Conspiracy theories ‘give illusion of control’

Conspiracy theories, such as the ones surrounding the assassination of John F Kennedy, give illusion of control. Picture: Getty
Conspiracy theories, such as the ones surrounding the assassination of John F Kennedy, give illusion of control. Picture: Getty
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IT’S what they want you to believe. Swallowing conspiracy theories can actually make you feel safer and help make sense of the world, according to new research.

The research, conducted by Goldsmiths, University of London, examined a number of famous conspiracy theories, including those surrounding the assassination of JFK and the “fake” moon landing, and concluded that coming up with an explanation, however far-fetched, can make people feel more in control of the situation. The findings, which suggest that conspiracy theories have a useful purpose, will be presented this week at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference.

“Although this is an important topic, there has been relatively little research from psychologists until recently,” said Professor Chris French, of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, a research college. “If you put people into circumstances and conditions where they don’t feel like they have any control, then conspiratorial thinking and superstitions seem to increase. Conspiracy theories give the illusion of control. In most people’s lives good things and bad things happen, sometimes out of the blue, which can make you feel very out of control. Anything that explains, or appears to explain, why things are the way they are can offer an explanation. It can also suggest it is not your fault, that it is external forces that are letting you feel this way.”

Almost every major event of the past 2,000 years has prompted a conspiracy theory, and they typically increase during times of political or societal turbulence.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 a huge number of conspiracy theories evolved that ranged from the belief that the US government masterminded the attacks to the notion that a missile was fired into the Pentagon.

“There is some evidence to suggest that some people have a tendency to want big powerful explanations for big powerful events,” said French.

“Looking at the JFK assassination, the idea that it was a lone gunman doesn’t seem to be a big enough explanation for such a dramatic event, in the same way that Princess Diana’s death was a drunk driver crashing in a tunnel in Paris.

“People think there must be more to it than that, and we are intuitively drawn to conspiracy theories.”

Another recent study suggested that conspiracy theorists frequently believe in contradictory theories.

The study found that those who believe Osama Bin Laden was captured alive are also likely to believe the al-Qaeda leader was actually killed before the 2011 raid in Pakistan.