Welcome to the Season of Conspiracy Theories

Stuart Vyse

Welcome to the Season of Conspiracy Theories

The 2016 Presidential campaign is well underway, and perhaps because fear mongering is such a popular political strategy (see Donald Trump on immigration), conspiracy theories are back in season. Coincidently, several new studies have emerged to shed more light on why people endorse conspiracy theories.

In this column I’ll review some of the latest conspiracies and summarize what the new studies have to say. I begin with conspiracies of the 2016 campaign, go on to other recent conspiracies, and then look at the research.

Campaign 2016 Conspiracies

Donald Trump and Ben CarsonRepublican Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

1. Obama Citizenship and Religion

In a remarkable turn of events, Donald Trump, the most famous birther of all time, is now the leading Republican candidate to succeed the man he believes was born in Kenya. It appears that Trump is still a birther, because reporters and talk show hosts have given him many chances to clarify his position. Rather than taking the opportunity to reverse his stance, Trump has simply refused to answer questions on this topic. “I don’t talk about it anymore,” he told Stephen Colbert.

Where's the Birth Certificate Billboard

2. The Town Hall Question about Muslims was a Liberal Plant

Recently, Donald Trump did not challenge a town hall questioner in Rochester, New Hampshire who said:

“We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.”[1]

This was widely seen as an embarrassing moment for the Trump campaign, but before long, conservative sources were speculating that the questioner was a liberal plant whose job it was to make the Republican candidate look bad.

3. Donald Trump is a Liberal Plant

The mysterious town hall questioner is not the only alleged liberal plant in the campaign. Another recent theory held that Donald Trump himself, who has made donations to the Clinton Foundation, to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and to a number of other Democratic candidates, is himself a Democratic Party plant. This theory was further fueled by speculation that former President Bill Clinton urged Donald Trump to run for office. Trump quickly denied the story.

4. Vaccinations and Autism

In the second Republican debate, Donald Trump supported the claim that vaccines cause autism, and rather than advocating a reduction in vaccinations or an outright ban, he staked out the less radical position of a delayed schedule of vaccinations. Interestingly, in the same debate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson made a rather strong defense of vaccines but ended up at the same place as Trump, suggesting that too many shots are given too soon. Rand Paul (also a physician) said he supports parental choice, as does Carly Fiorina.

In the version told by liberals, the full anti-vaccination narrative is usually a conspiracy tale of the federal government and the research community under the control of profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies. So far Republican candidates—who are generally supporters of big business—have not picked up this part of the story. Instead, they have focused on freedom of choice. Unfortunately, individual freedom applied to vaccinations comes at the expense of public health.

The Google Trends graph below suggests that the Presidential campaign has encouraged Internet searches about vaccines and autism. There is a spike of searches in September that may have been stimulated by the discussion at the second Republican debate.

Google Search frequency graphFigure 1. A Google Trends graph showing the relative number of searches for the phrase “vaccines autism.” Unfortunately, the overall trend seems to be gradually upward. The large spike in searches coincides with Republican presidential candidate’s Chris Christie’s comment in February 2015 that the government needs to strike a balance between public health and parental choice.2 The smaller increase in searches at the end of the series may have been caused by the mention of vaccines in the second Republican Debate on September 16, 2015.

5. Evolution is the Work of the Devil

Ben Carson is a creationist who believes that evolution was an idea promoted by the devil (“the adversary”). This statement suggests that (a) Carson believes that the devil is a real thing and (b) he believes the devil influenced Darwin—and presumably those who have followed him—to promote the false view that God did not recreate Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We can only hope that, once his ideas become more well-known, his popularity will fall.

Other Recent Conspiracies

6. The California Drought is a Government Plot

Unless you live in California, you may be unaware that, according to a growing movement, the state’s crippling drought has been caused by a secret government climate-engineering program. In an effort to combat global warming, the government has been secretly airdropping heavy metal particles high in the atmosphere to block some of the sun’s rays.[3] This line of reasoning also includes the suggestion that the airdrops discourage rain. Such a plot may sound farfetched, but a group led by former solar panel contractor, Dane Wigington, drew over 1,000 people to a recent meeting. The video below is a report on the controversy by the Sacramento CBS News affiliate.

7. The Jade Helm 15 Military Training Exercises Conspiracy

According the New York Times, right-wing bloggers claimed that Jade Helm, an eight-week Pentagon training exercise, was “part of a secret plan to impose martial law, take away people’s guns, arrest political undesirables, launch an Obama-led hostile takeover of red-state Texas, or do some combination thereof.” Texas’s Republican Governor Greg Abbott, bowing to conspiracy fears, ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercises, which in turn made Abbott the object of satire from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. The Washington Post video below gives a flavor of the controversy.

As might be expected, the exercises concluded quietly in September without a government takeover of Texas or any other state, but those who believe in the conspiracy probably attribute that outcome to Governor Abbott’s get-tough approach.

John StewartPhoto from Flickr.

8. September 11 was an Inside Job

Every anniversary of September 11 is marked by increased activity of “911 truth” groups, and 2015 was no different. This year the group Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth (AE911Truth) published a new fifty-page booklet called “Beyond Misinformation: What Science Says About the Destruction of World Trade Center Buildings 1, 2, and 7.” The group also released a film entitled “Firefighters, Architects & Engineers,” which premiered in Manhattan on the evening of September 11. To further mark the anniversary, AE911Truth posted a message critical of the New York Times coverage of 9/11 on a billboard across from the New York Times building.[4] It is clear this conspiracy theory—now over a decade old—will not die soon.

Figure 2. Google Trends graph of searches for the phrase “911 truth.” The trend has been downward over the last six years, but there is an annual increase in searches in September.

9. All Mass Shootings are Hoaxes

As I was finishing this column, America suffered its latest mass shooting, this time at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where nine people were killed and nine others wounded. Among the stories that emerged from this incident was the news that John Hanlin, the Sheriff whose department was investigating the tragedy, was himself a strong pro-gun advocate and, apparently, a conspiracy theorist. Until it was removed the day after the Umpqua tragedy, Hanlin’s personal Facebook page featured a link to a YouTube video presenting the view that the U.S. federal government orchestrated the Sandy Hook tragedy. Hanlin has subsequently denied being a Sandy Hook “truther.”

More important than Sheriff Hanlin’s individual beliefs is the larger pattern of conspiratorial thinking surrounding mass shootings. There are now many conspiracy theorists active on YouTube who respond rapidly to each new shooting in an effort to prove it was a hoax or a “False Flag” operation in which the true culprits adopt another identity for strategic purposes. As I wrote this, three days after the tragedy, searching YouTube with the phrase “Oregon shooting hoax” brought up at least half a dozen videos that had already been posted asserting that the Umpqua tragedy was staged by actors and had never really happened. One of these Oregon hoax videos already had over 70,000 views, and another video by the same YouTuber managed to blend Sheriff Hanlin’s pro-gun views into a conspiracy about the Umpqua Community College shooting. Everything is fodder for a good theory, and the truth is out there if you just take a look.

Youtube hoax video screenshotScreenshot of one of many YouTube videos claiming the Oregon shooting was a hoax.

Of course, Umpqua Community College was not an isolated incident. According to this YouTube subculture, virtually every highly publicized shooting in America has been a hoax conducted by the federal government for the purpose of “taking away our guns.”

The Latest Conspiracy Theory Research

Before going on much further, I should acknowledge that conspiracies sometimes do happen. The most plausible explanation for the attacks of September 11, 2001 involves a conspiracy of over twenty people and the hijacking of four airplanes at approximately the same time on the same day. Much earlier in history, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a conspiratorial plot (“Et tu, Brute?”).

But the principle of parsimony—that a simple explanation is better than a more elaborate one—is an important test for anyone evaluating claims of conspiracies. For example, the 911 Truth community has concentrated its efforts on debunking the “official” explanation. The most common Truther theory is that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job,” devised and undertaken by the administration of President George W. Bush to create a justification for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This alternative theory—which is never described in detail—overlooks many facts in evidence and fails the test of parsimony. The “inside job” scenario would have required many more actors and moving pieces than the standard account. Truthers have yet to offer a more parsimonious alternative explanation of the events.

Contemporary conspiracy theorists also manage to avoid following the causal chain of their own theories. The controlled demolition conspiracy theory of the attacks of September 11, 2001 assumes that many explosives were obtained and placed in the buildings and that arrangements were made for the airplanes to crash into the World Trade Center. Yet no paper trail of this account has been discovered and none of the many people required to carry it out has ever been identified or come forward. There is no Edward Snowden of 9/11. It seems unlikely such a conspiracy would remain so carefully guarded under such intense scrutiny, but conspiracy theorists enjoy the privileged position of being able to use innuendo to attack the standard account, without the need to spell out a full scenario.

Randomness and Conspiracy Belief

Meanwhile in the real world of science, there has been some interesting new work on conspiracy belief. One of the commonly stated explanations for belief in conspiracies is a propensity to believe, “Nothing happens by accident.” Conspiracy believers see a pattern where there is no pattern, so it stands to reason that, when confronted with a random sequence of coin flips, conspiracy-prone individuals would be more likely to see some manner of order in the haze of randomness. Furthermore, other research has shown that people who believe in the paranormal have difficulty recognizing or producing random patterns. Finally, people who hold paranormal beliefs are also more likely to endorse conspiracies. So by triangulation it stands to reason that conspiracy believers would see patterns in random processes, too.

This was exactly the thinking that led three European researchers to conduct a study called “Nothing Happens by Accident, Or Does It?” published in Psychological Science in September.[5] However, as often happens in research, the authors’ hypothesis was not supported. The investigators examined whether the ability to detect truly random sequences was related to belief in larger general conspiracies (e.g., “The government is involved in the murder of innocent citizens and/or well-known public figures, and keeps this a secret”), as well as belief in more specific conspiracies, such as those associated with President Kennedy’s assassination and the attacks of 9/11.

In something of a surprise, three different experiments failed to find a connection between the ability to correctly perceive randomness and belief in conspiracies. The authors speculate that a tendency to see patterns rather than randomness may be an outcome of conspiracy belief, rather than a cause. I think it is also possible that the random coin-flip test the authors chose may be too abstract to be connected to this kind of belief system. It may be that, once you have a fixed belief, confirmation bias sets in with respect to anything remotely connected to the belief. But your view of abstract sequences of ones and zeros may be unaffected.

Uncertain Emotions Encourage Conspiracy Belief

Conspiracy theories are often said to be fueled by fear, but a recent study by Jennifer Whitson, Adam Galinsky, and Aaron Kay in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that the direction of the emotion—positive versus negative—is less important than whether the emotion stimulates feelings of uncertainty. The authors hypothesized that emotions such as hope and fear are of opposite directions, but both involve some uncertainty about the future. In contrast, anger and happiness are in the present and, therefore, more certain. They further hypothesized that uncertain emotions—regardless of whether they are positive or negative—would stimulate greater belief in conspiracies.

To test this idea, the researchers first assigned people to different groups and asked them to remember a time when they had experienced a positive or negative emotion that was either certain (e.g., anger/happiness) or uncertain (e.g., fear/hope). Then they asked the participants about a scenario in which an employee who was up for a promotion might have been sabotaged by a coworker. People who were primed to feel an uncertain emotion—regardless of whether it was positive or negative—were more likely to believe the employee was a victim of conspiracy. So, uncertain emotions promote conspiratorial thinking. This outcome makes sense because conspiracy theories provide certainty—a false certainty in many cases—but when life is unsettled, a false certainty is good enough for some people. The interesting part is discovering that even positive emotions can promote conspiracy thinking if they also produce a feeling of uncertainty.

It Doesn’t Help to Call it a Conspiracy Theory

A recent study by Michael Wood of the University of Winchester showed that labeling an idea a “conspiracy theory” does not deter people from endorsing it.[2] In two different online survey studies, Wood found that participants were just as likely to say they endorsed a theory if it was labeled a “conspiracy theory” as when it was simply described as an “idea.” Contrary to what we might predict, calling something a conspiracy theory is not sufficiently disparaging to dissuade people from endorsing it.


In this the month of Halloween goblins, it may seem like we are entering a new season thick with frightening conspiracy theories, but in fact, conspiracies are always in season. Unfortunately, the Internet has been a great boon to the advancement of this kind of story-making. If there is a bright side to the current situation, it is that research on conspiratorial thinking is also on the rise, so we can look forward to having a better understanding of how people come to believe these wacky schemes. In the meantime, I predict that the 2016 Presidential race and other current events will continue to bring us a steady stream of elaborate and diabolical theories about how the world works.


  1. http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2015/09/18/trump-obama-muslim-question-live-erin.cnn

  2. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/chris-christie-urges-balance-vaccination-choice

  3. http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2015/09/22/growing-number-believe-californias-drought-is-a-government-conspiracy/

  4. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/architects–engineers-for-911-truth-marks-september-11th-anniversary-with-booklet-and-film-releases-takes-aim-at-new-york-times-with-billboard-300141089.html

  5. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/09/19/0956797615598740.abstract

  6. Wood, M. J. 2015. Some Dare Call It Conspiracy: Labeling Something a Conspiracy Theory Does Not Reduce Belief in It. Political Psychology.

  7. Stuart Vyse

    Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is also author of Going Broke: Why American’s Can’t Hold on to Their Money. As an expert on irrational behavior, he is frequently quoted in the press and has made appearances on CNN International, the PBS NewsHour, and NPR’s Science Friday. He can be found on Twitter at @stuartvyse.