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America has a fascination with conspiracy theories. The JFK assassination, the 9/11 attacks, and the Apollo moon landing hoax are just a few of the theories that Americans have attached themselves to. There isn’t enough evidence to prove the conspiracies are real, but that doesn’t sway the belief that there is truth behind them. Real conspiracies, on the other hand, have evidence of proven facts to support the belief. The Watergate conspiracy, for example, was a real political scandal during Richard Nixon’s Presidential term.
Such real conspiracies help feed the belief in other conspiracy theories (Jewett, Olmsted). The need to feel important can be so great that the creation of a conspiracy theory can give an individual a sense of power. Psychological conditions such as paranoia, denial and schizophrenia can create a false sense of what is real and intensify the theory. But do you have to have a mental disorder to want the feeling of power? And is this need for power so important that a conspiracy theory must be created?
The government is a large entity that, over time, has proven it holds secrets from the knowledge of the public. One such secret is the fact that the government was poisoning alcohol during Prohibition. Knowing that they were losing the battle on prohibition, the government started poisoning industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States in an attempt to prove to society that drinking is bad for you. These industrial alcohols were regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. In the end, approximately 10,000 people died from drinking poisonous alcohol (Blum). Does this mean that the government is poisoning Americans in other ways? No, but it adds fuel to the belief that they could be. For a conspiracy theorist, that’s all they need to continue believing the government is out to harm the population.
With the amount of power the government holds, it’s no wonder people want to shift the power to themselves and create a theory of their own. In an environment where suspicion is high, conspiracy theories grow and multiply. Surely, not every story about an event is a lie. Nor is there always another answer to explain the sequence of events. However, the government has often held back from telling the complete truth. Let’s take the cover up of the Roswell UFO landing. Was it really an alien aircraft and were aliens really aboard the spaceship? Was it a secret US military operation? Regardless of the answer, something landed in Roswell, but what landed there is still a mystery.
Some Americans thrive on mystery and excitement. Others just want an answer; to uncover the truth. The search for meaning is common and may be powerful enough to lead to the first formulation of the idea. Creating a theory can feel like discovering the truth. The need for truth can be powerful enough to bring someone to believe something that may not be real. Some conspiracy theorists believe in multiple conspiracies, even when one conspiracy contradicts the other. Take the Osama bin Laden death conspiracy. One study shows that some theorists believe in the theory that he was alive when his home was raided, while also believing in the theory that he was dead before he was reportedly captured during that raid (Douglas, Sutton, Wood).
In looking for the truth, it’s possible to miss the obvious. Rational thinking becomes less important as the feeling of power grows. Everyone wants to feel important and wants others to know they can’t be taken advantage of. Wanting to know more than the mass herd gives an individual a sense of self-concept that is greater than the average person. As the self-concept grows and becomes stronger, it’s harder to accept that something that was created in your own mind and believed in could be false. With conspiracy theories being hard to prove and/or disprove, conspiracy theorists can hold onto the power of knowing something no one else does, thus improving upon their own self-concept.
Most individuals have a need for wanting control in their lives, and having power over yourself is a sign of having that control. I believe there are some theories out there that have some truth to them, thus giving myself control over my own thoughts and perceptions about an event. However, I still have the ability to rationally evaluate any such theories and know when there is a disconnect with reality. Going back to the Osama bin Laden conspiracies, I believe that he was already dead when his home was raided. There wasn’t any evidence released to the public proving that he was still alive when he was reportedly captured and his body was conveniently buried at sea. Is it possible that there are other reasons for the lack of evidence? Of course. That’s why they are labeled conspiracy theories, but each of these theories has a potential to produce a power gain.
Conspiracy theories are not just limited to the American population. The death of Princess Diana has sparked numerous theories surrounding her death. A French investigation found that the Princess of Wales died from an accident consistent with media reports, but that doesn’t stop conspiracy theorists from believing there was an orchestrated criminal conspiracy to end her life. One motive cited is that the Princess was pregnant with Dodi Fayed’s child. With the alleged dislike of a non-Christian within the British Royal Family, the relationship between Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, an Egyptian Muslim, would not be tolerated (Millar, Webster). Even though this event was specific to the British, Americans have found themselves invested in some of the ideas surrounding the Princess of Wales’ death. The power gain for an American is less when it doesn’t directly affect their life. If it’s not power that someone is gaining, is it a mental condition?
In a 2013 article in Scientific American Mind, psychologist Sander van der Linden of the London School of Economics argues: “There is converging scientific evidence that in some cases, conspiracy ideation has been associated with paranoia and schizotypy; conspiracist worldviews tend to breed mistrust of well-established scientific principles, such as the association between smoking and cancer or global warming and CO2 emissions; and conspiracy ideation often leads people to see patterns where none exist.” For some individuals, an obsessive compulsion to believe, prove, or re-tell a conspiracy theory may indicate one or a combination of well-understood psychological conditions, and other hypothetical ones (Boyle).
Reality plays a huge part in distinguishing a theory from just empty thought about an event. Yes, there are some conspiracy theorists that have a mental disorder that is contributing to the formation of their theories. However, the average person can create a theory just based on facts and rational thought. The need for power is common among human beings. To feel like someone or something is trying to make you think a certain way, it is likely that you will want evidence to support their message. Having a mental disorder only provides one reason a person may create a conspiracy theory. Not wanting your thoughts controlled by someone or something else is another. An individual doesn’t need to have a mental disorder or even a strong sense of power to create and/or believe in a conspiracy theory. The ability to think on your own is enough.
Blum, Deborah (2010-02-19). “The Chemist’s War: The Little-told Story of how the U.S. Government Poisoned Alcohol During Prohibition with Deadly Consequences”. Slate. Retrieved 2013-11-07. Boyle, Lance; Truthers: the Mental Health Headache, The Westminster Journal, December 27, 2007. Jewett, Robert; John Shelton Lawrence (2004) Captain America and the crusade against evil: the dilemma of zealous nationalism Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing p. 206. Olmsted, Kathryn S. (2011) Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 Oxford University Press p. 8 “The detail of the investigation into the claims of pregnancy and the nature of her relationship with Dodi Fayed are in Chapter 1 of the Operation Paget report” (PDF). Metropolitan Police. Retrieved 2 November 2010 “Top 5 New Diseases: Media Induced Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (MIPTSD),” The New Disease: A Journal of Narrative Pathology 2 (2004). Retrieved 7 June 2005. van der Linden, Sander (2013). “What a Hoax”. Scientific American Mind. 24(4): 41–43. Webster, Paul; Stuart Millar “Diana verdict sparks Fayed appeal”, The Guardian, 4 September 1999 Wood, Michael J.; Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton (2012-01-25). “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories” (PDF). Social Psychological and Personality Science. Retrieved 8 February 2012. Young, Katherine K.; Paul Nathanson (2010) Sanctifying misandry: goddess ideology and the Fall of Man McGill-Queen University Press p. 275.