Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

chemtrail-conspiracy-theory

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 It turns out the government has mandated their use because its research (unpublished, of course) has found such bulbs make people more obedient and easier to control.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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


Follow us


Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.