“Don’t believe everything you hear.” This phrase has often been repeated in various contexts, from popular music to major headlines. While it is seemingly innocuous advice, this same phrase also has a darker context: People may not only choose to not believe everything that they hear, but they may also decide to believe virtually nothing that they hear. The refusal to believe in nearly everything one hears often results in a range of negative outcomes, from “fake news” to conspiracy theories. While “fake news” and “alternative facts” have dominated recent headlines, conspiracy theories have had a much longer presence, with many dating back several decades or centuries. In addition, conspiracy theories are not restricted to the most esoteric periphery of human society; instead, many people who are widely considered logical and rational often believe in conspiracy theories. In “Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories,” Maggie Koerth-Baker describes three major causes and effects related to the rational belief in conspiracy theories: belief in previous conspiracy theories, the abundance of information available, and the desire to control one’s circumstances and surroundings.
Koerth-Baker begins the article by detailing some of the wild conspiracy theories surrounding the Boston Bombings, from the brothers taking the fall for a shadowy, wealthy Saudi to the direct participation of a shadowy group within the United States government. As asinine as these theories may seem to some people, a significant number of otherwise rational people have considered these possibilities. Koerth-Baker cites Viren Swami, who argues, “the best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” and this statement represents one major cause of the ongoing belief in conspiracy theories. In other words, if a rational person sees the logic of one potential conspiracy theory, he or she is more bound to believe, at least partially, in others.
This initial belief in conspiracy theories can be attributed to the abundance of information available online, much of it misinformation. According to Koerth-Baker, one would think that the vast array of information freely available “would have helped minimize such wild speculation.” However, the opposite has occurred: As the amount of information has increased, the amount of misinformation has also significantly increased. This misinformation often helps reinforce confirmation bias, or biases that people already hold, which are then validated by other people holding the same views, regardless of how inaccurate they might be. In addition, even in cases where misinformation has been proven to be false, Koerth-Baker notes that this proof often backfires: “Efforts to debunk inaccurate political information can leave people more convinced that false information is true than they would have been otherwise.” Therefore, not only does the abundance of information cause additional validation for the belief in conspiracy theories, but the proof of misinformation can ironically give even more validation to this belief.
Lastly, when considering how irrational some conspiracy theories are, one might logically wonder how a rational person could be so susceptible to believing in these theories in the first place. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind the following: Rational people often have a much greater need to have control over everything; in other words, rational people are often used to everything in their lives going by like clockwork, and when something unexpected or unplanned happens, it deeply upsets the highly rational, logical person. Thus, conspiracy theories offer a means of giving a rational person “control,” even if the control is an illusion. Koerth-Baker cites the popular conspiracy theory regarding Bush’s involvement in 9/11, and she points out that people may believe they are more in control, which is really an illusion. Koerth-Baker also does not indicate whether a sense of powerlessness causes this belief or vice versa: “Psychologists aren’t sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa.” Nevertheless, it is not illogical to think that some people’s desire to control everything can ultimately cause their willingness to believe in conspiracy theories.
Throughout “Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories,” Koerth-Baker provides ample insight into various causes and effects. First, the preexisting beliefs in conspiracy theories often cause beliefs in other conspiracy theories in the future. Second, the abundance of information, specifically misinformation, makes it easier for people to begin believing in the conspiracy theory in the first place. Third, and most importantly, rational people have a strong urge to control everything, which means conspiracy theories provide a means of explaining the unexplainable and justifying their lack of control in a particular situation.