourne series; and government itself, which actually does engage in conspiracies from time to time (who can forget Watergate?).

These three factors “are essentially teaching Americans to think conspiratorially,” Goldberg told Seitz-Wald. “So am I surprised that anytime something major happens, there’s a plethora of conspiracy theories? Absolutely not.”

You can read Seitz-Wald’s article on the Salon.com website. He's also posted another article on Salon in which he debunks the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories one by one.

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Comments (2)

Why so much on the right?

Do we know why conspiracy theory thinking is so heavily among conservatives currently? Even 911 truth has been taken over by the Infowars nutballs.

Sensationalism in the For-Profit Media

probably contributes a lot to conspiracy theory thinking. I believe stronger public media (such as a US-American equivalent of the BBC) would more effectively debunk conspiracy theories and reduce their popular appeal.

When the purpose of programming is merely to hold viewers' or listeners' attention through the commercials, it always makes good market sense to promote sensational claims rather than show how little evidence there really is for them. Our commercial media do a great job of entertaining us, but a poor job of educating us.

Thank you for this article, and for all the links!