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Wayne McDonald

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The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

©2007 Wayne McDonald
All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with Permission


As a reader of the many essays here at World, 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 their “masters.”

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 maintain that:

• 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 citizens).

• 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 neighborhoods.

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 conspiracy theory.

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.

Table 1

Alleged Conspiracy Definitely True Probably True Don’t
Probably False Definitely False
UFO  12% 29% 11% 25% 23%
AIDS 4% 8%  10% 26% 53%
Drugs/Inner city  7% 14%  9% 29% 41%

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 conspiracy theories:

  • 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 refutation.

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 , 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 , accessed June 11, 2007.

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.

©2007 by
All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with Permission