The Conspiratorial Mind

August 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I wanted to punch the guy,” said my son, a young man not given to violence. The guy in question was standing outside the 72nd St. subway entrance wearing a sandwich-board sign that said, “9/11 Was an Inside Job. Prove Me Wrong.”

We had been talking about the Birthers, and that had reminded him of this other conspiracy theorist.

It got me to wondering about conspiracy believers, specifically what they think of other conspiracists. Are they like some religious believers, whose rejections of one another’s ideas about God are so intense they can lead to mass slaughter? Or are they more like New Age religionists who allow that “there are many paths up the mountain”?

I don’t expect that the 9/11 believers also share the specific beliefs of the Birthers, though there’s a remarkable symmetry, as Brendan Nyhan shows in this graph he created with data from different surveys.

Graphed on belief in the two conspiracies, the proportions of Democrats and Republicans are mirror images of one another. And about 5% of each group accepts both conspiracies (I’m assuming that the Democrat Birthers also believe that 9/11 was an inside job; similarly for Republicans who accept the 9/11 story.)

But what about the Birthers who do not themselves believe the 9/11 conspiracy, or the 9/11 “Truthers” who don’t believe the birth idea? Are they more tolerant of other people’s conspiracy theories?

Those of us in the mainstream view both of them as wackos who spend a lot of effort ignoring reality. But do the Birthers reject the 9/11 believers as wackos, or are they generally more tolerant of any conspiracy theory? Or is this purely a partisan thing, as Nyhan implies, with each side accepting the theory that makes the other side look bad?

My hunch is that there’s a conspiratorial mentality that makes any conspiracy seem more reasonable. Conspiracists of all sorts share the assumption that “they” (some powerful cabal) are hiding the truth from the rest us in order to further their quest for political or economic domination. So a Birther seeing the guy with the sandwich board would not think, “What an outrageous and ignorant insult to the families of the victims,” as my son did, but, “Maybe he’s on to something. You never know.”

Surely there is already research on this question. It’s just that I don’t know about it. They must be hiding it from me.


Anonymous said...

there is a difference between the birthers and the 9/11 conspiracy folks... most of the polls and I believe the one cited here are asking about whether or not Bush and Co. had intelligence about the attacks rather than them actually being behind the attacks. There is evidence that Bush had intelligence that something, whatever that something was, going to happen.

Jay Livingston said...

Here's the statement that people were asked to rate on its likelihood of being true: "People in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted to United States to go to war in the Middle East."

But what I'm asking about here is not the reality, not which theory is actually more likely or more supported by evidence. I'm wondering whether those who believe in one conspiracy are more or less likely (compared with mainstream, non-conspiracy people) to reject other conspiracists as wackos.

trrish said...

I have two friends (they are brothers) in the 9/11 was an inside job movement. I am surprised that you didn't get overrun with EMOTIONAL AND IMPORTANT!!!! COMMENTS!!!! from many of them. They are usually all over an opportunity to post links....

I know you aren't talking about content. There is a documentary called "Press for Truth" that is the catalyst for a lot of people diving into that movement. If nothing else, the feds set themselves up for this theory to be born. I'm one of those people who things the feds couldn't possibly be organized enough to have a conspiracy on anything - but the 9/11 movement is at least partially the functional result of their dysfunctional communication.