The Inner Worlds of Conspiracy Believers

Those who subscribe to 9/11 conspiracy beliefs are generally suspicious, a new study suggests.

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By Bruce Bower, Science News

Shortly after terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center and mangled the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, conspiracy theories blossomed about secret and malevolent government plots behind the tragic events. A report scheduled to appear in an upcoming Applied Cognitive Psychology offers a preliminary psychological profile of people who believe in 9/11 conspiracies.

A team led by psychologist Viren Swami of the University of Westminster in London identified several traits associated with subscribing to 9/11 conspiracies, at least among British citizens. These characteristics consist of backing one or more conspiracy theories unrelated to 9/11, frequently talking about 9/11 conspiracy beliefs with likeminded friends and others, taking a cynical stance toward politics, mistrusting authority, endorsing democratic practices, feeling generally suspicious toward others and displaying an inquisitive, imaginative outlook.

“Often, the proof offered as evidence for a conspiracy is not specific to one incident or issue, but is used to justify a general pattern of conspiracy ideas,” Swami says.

His conclusion echoes a 1994 proposal by sociologist Ted Goertzel of Rutgers–Camden in New Jersey. After conducting random telephone interviews of 347 New Jersey residents, Goertzel proposed that each of a person’s convictions about secret plots serves as evidence for other conspiracy beliefs, bypassing any need for confirming evidence.

A belief that the government is covering up its involvement in the 9/11 attacks thus feeds the idea that the government is also hiding evidence of extraterrestrial contacts or that John F. Kennedy was not killed by a lone gunman.

Goertzel says the new study provides an intriguing but partial look at the inner workings of conspiracy thinking. Such convictions critically depend on what he calls “selective skepticism.” Conspiracy believers are highly doubtful about information from the government or other sources they consider suspect. But, without criticism, believers accept any source that supports their preconceived views, he says.

“Arguments advanced by conspiracy theorists tell you more about the believer than about the event,” Goertzel says.

Swami’s finding that 9/11 conspiracy believers frequently spoke with likeminded individuals supports the notion that “conspiracy thinkers constitute a community of believers,” remarks historian Robert Goldberg of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Goldberg has studied various conspiracy theories in the United States.

Conspiracy thinkers share an optimistic conviction that they can find “the truth,” spread it to the masses and foster social change, Goldberg asserts.

Over the past 50 years, researchers and observers of social dynamics have traced beliefs in conspiracy theories to feelings of powerlessness, attempts to bolster self-esteem and diminished faith in government. Some conspiracy beliefs — such as the widespread conviction among blacks that the U.S. government concocted HIV/AIDS as a genocidal plot — gain strength from actual events, such as the once-secret Tuskegee experiments in which black men with syphilis were denied treatment.

Swami and his colleagues administered a battery of questionnaires to 257 British adults, including a condensed version of a standard personality test. Participants came from a variety of ethnic, religious and social backgrounds representative of the British population.

Most participants expressed either no support or weak support for 16 conspiracy beliefs about 9/11. These beliefs included: “The World Trade Center towers were brought down by a controlled demolition” and, “Individuals within the U.S. government knew of the impending attacks and purposely failed to act on that knowledge.”

Much as Swami’s team suspected, beliefs in 9/11 conspiracy theories were stronger among individuals whose personalities combined suspicion and antagonism toward others with intellectual curiosity and an active imagination.

A related, unpublished survey of more than 1,000 British adults found that 9/11 conspiracy believers not only often subscribed to a variety of well-known conspiracy theories, but also frequently agreed with an invented conspiracy. Christopher French of Goldsmiths, University of London, and Patrick Leman of Royal Holloway, University of London, both psychologists, asked volunteers about eight common conspiracy theories and one that researchers made up: “The government is using mobile phone technology to track everyone all the time.”