As a reader of the many essays here at World Mysteries.com, I have
noticed that many of them deal with, at least in part, what are
popularly known as conspiracy theories. The issue to be addressed in
this essay will be why such theories seem to enjoy such popularity.
In its basic form a conspiracy theory involves the belief that some
events or series of events are the result of a systematic, intentional,
and usually covert attempt by the architects of the conspiracy to
prevent certain facts from becoming public knowledge. The supposed end
result of such conspiracies is practically always to promote the
concentration of wealth or power in the hands of these conspirators or
Obviously, all conspiracy theories require that there be a “villain,”
a group of “them,” who is responsible for a conspiracy which is
invariably targeted at “us.” Beyond this requirement, “generic”
conspiracy theories are usually “tailored” to specific conditions.
For our purposes, we can consider conspiracy theories to fall into
one of three general categories: obstructive, oppressive, and deceptive.
An obstructive conspiracy theory proposes the existence of a
conspiracy whose purpose is to prevent, or at least impede, some event
from occurring. An example would be a supposed conspiracy involving “big
oil” and the automotive industry to prevent the introduction of an
automobile engine that could run on water.
Oppressive conspiracies are unique in that they purport to
explain perceived social inequalities or perceived political
disenfranchisement. This class of theories is based on the previously
mentioned “them” engaged in an active conspiracy against “us.” There are
many conspiracy theories of this class circulating in contemporary
society. Some of the more widely-held oppressive conspiracy theories
• The CIA and the Air Force concealed the fact that a “UFO” crashed
near Roswell, NM and that several dead “aliens,” as well as valuable
advanced technologies, were recovered from the crash site (and that some
of these technologies have been used by the government against its
• The virus responsible for AIDS was created in a government
laboratory and then deliberately released into the black and gay
communities in order to rid society of “undesirables.”
• The CIA deliberately allowed, and in some cases was actively
involved in, the importation of narcotics to be sold within inner-city
Oppressive conspiracy theories are frequently used to both obtain and
retain political or some other form of power. The well-documented
invocation of numerous alleged conspiracies, as well as the recent
anti-Semitic ranting, of former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of
Georgia’s 4th congressional district are examples of this tactic.1
A close relative of the oppressive theory is the deceptive
conspiracy theory. Deceptive conspiracies are dedicated to
presenting the illusion that the root cause of some social, economic, or
political problem is something other than actual cause. The most
notorious use of this tactic came in the early 1930s in Germany.
Germany was in social and economic chaos as a result of the
repressive conditions set forth in the Treaty of Versailles which had
essentially stripped Germany of its economic infrastructure. When the
worldwide effects of the Great Depression were factored in, the
desperate German people were willing to literally try anything. Adolph
Hitler and the Nazi party, playing on the already widespread
anti-Semitism of the era, blamed all of Germany’s problems on the Jews.
It is not necessary to relate the tragic results of this particular
We may now turn our attention to the prevalence of contemporary
belief in conspiracy theories as well as psycho-social factors that may
contribute to such beliefs.
In 1992 sociologist Ted Goertzel2 surveyed 348 residents
of southwestern New Jersey concerning their acceptance or rejection of
10 popular conspiracy theories, including the three mentioned above.3
The results of that survey regarding the three above-mentioned theories
are summarized in Table 1.
More recently, a national survey of 1,010 adults was conducted by
Ohio University to determine the acceptance of various conspiracy
theories related to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This
survey indicated that 36% of those surveyed believed it to be “‘very
likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that federal officials either participated
in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no
action to stop them.”4
Given the number of respondents who admit believing that the four
above-mentioned conspiracy theories may be true, we may now examine the
possible reasons behind why such a significant portion of the population
hold such beliefs.
Goertzel identified three traits as being correlated with a belief in
- anomia, the respondent stated a belief that he/she felt alienated
or disaffection relative to “the system;”
- a tendency to distrust other people; and
- a feeling of insecurity regarding continued employment.
Citing Volkan5, who suggested that insecure and/or
discontented people very often feel a need for a tangible enemy on which
to externalize their anger, Goertzel notes that conspiracy theories may
serve to provide an “enemy” to blame for problems which “otherwise seem
too abstract and impersonal.” He further observes that conspiracy
theories also provide ready answers for the believer’s unanswered
questions and help to resolve contradictions between known ‘facts’ and
an individual's belief system. The latter observation seems to be
verified by the widespread acceptance within the Muslim world of the
contention that the September 11 attacks were the work of Israel, in
conjunction with the Bush Administration, in order to increase
anti-Muslim sentiments abroad.6
Surprisingly, Goertzel found that there was no correlation between
race, age, and economic status and the latter two traits. Although he
did not suggest that the two latter traits mentioned above may be
self-perpetuating (people who have experienced employment difficulties
in the past may be more distrusting of others which, in turn, may lead
to future interpersonal issues that can have a negative impact on
employment), intuitive reasoning suggests that this could be possible.
In summary, I accept the published findings and opinions of Goertzel
et al as being at least subjectively valid. Successful conspiracy
theories are those that to some degree empower the believer against what
are perceived as external forces that he/she blames for some unpleasant
or undesirable facet of their lives. In addition conspiracy theories
serve to absolve the individual of some degree of self-accountability
since, if the individual is being “oppressed” by some powerful
conspiracy, the individual’s efforts at self-advancement will always be
futile and thus become nothing more than “a waste of time.” Sadly, it
seems that conspiracy theories and their advocates are now deeply
engrained in the popular psyche and without prospects for their ultimate
And, no, I’m not part of some conspiracy against conspiracy theories.
1. Anti-Defamation League (2006): ADL Condemns Racist,
Anti-Semitic Tirades at Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s Concession Speech. Press
Release, Anti-Defamation League of the United States.” Available at
http://www.adl.org/PresRele/ASUS_12/4869_12.htm , accessed June 12, 2007.
2. Current affiliation: Department of Sociology, Rutgers
University, Camden, NJ.
3. Goertzel, Ted (1994): Belief in Conspiracy Theories,
Political Psychology 15: 733-744).
Available at http://crab.rutgers.edu/~goertzel/conspire.doc , accessed June
4. Hargrove, Thomas (2006): Third of Americans Suspect 9-11
Government Conspiracy, Scripps Howard News Service. Available at
accessed June 13, 2007.
5. Volkan, V: The Need to have Enemies and Allies.
Northvale (NJ): Jason Aronson (1988).
6. Anti-Defamation League (2006): “9/11 Anti-Semitic
Conspiracy Theories Still Abound.” Press Release, Anti-Defamation League
of the United States. Available at
accessed June 12, 2007.