It’s no coincidence that word leaked out about a poll revealing that 59 percent of Americans see a conspiracy in the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy, just as discussion of the Benghazi and IRS scandals are heating up.
Actually, it is nothing more than pure coincidence, but our tendency to see conspiracy all around us will make it difficult for President Obama to deal with these issues despite his anger at the Internal Revenue Service and his assurance that “There’s no there, there” in Libya.
More generally, in one study, half of Americans believed in at least one of seven specific conspiracy theories, and more than half thought, “Much of what happens in the world today is decided by a small and secretive group of individuals.”
Now, some conspiracies might be real (though I doubt these are) — even paranoids have enemies. Ernest Hemingway was committed to an asylum to “cure” paranoia — he believed government agents were following him everywhere. As it turned out, subsequently declassified FBI files reveal he was under surveillance, even at the asylum.
But belief in mutually incompatible conspiracy theories makes it clear that more than just cold realism is at work. The Nazis convinced Germans that Jews were both bankers and Bolsheviks. A number of people believe Princess Diana was killed by MI6, and that she faked her own death to escape the limelight — obviously irreconcilable. And some believe that Osama bin Laden was killed in the U.S. raid, but was also already dead when it took place.
Researchers present a variety of explanations for our willingness to accept conspiracies. First, conspiracists share a distrust of authority. They reject what they are told, making it difficult for presidents, or anyone else, to simply talk them out of their beliefs, regardless of the evidence. Second, they tend to believe in unseen, higher powers — views more relevant in a religious country like ours. Third, conspiracists see the world as a simple binary struggle between good and evil, lacking the ability to see shades of gray (in its pre-book meaning).
Beyond individual predispositions, broader social psychological forces increase public acceptance of conspiracy theories, one of which I have discussed here frequently — fundamental attribution error. In explaining behavior, people tend to overweight the personal and underweight the situational. They see personal motivation at work everywhere, even in accidents. Thus, Princess Diana could not have been killed in a senseless traffic accident; rather, she must have been the victim of some nefarious plot undertaken by those with a plan and a purpose. Similarly, conflicting reports in the fog of war could not, in this view, account for the Benghazi attack; somebody must have acted out of reason and forethought.
All of this suggests that with the IRS and Benghazi having become full-throated conspiracy theories, these genies won’t be returning to their bottles anytime soon, regardless of the facts.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.