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Conspiracy thinking, which was once played for laughs, has, in recent years, grown more ominous. Tales of UFOs and Area 52, a staged moon landing, Elvis Presley in an East Texas nursing home and men in tinfoil hats have given way to more dangerous or threatening “theories.”

These include:

  • Climate change denial.
  • False allegations of widespread election fraud and election rigging.
  • Belief in a deep state, a hidden and powerful group within the government working to undermine or control national policies.
  • Grossly exaggerated assertions of widespread and covert influence by foreign nations in domestic elections, policy decisions or public opinion.
  • Unfounded claims about COVID-19’s origins, the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and the motives behind public health measures including lockdowns and mask mandates.

Claims of false flag operations, media manipulation and the intentional spread of misinformation to sow fear and division have, certainly, moved from society’s fringes into the political mainstream.

To be sure, this country has, in recent years, been in the grip of a host of conspiracy fears. Birthers. Russian efforts to subvert elections. Chinese espionage and social media manipulation on TikTok.

In fact, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that belief in conspiracy theories has increased over time—even though it’s certainly the case that the number of books about conspiracy thinking has risen, including Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, Samuel Chase Coale’s Paradigms of Paranoia, Edward Curtain’s Seeking Truth in a Country of Lies, Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus and Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things.

Nor is there any clear-cut evidence that the less educated are more prone to conspiracy thinking than those with more education. In fact, there is some evidence that the highly educated are better able to rationalize flawed beliefs.

Conspiracy thinking isn’t confined to men in tinfoil hats with warped minds who should be confined to the metaphorical loony bin. Or to the political right. Or to xenophobes, racists and antisemites. Paranoia, misinformation and false, specious and unproven, unfounded, baseless, unsubstantiated claims transcend party and class lines. You need not to be delusional, paranoid or self-deceiving to be vulnerable to conspiracy claims.

Contrary to what Richard Hofstadter argued in his classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” conspiratorial thinking—including suspiciousness, apocalyptic language, a sense of victimhood and framing politics in terms of good versus evil—crosses partisan and ideological, as well as ethnic, racial and religious lines.

The paranoid style can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. To take just one example, political commentator David Corn’s 2022 book, American Psychosis, claims to reveal “the hidden history of how the Party of Lincoln forged alliances with extremists, kooks, racists and conspiracy-mongers and fostered fear, anger and resentment to win elections—and how this led to Donald Trump’s triumph and the transformation of the GOP into a Trump personality cult that foments and bolsters the crazy and dangerous excesses of the right.” He argues that “the Republican Party has deliberately nurtured and exploited right-wing fear and loathing fueled by paranoia, grievance and tribalism” and “has harnessed the worst elements in politics to poison the nation’s discourse and threaten American democracy.”

Isn’t it interesting (as paranoiacs might say) that Barack Obama, who is certainly among the most intelligent, thoughtful, calm, undemonstrative and composed presidents, recently released a Netflix production, Leave the World Behind, about a cabal of billionaires who have the power to disrupt international systems and are able to undermine society as we know it?

Sure, this Julia Roberts–Mahershala Ali thriller has a feel-good message: that we must count on each other in order to survive. But at its heart, the movie offers a warning that Obama has put his weight and gravity behind: that cabals exist and must be addressed if we are to remain a democratic society.

I am as attracted as the next person to conspiracy-laced novels, television shows and movies. Indeed, I’ve never met a conspiracy theory that I didn’t find intriguing: UFO cover-ups, a faked moon landing, Elvis living in Texas, the death of Princess Di and any secret machinations by the CIA. And I also love to read stories that purport to describe recent events as a product of plots, intrigues and nefarious schemes instigated by a hidden architect or mastermind or clique.

Among my most memorable early movie-going experiences was seeing The Manchurian Candidate when it first appeared, with its exploration of brainwashing, political corruption and Cold War paranoia. I, perhaps like you, reveled in such conspiracy-laced films as Blowout, Capricorn 1, Chinatown, The Ghost Writer, JFK, Marathon Man, Missing and North by Northwest.

I recently waded into the vast literature of conspiracy theorizing and encountered several recurring themes.

  1. Paranoid thinking is not confined to a small subset of the population. Paranoia, some recent studies suggest, is as common as anxiety and depression. As much as a quarter of the population harbors paranoid thoughts at some point in their lives.
  2. The appeal of conspiracy mindedness is psychological, social and cultural. In the face of uncertainty and contradictory information, conspiracy theories offer straightforward explanations for events. Cognitive bias also contributes to a propensity to search for conspiracies. Human cognition is prone to biases like pattern recognition and agency detection, where we tend to see patterns in random information and assume purposeful actions behind events.

A belief in conspiracy theories may provide a sense of exclusivity. Individuals may believe that they have access to special knowledge or truths that others don’t see. For those who distrust governments, mainstream media and other authorities, conspiracy theories provide alternative narratives that align with their skepticism. This distrust can stem from past deceptions, real or perceived, by these entities. Being part of a community that shares these beliefs can strengthen one’s identity and sense of belonging.

Times of crisis and anxiety, such as during pandemics or economic downturns, can increase the appeal of conspiracy theories, as can periods of rapid social and cultural change. Conspiratorial thinking is aggravated by social alienation, anomie, societal fragmentation and stress. It can provide a simple explanation for complex or frightening events. Conspiracy theories allow individuals to project external threats and blame others for their problems or for the world’s problems, rather than confronting more complex or unsettling realities.

  1. Sometimes conspiracy theories prove true. Some purported conspiracies are probably false. Was there a serious plan for a Wall Street putsch in 1933 to oust Franklin D. Roosevelt from the White House and install Smedley Butler as dictator? Probably not. The New York Times labeled claims of severe danger to the president a “gigantic hoax.” But other events were not figments of overactive imaginations. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Watergate break-in. CIA involvement in plots to overthrow the democratically elected governments of Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960 and Chile in 1973. All are examples of real-world conspiracies.
  2. American culture has long provided fertile ground for conspiracy theorizing. From fears of the Illuminati before the American Revolution to anxieties about Free Masonry during the 1820s, Popist plots and Mormonism during the 1840s and 1850s, and the slave power conspiracy late in the antebellum era, conspiracy thinking was firmly embedded in American popular culture during its formative era.
  3. Certain themes recur in conspiracy thinking in the United States. Anxieties over an enemy within engaging in acts of subversion. Threats posed by foreigners or a foreign power or foreign ideologies to the nation’s cultural or political integrity. Worries about internal divisions that are caused by un-American forces. These ideas have reappeared repeatedly over the course of U.S. history.
  4. The use of conspiratorial rhetoric in political discourse is often tactical. Repeatedly, U.S. politicians and propagandists have voiced fears of a self-seeking elite pursuing its own special interests at the public’s expense or a foreign power or entity intent on undermining American democracy or a monster institution engaged in abusive or monopolistic practices or a wicked, immoral, licentious or impious clique intent on undermining public morality or a group engaged in acts of subversion, dividing the nation from within. Populist rhetoric, pitting us against them, privileged elites against common folk or radical activists against a silent majority have been an inescapable element in American political discourse, a rhetorical style to mobilize voters since the 1820s.
  5. Neither U.S. society nor democratic societies are more prone to conspiratorial ideas than any other society. Conspiracy theories have been used in highly diverse societies to explain complex social and political events, often scapegoating marginalized groups or perceived enemies and reflecting broader societal fears and tensions. Examples include accusations that the so-called mad monk Grigori Rasputin exerted undue influence over Tsar Nicholas II, the claims in the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion of a Jewish plan for global domination and the “stab-in-the-back” myth in post–World War I Germany. Historian Paul Preston’s 2020 study, Architects of Terror, shows how antisemitic beliefs were weaponized to justify and propagate the Franco overthrow of liberal Spain.
  6. Even if there is no reason to think conspiracy thinking has increased over time, current circumstances do provide fertile soil for such a mentality. As Anna Merlan wrote in her 2019 book, Republic of Lies: “Our contemporary conditions are a perfect petri dish for conspiracy movements: a durable, permanent, elastic climate of alienation and resentment. All the while, an army of politicians and conspiracy-peddlers has fanned the flames of suspicion to serve their own ends.”

The rise of the internet and social media platforms has surely made it easier to access and disseminate conspiracy theories, while algorithms can create echo chambers that reinforce these beliefs. Institutions and organizations that historically provided a sense of belonging and connection, from extended families to churches and bowling leagues, have declined. At the same time, we exist in a society in which gaslighting is widespread and psychological manipulation by marketers, advertisers and influencers (who target preteen girls) is normal business practice.

Let me turn to the most indelible source of conspiracy thinking of my lifetime: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Even if you have little interest in this topic, I urge you to read Don DeLillo’s Libra, a stunning mixture of fact, fiction and speculation and, to my mind, the most thoughtful consideration I have read about how conspiracies actually work.

Yes, you’ll read about disgruntled “anti-Castro CIA agents, bitter Mafiosi, uber-weird right-wingers like David Ferrie” and the explosive yet insecure, debt-ridden strip club owner Jack Ruby. And you’ll better understand Lee Oswald and his “odyssey from troubled teenager to a man of precarious stability who imagines himself an agent of history.”

Yet the reason this novel stands out is because of its postmodernist insights into the nature of the most famous conspiracy in 20th-century U.S. history. In the popular imagination, “a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme.” It’s “everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us.” In real life, in stark contrast, DeLillo’s novel suggests, conspiracies are products of a mixture of intentionality and contingency, of careful planning, but also of coincidence, chance, accident and happenstance, of individuals with an agenda and others who are adrift, aimless and lost.

As one reader observes, “The real story of the firebrand loner, the classic lone gunman who got lucky that day in November is way more exciting and speaks deeply of the frayed disjointed America that is always seething in the background.”

In my view, the novel offers more insights into Oswald’s psychology and the social world he inhabited than any nonfiction study of the assassination. Its only nonfiction equal is Philip Shenon’s A Cruel and Senseless Act, a New York Times reporter’s scrupulously researched history of the Warren Commission’s deeply flawed investigation. As Shenon explains, the CIA and FBI carefully filtered the information that the commission staff received; Chief Justice Earl Warren withheld autopsy photographs, impeding forensic analysis and barred staff members charged with investigating foreign involvement from speaking with Communists. Also, the commission’s staff, lacking expertise and numbers, overseen by disengaged commission members, without subpoena power and under a mandate to issue a report quickly, was unable to conduct a thorough investigation, leaving in its wake a legacy of suspect doubt, distrust, suspicion and skepticism.

Any hopes of wholly eliminating conspiracy thinking are quixotic. The human mind is programmed to detect and recognize patterns—and will, inevitably, identify patterns where none exist. In situations of high uncertainty, the human brain tends to fill in gaps. Colleges can and should combat conspiracy mindedness by fostering critical thinking, providing instruction in media literacy and teaching the psychology of conspiracy theorizing.

But don’t expect these to be a panacea. In fact, there are some studies that find that highly educated adults are even more prone to accepting misinformation and conspiracy thinking than those with less education, since they are better able to “rationalize their (incorrect) beliefs.”

Ironically, the very elements that render us susceptible to conspiracy thinking—curiosity, inquisitiveness and pattern recognition—are also central to the humanities. My own discipline, history, seeks not just to recover or piece together the past, but to find direction and meaning in history. The humanities disciplines, as interpretive enterprises, seek to contextualize, analyze, elucidate, illuminate and, yes, read between the lines. Uncovering patterns can be a force for good or bad. It depends, as we hear today, on context and on our objectives.

Conspiracy thinking is a trap. It exploits people’s cognitive biases and various logical fallacies to distort reasoning. It inevitably results in oversimplification, exaggeration, finger-pointing and finger-wagging. A college education should help students resist the allure of conspiracy thinking and understand its consequences.

As the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi has written, “the best way to get an accurate picture of something is to shift analytic postures, to try to analyze the same phenomenon from multiple, somewhat incommensurate, angles.” I wholeheartedly agree. Teach your students how to critically evaluate evidence, information and arguments. Encourage them to avoid echo chambers and consider multiple viewpoints. Urge them to reflect on the emotional and psychological needs that can make simplistic ideas appealing.

These practices will not only help them avoid falling into conspiratorial thinking but will teach them how to interpret texts, artworks, philosophical arguments and history in much more sophisticated and nuanced ways.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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