I’ve been thinking recently about conspiracy theories, and I have a theory about them. A couple in fact. I should also note that I’ve done no research, so these theories about the theories may be either well-known and verified or obscure and unlikely.
It seems to me that there are two primary reasons that people would believe that the US government was behind 9/11, that Elvis isn’t dead, or that there were really extra-terrestrials at Roswell. They are about groups and fantasy.
The first theory is the most obvious: people want to believe the fantastic is possible. You have to excuse the slightly awkward use of “fantastic.” In common parlance the word has become a synonym for “great” or “super.” Here I intend the making real of fantasy.
Surely it’s a tragedy that nearly 3000 people were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center, but it’s hard to deny that the idea that government knew in advance and carried out the bombing of the towers is rather fantastic. To believe that such a powerful, secretive, and ultimately inhuman force exists takes at least a small jump out of reality and into the fantastic.
Some people, like myself, don’t take in fiction from the pages of books we’re too lazy to read. And these instances of the fantastic are an easy time to take the flight of fancy that one may not otherwise experience.
Another related possibility is that people can’t bare to come face to face with reality. They can’t believe that Elvis really did die, or that there really are people from countries we’ve never heard of that want to, and are able to, kill us. Because those realities can be hard to swallow, what’s substituted is the belief that that reality must be untrue. That instead some fantasy is chosen and substituted to create a more comfortable “reality.”
The other possibility works on group psychology. There is, in many ways, nothing more uncomfortable than being alone. One way out of solitude is to join in the community of conspiracy theorists.
Many believe–I think correctly–that one of the primary reasons (other than belief) that people attend a church the feeling of community and belonging. Belief in the fantastics of conspiracy theories offers a similar belonging. Belief in a theory is enough to offer the feeling of being in a selective “in” group. A group that then understands those that doubt the conspiracy as too ignorant to belong.
It’s an interesting thing, the persistence of conspiracy theories. Though the theories about September 11, 2001 are relatively young, people still seem to believe the half-decade old Roswell theory with an uncomfortable level of sincerity. And though neither of these explanations strikes me as sufficient to fully explain that fervor, it does make their persistence a little easier for me to grasp.