The Truth is Out There... and so is a Whole Lot of Everything Else

Is Obama really the antichristWhy won’t Donald Rumsfeld admit he’s not a shape shifting lizard person? Was the Newtown massacre really a hoax? And most importantly, why do good people all over the country whole heartedly believe this kind of crap?

From Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal to COINTELPRO and MKUltra, the world is full of wild conspiracies that ultimately turned out to be true. But shape shifting reptilians controlling our planet? A secret plot by the US government to kill thousands of innocent Americans on 9-11? An invisible old man in the sky watching everything you do? People really do believe some wild things.

Boing Boing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker investigates in today’s New York Times:

While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.

“If you know the truth and others don’t, that’s one way you can reassert feelings of having agency,” Swami says. It can be comforting to do your own research even if that research is flawed. It feels good to be the wise old goat in a flock of sheep.

But then again, isn’t that exactly what a lizard person would say?