Fra 9/11 til Paris-angreb, fra Ebola til Isis, alle større global begivenhed tiltrækker et tilsvarende counter-fortælling fra 'truthers', nogle så altomfattende, at de overtager folks liv. Er vores hjerner wired til at tro, som en ny bog argumenterer? Og kunne f.eks tænker faktisk være gavnligt?
"Jeg husker at læse om Final Fantasy VII, en film jeg virkelig ser frem til. Min første reaktion var skuffelse, at det var to år væk -. Fordi så ville vi være under militær kontrol "Det var 2004, og Matthew Elliott var i dyb. Elliott, fra San Antonio, Texas, havde først blevet henledt på konspirationsteorier, da han var 19, i kølvandet på 9/11. "Det virkede uudgrundeligt, at vi kunne blive angrebet,"Siger han i dag. I sin søgen efter at få mening ud af hvad der var sket, han kom på tværs den berygtede "truther" bevægelse, en strøm af mening, der lægger skylden for de grusomheder på døren til den amerikanske regering.
"Den måde de fleste konspirationsteorier er fastlagt, én ting altid fører til en anden, så derfra blev jeg overbevist om, at en afgørelse gruppe kaldet den nye verdensorden orkestreret alt. Det vil alle føre til undtagelsestilstand og en fuldstændig fjernelse af vores frihedsrettigheder,"Siger han. Et årti senere, Elliott, nu 34, er en "komme" konspirationsteoretiker, have vendte ryggen til en verdensanskuelse, der altid postulerer nogle skjult, magtfuld kraft handler til skade for almindelige mennesker. Ændringen kom gradvist, men han tænker meget forskelligt nu. "Du kan ikke engang få mange af de 50 stater at blive enige om tingene. Held og lykke overbevisende europæere og asiater at komme om bord. "
Elliotts reaktion på traumet af 9/11 var langt fra usædvanlige. Angrebene var så fortilfælde, så ødelæggende, at mange af os kæmpet for at få mening ud af dem. Tidlige rapporter var forvirret eller modstridende: som følge nogle behandlede den officielle version af begivenhederne med skepsis. En del af dem til gengæld plumped for en forklaring, som ville kræve fakery og koordinering i massivt omfang.
Dette bør ikke overraske os: Det er et mønster, der gentages efter hver globale chok, og i kølvandet på Paris-angreb, det har opdrættet sit hoved igen. Inden for en dag af terrorangrebene på den franske hovedstad, blogs var blevet offentliggjort den begrundelse, at de var arbejdet i regeringen - en såkaldt "falsk flag" operation. Kravene hviler på ideen om, at Isis er den bevidste skabelse af vestlige regeringer. For nylig, advokaten for familien af Syed Farook, en af San Bernardino skydespil, drevne konspiratoriske spekulation da han sagde: "Der er en masse motivation på dette tidspunkt at fremhæve eller oprette hændelser, der vil forårsage våbenkontrol eller fordomme eller had mod det muslimske samfund."
Round-the-clock dækning af globale begivenheder betyder, at der er en konstant forsyning af krise og kaos for os at fortolke. Historier om strenge trukket af skjulte hænder er en fast bestanddel af vores underholdning, fra Spectre er Blofeld til den barokke sammensværgelse London Spy, en af de mest anerkendte britiske dramaer af året, som unraveled i en spektakulær eksempel på den paranoide stil. Det er ikke at tro på konspirationsteorier bliver mere udbredt, siger vira Swami, professor i socialpsykologi på Anglia Ruskin University: mens forskningen ikke er blevet gjort endnu, han fortæller mig, der er masser af anekdotiske beviser for, at tro på konspirationer har været nogenlunde stabil i det seneste halve århundrede eller deromkring. Hvad har ændret, dog, er den hastighed, hvormed nye teorier dannes. “It’s a symptom of a much more integrated world,"Siger han. Internettet hastigheder alt op, tillader sammensværgelse-orienterede personer til at forbinde og formulere deres ideer. i modsætning, it took months for theories about Pearl Harbor to develop.
Karen Douglas, another social psychologist, echoes this point. “People’s communication patterns have changed quite a lot over the last few years. It’s just so much easier for people to get access to conspiracy information even if they have a little seed of doubt about an official story. It’s very easy to go online and find other people who feel the same way as you.”
Is everyone prone to this kind of thinking, or is it the preserve of an extreme fringe? Douglas reckons it’s more common than most of us realise. “Recent research has shown that about half of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory,"Siger hun. “You’re looking at average people; people you might come across on the street.”
That’s also the view of Rob Brotherton, whose new book, Suspicious Minds, explores the traits that predispose us to belief in conspiracies. He cautions against sitting in judgment, since all of us have suspicious minds – and for good reason. Identifying patterns and being sensitive to possible threats is what has helped us survive in a world where nature often is out to get you. “Conspiracy theory books tend to come at it from the point of view of debunking them. I wanted to take a different approach, to sidestep the whole issue of whether the theories are true or false and come at it from the perspective of psychology,"Siger han. “The intentionality bias, the proportionality bias, confirmation bias. We have these quirks built into our minds that can lead us to believe weird things without realising that’s why we believe them.”
“Whenever anything ambiguous happens, we have this bias towards assuming that it was intended – that somebody planned it, that there was some kind of purpose or agency behind it, rather than thinking it was just an accident, or chaos, or an unintended consequence of something.” This intentionality bias, Brotherton says, can be detected from early childhood. “If you ask a young kid why somebody sneezed, the kid thinks that they did it on purpose, that the person must really enjoy sneezing. It’s only after about the age of four or five that we begin to learn that not everything that everybody does is intended. We’re able to override that automatic judgment. But research shows that it still stays with us even into adulthood.”
For eksempel, studies have shown that when people drink alcohol, they are more likely to interpret ambiguous actions as having been deliberate. “So if you’re at the pub and somebody jostles you and spills your drink, if it’s your first drink, you might write it off as an innocent mistake. But if you’re a few drinks in, then you’re more likely to think they did it on purpose, that it was an aggressive act.”
Like most personality traits, proneness to intentionality bias varies across the population. “Some people are more susceptible to it than others.” And, Brotherton explains, there is a small but reliable correlation between that susceptibility and belief in conspiracy theories.
External factors also play a part, selvfølgelig. For Ryan, who asked that I omit his last name, the influence of a single charismatic individual was crucial. It was Johnny, a friend and bandmate, who showed him books and CDs about world government and “served as a guru of sorts”. At the same time as inducting him into the truther movement, “he was introducing me to music I’d never heard and really loved”. At the height of his involvement, Ryan says he believed a broad range of conspiracy theories, including “chemtrails” – the idea that the trails left by planes contain noxious chemicals intended to subdue or poison people; that Aids and Ebola were introduced by governments to control population; that the moon landings were faked; that a substance extracted from apricots called laetrile was an effective cure for cancer, but had been banned by the FDA and dismissed as quackery to protect the interests of Big Pharma. “I strained my relationships with my family badly. It’s always the ones you love the most that you want to ‘wake up’. I ended up in hugely embarrassing debates and arguments,"Siger han.
But beyond the anguish it caused for those close to him, were Ryan’s unorthodox beliefs harmful? Karen Douglas is wary of rubbishing all conspiracy theorising as dangerous. “Thinking in that way, it must have some positive consequences. If everybody went around just accepting what they were told by governments, officials, pharmaceutical companies, whoever, then we would be a bunch of sheep, really”. På den anden side, the effects of certain theories on behaviour can be damaging. Douglas’s own research [pdf download] has shown that exposure to the idea that the British government was involved in the death of Princess Diana reduced people’s intention to engage in politics. Tilsvarende, subjects who read a text stating that climate change was a hoax by scientists seeking funding were less likely to want to take action to reduce their carbon footprint. Og anti-vaccine conspiracy narratives make people less likely to vaccinate their children, a clear public health risk.
Should we try to stamp conspiracy theories out, derefter? Part of Brotherton’s argument is that they’re a natural consequence of the way our brains have evolved. Ikke kun det, but trying to disprove them can backfire. “Any time you start trying to debunk conspiracy theories, for the people who really believe, that’s exactly what they would expect if the conspiracy were real,"Siger han.
Swami sees things differently. “Experimental work that we’ve done shows that it’s possible to reduce conspiracist ideation.” How? Swami found that people who had been encouraged to think analytically during a verbal task were less likely to accept conspiracy theories afterwards. For him, this hints at an important potential role for education. “The best way is, at a societal level, to promote analytical thinking, to teach critical thinking skills.” But that’s not all. When people have faith in their representatives, understand what they are doing and trust that they are not corrupt, they are less likely to believe in coverups. That’s why political transparency ought to be bolstered wherever possible – and corporate transparency, for. “A lot of people have trouble accepting a big organisation’s or government’s narratives of an event, because they’re seen as untrustworthy, they’re seen as liars,” argues Swami.
Improved teaching and changes in political and business culture would undoubtedly help. But conspiracy theories can be rejected for personal reasons, for. Ryan’s view changed with loss of his “guru”.
“I kinda dropped out of contact with Johnny after he got married and had a baby,"Siger han. “He was getting further and further into it, and I just couldn’t keep up with the mental gymnastics involved.” He started to look for alternative explanations – less exciting, but more plausible ones. “I looked at the people debating on the national level, for the presidency and such. No way these guys speaking in platitudes and generalisations could really be behind a global conspiracy to enslave or kill me. They weren’t doing a particularly good job of it either, considering how happy I was living my life.
“That was the epiphany, virkelig. I was free. I was happy. None of the doom and gloom predicted and promised ever came.” For Ryan, by then 27, the bizarre ride was over. A world that pitted him against the forces of evil had all the appeal of a spy drama. But real life was less like a story – and in some ways more depressing. What does he think are the forces that really shape things? “Most of what is wrong in the world nowadays – well, I would put it down to incompetence and greed. A lack of compassion.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010