An Explanation For Why People Are Attracted To Conspiracy Theories

Back in March, Rachel Maddow was on the Daily Show and said something about conspiracy theories that I think is quite profound:


Thought of this way, a conspiracy theory is simply another way to avoid the hard work of grappling with an issue’s complexity, its true field of connections. A conspiracy theory is a form of pseudo-complexity.

And conspiracy literally means “to breath together,” suggesting the action, not of a material field, but of a spiritual field—a field of autonomous actors moving the world.

This strikes me as hinting at a link between conspiracy and too-simplistic notions of the self. There are groups of people—theologians and devotees of Ayn Rand are among them—who treat the self as a straightforward and purposeful actor, autonomous and free, and capable of contra-causal actions on matter. In doing this, they tend to simply ignore the contingent and complicated field out of which the self actually emerges—the field of neurons interacting with the larger fields of culture and nature.

Theologians and Randians, positing a straightforward (and unexplained) existential actor in the world, are thus similar to conspiracy theorists positing a simple group of conspirators as explanation for historical phenomena: both replace dynamic entities interacting in a complex field with a singular and autonomous actor or small collection of actors, in perfect possession of themselves, acting at will.

I make this observation not to dismiss all conspiracy theories out-of-hand, nor to diss the self and free will as illusions, but to note (as push-back against those who don’t tend to note it) that all things, great and small, are layered and puzzling, and therefore interesting. We don’t need false and simplistic theories to make things interesting; we need true explanations. And the truth tends to be complex and interesting.

Speaking of the tensions between oversimplification and complexity, this brief TED clip is excellent.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to An Explanation For Why People Are Attracted To Conspiracy Theories

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Nice post.

  2. gaian says:

    check out this:

    33 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out To Be True, What Every Person Should Know…

    Conspiracy theory is a term that originally was a neutral descriptor for any claim of civil, criminal or political conspiracy. However, it has come almost exclusively to refer to any fringe theory which explains a historical or current event as the result of a secret plot by conspirators of almost superhuman power and cunning. To conspire means “to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end. “The term “conspiracy theory” is frequently used by scholars and in popular culture to identify secret military, banking, or political actions aimed at stealing power, money, or freedom, from “the people”.

    To many, conspiracy theories are just human nature. Not all people in this world are honest, hard working and forthcoming about their intentions.Certainly we can all agree on this.So how did the term “conspiracy theory” get grouped in with fiction, fantasy and folklore? Maybe that’s a conspiracy, just kidding. Or am I?

    using soundbites to discuss complex issues and events is just one example of the dumbing-down of america!

    thought-provoking post!

  3. Paradigm says:

    Looking at this from a psychological perspective, I think the similarity between Rand and Theologians and conspiracy theorists is misleading. If you look at this in terms of Jungian personality types it’s clear that the former are what’s called Judgers, meaning they simply don’t take in enough of the world and instead focus on principles, rules, values to guide them. They are anti-empirical if you like.

    The conpiracy theorists are mainly found among intuitive people who have a different form of anti-empiricism in that they focus on making connections between data and fail to accept when these connections are mere fantasies. They are actually like the Berlow in the clip above, trying to reduce large chunks of information by looking at how this information is interconnected and finding patterns that give a simpler and yet also more relevant picture of what is going on. This can go wrong if you start out with an emotional bias against some individuals or groups so you connect the dots in a way that reinforces your preconceived notions.

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