I’m not into conspiracy theories, except the ones that are true or involve dentists. – Michael Moore
November 11, 2010
By Craig McKee
The human brain is a fascinating thing. It controls everything we perceive. It is the vehicle through which all information passes, the filter through which all external events are processed. We can use it to search for the truth, but it can also stop us from looking.
We believe that any opinion we might have is based simply on our understanding of the facts. Sure we all have our biases, but we’re aware of them, right?
Not necessarily. We may be aware of the obvious ones, but the subtle ways we resist facts presented to us often slip under the radar. The things that motivate us to defend what we believe to be true and to fight contrary opinions seem to have a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves.
At least that’s the contention of a recent article in the Boston Globe called “How facts backfire” (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire). This story indicates that sometimes we stick to our beliefs on a certain subject, even when the facts presented to us contradict those opinions. It cited research that indicates that once we adopt a certain view of something, we will defend that view regardless of new information coming to our attention.
Having internalized our opinion, we are very hard to budge. In fact, we often dig in and defend our original opinion even harder when contrary facts are brought to our attention. Something about self-esteem, apparently. The more comfortable we are with ourselves, the more open we’ll be to alternative views.
An example given is the idea of Iraq having had Weapons of Mass Destruction. People who were convinced they were there held on to that view even when the facts contradicted this.
Talking to people about the “terrorist” attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 is a particular exercise in analysing human nature. It tells us more about how people think than it does about what they think.
People, for example, who think their government has positive or benign motives (even if it screws things up from time to time) are more likely to defend to the death the idea that 9/11 was the result of 19 Muslim terrorists led by Osama bin Laden attacking America for ideological reasons. Those who don’t automatically believe what authority figures say are much more likely to be open to other possibilities.
A 2008 Psychology Today article entitled “Paranoia, 9/11 and the roots of conspiracy theorists” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-narcissus-in-all-us/200809/paranoia-911-and-the-roots-conspiracy-theories) is very revealing about how people react to events that challenge their beliefs.
Ilan Shrira writes that he isn’t usually inclined to believe conspiracy theories. He did, however, agree to watch the 9/11 film Loose Change on the recommendation of a friend. The result: he was engaged but not convinced.
This excerpt from the article is very telling, perhaps in ways the author didn’t intend:
“One reason I generally have trouble accepting conspiracy theories is that they’re usually based on far-fetched claims that are nearly impossible to disprove, or prove. My skepticism is further strengthened by the fact that we humans have an assortment of cognitive biases that can distort our judgments and allow us to maintain beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some of these biases include the tendency to see patterns where none exist, and to interpret new information and recall old information in ways that confirm our expectations and beliefs. However, most of the time we’re unaware of these biases and overly confident that our perceptions represent the objective truth.”
The author describes what he feels are the limitations of the perspectives of conspiracy theorists. But everything above could just as easily apply to someone who won’t accept a view other than the official story – even when overwhelming evidence indicates that the official story is full of holes.
The author’s reference to cognitive biases distorting our judgments could just easily apply to believers in the “official conspiracy theory.” And it can also be those defenders of the official story who won’t waver from their opinion “despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Exchanges I’ve had recently with people over the Internet and in person reinforce the idea that we defend our beliefs regardless of the facts.
If the official story of 9/11 included explosives being placed in the World Trade Center, many more people would be open to the idea. It’s not the fact of explosives being involved that people are so opposed to (this was proposed on 9/11 by Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and others), it’s the idea that the “good guys” put them there. They don’t like the idea, so they’ll argue why it isn’t technically possible.
I have a friend (mentioned in a previous post) who conceded every point I had to make about the flaws in the official version of the Pentagon attack. But he couldn’t accept government complicity in the attacks – even when his own interpretation of the facts left little other conclusion.
And couldn’t the use of the word “paranoid” in the headline of the article be just as easily applied to those who are suspicious of people who question the official story?
It’s very interesting to do psychological studies of why people believe conspiracy theories, but I have an idea. Let’s do some studies about why people won’t.