The psychology of conspiracy belief
You don't have to be mad to create conspiracy theories, but it certainly helps, new research suggests.
Just believing in them indicates you are more likely to be paranoid or mentally ill, a Victoria University study shows.
Widely held conspiracy theories range from harmless ones, such as the belief that the Moon landings were faked, to more dangerous delusions such as the one in Nigeria that polio vaccines were a Western plot to sterilise people. That led to vaccination crews being murdered and thousands dying from disease.
Clinical psychologist Darshani Kumareswaran is delving in to the psychology of conspiracy belief, and has found some believers are likely to endorse far-fetched plots in an effort to make sense of chaotic situations beyond their control.
Kumareswaran, who graduated from Victoria with a PhD in psychology this week, wanted to find out what made people more likely to believe in, or come up with, conspiracy theories - and whether the process was linked to mental illness.
Avid conspiracy theorists can put themselves under intense psychological strain with their tendency towards paranoid thinking and delusional beliefs, causing mental strain even when a conspiracy theory turns out to be a verified plot.
She also looked behind the common public image of the conspiracy theorist as a crackpot.
Despite evidence of verified conspiracies, such as the Watergate scandal, the public viewed conspiracy theorists in as negative a light as they did convicted criminals, she said.
"For the label to be so negatively rated by the public is quite a powerful finding."
Study participants were asked to recall a situation in which they had no control, describe it in detail, and write it down. They were then put in a "psychological space" in which they felt powerlessness and were given 24 pictures that looked like snowy television screens.
Half featured obscured objects such as a chair or tent, the other half nothing.
Those who scored highly on a form of psychopathology known as schizotypy were more likely to see an object in the images where there was none, indicating they were more likely to make connections between unrelated things.
"I also found that someone who creates conspiracy theories is more likely to have some form of psychopathology, or mental illness such as paranoid thinking, compared to those who believe in conspiracy theories but do not create them, or people who do not believe in them at all," she said.
Psychology professor Marc Wilson said the research countered the common stereotype that people who believed conspiracy theories were characterised by extreme paranoia.
"The relationship between psychopathology and paranoia is quite weak. The really interesting thing is that people tend to assume that paranoia is a root cause of conspiracy when it isn't the smoking gun," he said.
Wayan Rosie is a member of the Fluoride Action Network, a lobby group whose critics accuse it of promoting the conspiracy theory that fluoridated water is an unsafe method of mass medication.
Rosie does not believe fluoride is put in the water supply as a form of mind control, or to keep the population docile, but he is suspicious about why it is used here when much of Europe's water is fluoride-free.
He said Kumareswaran's research rang true. "People can get hung up on these conspiracy theories and they can become paranoid and suspicious - I know lots of people who believe in conspiracy theories and they end up like that."
Vicki Hyde, former chair-entity of the New Zealand Skeptics, cited a catalogue of 2000 people whose belief in conspiracy theories had caused a catalogue of suffering including death, prosecution, imprisonment, disease and poverty.
"There's a correlation between fragile mental states and the cultural context of conspiracy theories - being paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you, but in most cases they really really aren't.
"Occasionally conspiracy theories may be true, so you need to be vigilant - but not so much that you put your mental health at risk. It needs balance."
FIVE CONSPIRACY THEORIES THAT JUST WON'T GO AWAY:
*9/11 was an inside job: This one claims the events of September 11, 2001, were part of a US government coverup orchestrated by George W Bush and his cronies. 9/11 "truthers" believe the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were a smokescreen used to justify the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, curtail civil liberties and further the interests of the military-industrial complex.
No men on the Moon: The claim that a series of manned Moon landings in the late '60s and early '70s were an elaborately staged hoax orchestrated by Nasa and other shadowy figures. Up to 20 per cent of Americans still believe the Moon landings were faked.
Paul McCartney has been dead for years: Some Beatles fans insist the Macca we know is actually a lookalike, brought into the band after the real Paul died in 1966. The clues apparently are hidden on album covers or in lyrics. The Beatles denied it. But then, they would, wouldn't they?
Pop puppets: The belief that the Illuminati - a secret elite order - uses CIA mind control methods to turn pop stars into robotic slaves. This theory holds that the likes of Lady Gaga and Beyonce are controlled by handlers and that their music videos are full of Illuminati cult imagery that primes the masses for a takeover by a Satanic New World Order.
Reptile reign: Reptilian shapeshifters control the universe from a parallel plane of universal consciousness - and they include Prime Minister John Key. Earlier this year Key's office received an Official Information Act request asking it to disprove the theory that Key was a "shapeshifting reptilian alien ushering humanity towards enslavement". It couldn't.
- The Dominion Post