Why Are We Drawn to Conspiracy Theories?

by Fernando Perfas

“More conspiracy theories” | Photo by Gene Hunt via Flickr/Creative Commons

It is in the nature of man to doubt. Often, it has a survival function that has to be mitigated by the rational mind. We use knowledge, facts, or experience to verify the veracity of unsubstantiated claims. We are familiar with the story of “doubting” Thomas in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. He asked to touch the wounds of the Risen Christ to believe. He typifies the human need to rely on facts rather than faith to believe. The polar opposite of this is to believe a claim to facts without proof regardless of the integrity of its source. However, the price for being gullible can be steep, and the consequence of skepticism can be equally disastrous.

Back in time when our ancient ancestors roamed the savannah in Africa, they took the news from strangers with a grain of salt and sought proof to verify facts, lest they might be walking into a trap. When confronted with an unexplainable phenomenon, they retreated to their belief system and group experience to spin a “meaningful” explanation and try to make sense of the phenomenon. This became a shared narrative sanctioned by the tribe and difficult to go against without suffering the threats of ostracism among unbelievers.

A conspiracy theory is an alternative narrative by a dissenting few, counter to a widely held view. It often attributes dreadful objective by the perpetrator(s), imagined or real. It arises from doubt borne of mistrust. In a world where ideas flow freely and rapidly, information can be fashioned to serve a group’s agenda.”

There is a social context to folklore, myths, legends, superstitious beliefs, and the like, attempting to explain or create a story that sheds light on some facets of the unknown. I was raised around many of these folk beliefs that I took as facts without question. Some became automatic thinking even after I left my ancestral home. Not knowing or having doubt results in cognitive dissonance, which creates anxiety or mental discomfort. To reduce our mental distress, we look for an explanation or narrative that we can cling to, which is, more or less, closest to our personal beliefs or values.

A conspiracy theory is an alternative narrative by a dissenting few, counter to a widely held view. It often attributes dreadful objective by the perpetrator(s), imagined or real. It arises from doubt borne of mistrust. In a world where ideas flow freely and rapidly, information can be fashioned to serve a group’s agenda. It can sow doubt on government policy, a political adversary’s platform, or a scientific fact that goes against one’s religious beliefs by presenting a counter-narrative that demonizes or disparages the other side with little or no basis in facts. They come in the form of alternative narratives, fake news, or propaganda designed to influence beliefs. People who feel aggrieved by the government or the establishment, in one form or another, are attracted to various groups that promote all sorts of conspiracy theories about how the government or those in power operates against their interest.

Those who are disenfranchised gravitate to movements that appear to speak to their discontent. Various communications tools such as subliminal programing, creating cognitive dissonance, or motivational programming are deployed to create doubt, persuade, or instill fear. The tactics are quite common. We have all been exposed to them in the form of commercial advertisements with the single purpose of influencing our buying inclination. What is different with conspiracy theories, propaganda, or fake news, which are proliferating, is their larger agenda hidden from the consuming public. They have a dark objective which includes the erosion of public confidence in a government institution, supporting a political or social movement that challenges the status quo, or, in some cases, simply creating chaos or anarchy.

“The ability for critical thinking to decipher the hidden agenda or unravel the deceptive thread that binds a conspiracy theory or propaganda is hugely lacking in many. It is imperative that critical thinking be embedded in the school curriculum early in children’s education.”

The public, in large measure, is unprepared for these onslaughts or tsunami of information that comes with the exponential growth in the speed and capacity to process digital data in print media and online. The ability for critical thinking to decipher the hidden agenda or unravel the deceptive thread that binds a conspiracy theory or propaganda is hugely lacking in many. It is imperative that critical thinking be embedded in the school curriculum early in children’s education.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

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