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Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft. (Photo: Public Domain)

Half of Americans Believe at Least 1 Conspiracy Theory

• April 09, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft. (Photo: Public Domain)

New research suggests the belief in unseen plots is surprisingly widespread.

Have you heard what’s really behind the shift to compact fluorescent lights? It turns out the government has mandated their use because its research (unpublished, of course) has found such bulbs make people more obedient and easier to control.

If this is your first exposure to that particular conspiracy theory, don’t fret that you’re out of the loop: It’s the invention of University of Chicago researchers Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood. In an attempt to discover just how prone Americans are to believe in unseen plots and schemes, they included it in a list of more familiar conspiracy theories as part of a 2011 survey.

Astonishingly, 17 percent of respondents reported they had heard of this fictional hypothesis, and 10 percent believed it was true. Responding to conspiracy theories that are actually circulating, 19 percent expressed the belief that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, while 24 percent agreed that President Obama was not born in the United States.

“Using four nationally representative surveys, sampled between 2006 and 2011, we find that half the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory,” Oliver and Wood write in the American Journal of Political Science.

“Far from being an aberrant expression of some political extreme, or a product of gross misinformation, a conspiratorial view of politics is a widespread tendency across the entire ideological spectrum.”

“For many Americans, complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal. A conspiracy narrative may provide a more accessible and convincing account of political events.”

Filling a surprising gap in the research, Oliver and Wood measured belief in various conspiracy theories via statements inserted into surveys conducted in 2006, 2010, and 2011. The online surveys, conducted by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, were designed to be representative of a random sample of Americans.

Participants were told of seven conspiracy theories (including the made-up one about light bulbs) and asked (a) whether they had heard it before, and (b) their level of agreement with it, on a scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

Besides the 9/11 and Obama birth certificate rumors, they were asked about theories that the Iraq War “was driven by oil companies and Jews;” that the 2008 financial crisis “was secretly orchestrated” by the Federal Reserve and “a small group of Wall Street bankers;” and that “Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents” intentionally sprayed by the government.

“Almost the entire sample in 2011 said they had heard of at least one of the conspiratorial narratives they were asked about,” the researchers report, “and over 55 percent agreed with at least one of them.”

The researchers found “relatively little overlap in agreement amongst the conspiracy theories.” Among participants in the 2011 survey who expressed agreement with least one theory, “about half endorsed just one,” they write, “and about 27 percent endorsed only two.”

Unsurprisingly, since it has adherents on both the right and left, the most widely endorsed conspiracy theory was the one that said bankers intentionally created the financial crash. It was endorsed by 25 percent of participants, and only rejected by 37 percent. Another 38 percent said they neither agreed nor disagreed.

That last figure represented one of the most startling of Oliver and Wood’s findings: Just how many people were unwilling to commit when asked if they agreed with these theories. Twenty-two percent of people remained neutral regarding the 9/11 conspiracy theory, while 24 percent were agnostics on the question of President Obama’s birth certificate.

It’s easy to assume this represents widespread ignorance, but these findings suggest otherwise. Oliver and Wood report that, except for the Obama “birthers” and the 9/11 “truthers,” “respondents who endorse conspiracy theories are not less-informed about basic political facts than average citizens.”

So what does drive belief in these contrived explanations? The researchers argue the tendency to accept them is “derived from two innate psychological predispositions.”

The first, which has an evolutionary explanation, is an “unconscious cognitive bias to draw causal connections between seemingly related phenomena.” Jumping to conclusions based on weak evidence allows us to “project feelings of control in uncertain situations,” the researchers note.

The second is our “natural attraction towards melodramatic narratives as explanations for prominent events—particularly those that interpret history (in terms of) universal struggles between good and evil.”

Stories that fit that pattern “provide compelling explanations for otherwise confusing or ambiguous events, they write, noting that “many predominant beliefs systems … draw heavily upon the idea of unseen, intentional forces shaping contemporary events.”

“For many Americans, complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal,” write Oliver and Wood. “A conspiracy narrative may provide a more accessible and convincing account of political events.”

That said, they add, “Even highly engaged or ideological segments of the population can be swayed by the power of these narratives, particularly when they coincide with their other political views.”

So to sum up: The instinctual belief that we are savvy enough to piece things together, along with the primal storytelling appeal of broad-stroke, good-vs.-evil narratives, makes many (if not most) of us susceptible to conspiracy theories—especially ones that fit our political beliefs.

Clearly, finding the light of truth—and staying in it—is more of a struggle than we realized. Especially given those suspicious new bulbs.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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