30 May 2016


Rob Brotherton.  Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. Bloomsbury Sigma, 2015.

Belief in conspiracy theories is often portrayed as affecting only those people on the fringes of society, but this is incorrect argues psychologist Rob Brotherton. Rather, conspiracy theories are a natural product of how the brain makes patterns out of incoming data. We all have tendencies to link disparate things together and see patterns where there are none.
Brotherton takes a critical look at various conspiracy theories and seeks to find a common denominator. He argue that what separates them from real, established conspiracies is the lack of resolution; they are ongoing mysteries. More to the point perhaps is that what they have in common is the perception that the apparent world is an illusion, a false face. Behind the quotidian events of the world there is a “hidden hand”, a secret meaning and purpose. This is clearly a secularisation of the religious beliefs that either God or the Devil is behind the randomness of the world. Often, as I have argued before, there is a belief that there is a single malevolent cause behind life’s failures, or that all the pain, heartache and suffering in the world is due to the wilful actions of the terrible others. 

One of the appeals of conspiracy theories is that they can present arguments that deny that groups that conspiracy theorists are favourable to are responsible for dreadful events; that 'we' could not have done such a thing, so it must be the responsibility of our enemies. A classic example is the rise of conspiracy theories in the Islamic world denying that any Muslims were responsible for 9/11. 

Looking at conspiracy theories we see that they appear to divide into two types. There are the classic ones, which assert that external enemies or 'alien' ideologies are behind the conspiracy, and the newer ones which asserts that it is 'our side', usually the government that is responsible for terrible events, for example that the US government was behind 9/11 and that it was a staged operation. Perhaps such theories serve as reissuance that the government, even if malevolent, is in charge and that we are not under threat from outside sources.

Brotherton suggests that one of the features of conspiracy theories is the harvesting of anomalies, giving the example of the Umbrella Man' in the Kennedy assassination. This perhaps why people with an interest in anomalies such as UFOs and Bigfoot are more likely to be persuaded by conspiracy theories or to develop the general view that the official line - whatever that may be - is always false and that every contrarian view is always true.

Of course scepticism of conspiracy theories can go too far and there are real conspiracies, such as that surrounding the false evidence the police and authorities gave out about the Hillsborough disaster, or the infiltration of opposition groups by undercover police, who had relationships and even had children with some of their targets.
  • Peter Rogerson.

No comments: