From 9/11 to the Paris attacks, from Ebola to Isis, every major global event attracts a corresponding counter-narrative from the ‘truthers’, some so all-encompassing that they take over people’s lives. Are our brains wired to believe, as a new book argues? And could such thinking actually be beneficial?
“I remember reading about Final Fantasy VII, a movie I was really looking forward to. My initial reaction was disappointment that it was two years away – because by then we’d be under military control.” It was 2004, and Matthew Elliott was in deep. Elliott, from San Antonio, Teksas, had first been drawn to conspiracy theories when he was 19, in the aftermath of 9/11. “It seemed unfathomable that we could be attacked,” he says today. In his quest to make sense of what had happened he came across the notorious “truther” movement, a current of opinion that lays blame for the atrocities at the door of the US government.
“The way most conspiracy theories are laid out, one thing always leads to another, so from there I became convinced that a ruling group called the New World Order orchestrated everything. This would all lead to martial law and a complete removal of our freedoms,"Kaže on. A decade later, Elliott, sada 34, is a “recovering” conspiracy theorist, having turned his back on a worldview that always posits some covert, powerful force acting against the interests of ordinary people. Promjena je došla postupno, ali misli vrlo različito sada. „Ne mogu ni dobiti mnogi od 50 navodi da se dogovore o stvarima. Sretno uvjerljivi Europljani i Azijati da se na brodu.”
Reakcijska Elliott da traumom 9/11 bio daleko od neobična. Napadi su bili tako bez presedana, tako poražavajući, da su mnogi od nas borili smisla o njima. Rani izvještaji su bili zbunjeni ili kontradiktorni: kao rezultat neki tretiraju službenu verziju događaja s skepticizma. Određeni dio onih koji pak plumped za objašnjenje što bi zahtijevalo glumatanje i koordinacije na masovno.
To nas ne bi trebalo iznenaditi: to je uzorak koji se ponavlja nakon svakog globalnog udara, te u razdoblju nakon Pariza napada, to je opet uzgajali svoju glavu. Roku od jednog dana od terorističkih napada na francuskom glavnom gradu, blogovi su objavljeni tvrdeći da su rad vlade - takozvani „lažni zastava” operacija. Tvrdnje počivaju na ideji da Izida je namjerno stvaranje zapadnim vladama. Novije, odvjetnik obitelji Syed Farook, jedna od San Bernardino strijelaca, gorivo zavjerenički nagađanja kada je rekao: „Postoji puno motivacije u ovom trenutku istaknuti ili stvoriti incidente koji će uzrokovati kontrolu oružja ili predrasude ili mržnju prema muslimanskoj zajednici.”
Okrugli-the-clock pokrivenost globalnih zbivanja znači da postoji stalna opskrba krize i kaosa nam protumačiti. Priče o žice se vuku skrivene ruke su glavna osobina naše zabave, iz Specter je Blofeld na baroknoj zavjere London špijun, jedan od najcjenjenijih britanskih drama u godini, što rasplesti na spektakularan primjer paranoidnog stila. To ne znači da vjerovanje u teorije zavjere postaje sve raširenije, kaže virus Svami, profesor socijalne psihologije na Anglia Ruskin University: a istraživanja nije učinjeno još, on mi kaže, ima mnogo anegdotalnih dokaza koji upućuju na to da vjera u zavjerama ostao prilično stabilan u posljednjih pola stoljeća ili tako. Što se promijenilo, međutim, je brzina kojom nastaju nove teorije. “It’s a symptom of a much more integrated world,"Kaže on. Internet ubrzava sve gore, čime zavjere-istomišljenika pojedinci povezati i oblikovati svoje ideje. U kontrastu, 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,", Kaže ona. “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,"Kaže on. “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.”
Na primjer, 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, naravno. 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,"Kaže on.
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”. S druge strane, 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. slično, 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. A 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, zatim? Part of Brotherton’s argument is that they’re a natural consequence of the way our brains have evolved. Ne samo to, 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,"Kaže on.
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, previše. “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, previše. 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,"Kaže on. “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, stvarno. 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.”
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