The Inner Worlds Of Conspiracy Believers

The inner worlds of conspiracy believers

Those who subscribe to 9/11 conspiracy beliefs are generally suspicious and inquisitive, a new study suggests.

By Bruce Bower
Web edition : 10:39 am

Shortly after terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center and mangled the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, conspiracy theories blossomed about secret and malevolent government plots behind the tragic events. A report scheduled to appear in an upcoming Applied Cognitive Psychology offers a preliminary psychological profile of people who believe in 9/11 conspiracies.

A team led by psychologist Viren Swami of the University of Westminster in London identified several traits associated with subscribing to 9/11 conspiracies, at least among British citizens. These characteristics consist of backing one or more conspiracy theories unrelated to 9/11, frequently talking about 9/11 conspiracy beliefs with likeminded friends and others, taking a cynical stance toward politics, mistrusting authority, endorsing democratic practices, feeling generally suspicious toward others and displaying an inquisitive, imaginative outlook.

“Often, the proof offered as evidence for a conspiracy is not specific to one incident or issue, but is used to justify a general pattern of conspiracy ideas,” Swami says.

His conclusion echoes a 1994 proposal by sociologist Ted Goertzel of Rutgers–Camden in New Jersey. After conducting random telephone interviews of 347 New Jersey residents, Goertzel proposed that each of a person’s convictions about secret plots serves as evidence for other conspiracy beliefs, bypassing any need for confirming evidence.

A belief that the government is covering up its involvement in the 9/11 attacks thus feeds the idea that the government is also hiding evidence of extraterrestrial contacts or that John F. Kennedy was not killed by a lone gunman.

Goertzel says the new study provides an intriguing but partial look at the inner workings of conspiracy thinking. Such convictions critically depend on what he calls “selective skepticism.” Conspiracy believers are highly doubtful about information from the government or other sources they consider suspect. But, without criticism, believers accept any source that supports their preconceived views, he says.

“Arguments advanced by conspiracy theorists tell you more about the believer than about the event,” Goertzel says.

Swami’s finding that 9/11 conspiracy believers frequently spoke with likeminded individuals supports the notion that “conspiracy thinkers constitute a community of believers,” remarks historian Robert Goldberg of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Goldberg has studied various conspiracy theories in the United States.

Conspiracy thinkers share an optimistic conviction that they can find “the truth,” spread it to the masses and foster social change, Goldberg asserts.

Over the past 50 years, researchers and observers of social dynamics have traced beliefs in conspiracy theories to feelings of powerlessness, attempts to bolster self-esteem and diminished faith in government. Some conspiracy beliefs — such as the widespread conviction among blacks that the U.S. government concocted HIV/AIDS as a genocidal plot — gain strength from actual events, such as the once-secret Tuskegee experiments in which black men with syphilis were denied treatment.

Swami and his colleagues administered a battery of questionnaires to 257 British adults, including a condensed version of a standard personality test. Participants came from a variety of ethnic, religious and social backgrounds representative of the British population.

Most participants expressed either no support or weak support for 16 conspiracy beliefs about 9/11. These beliefs included: “The World Trade Center towers were brought down by a controlled demolition” and, “Individuals within the U.S. government knew of the impending attacks and purposely failed to act on that knowledge.”

Much as Swami’s team suspected, beliefs in 9/11 conspiracy theories were stronger among individuals whose personalities combined suspicion and antagonism toward others with intellectual curiosity and an active imagination.

A related, unpublished survey of more than 1,000 British adults found that 9/11 conspiracy believers not only often subscribed to a variety of well-known conspiracy theories, but also frequently agreed with an invented conspiracy. Christopher French of Goldsmiths, University of London, and Patrick Leman of Royal Holloway, University of London, both psychologists, asked volunteers about eight common conspiracy theories and one that researchers made up: “The government is using mobile phone technology to track everyone all the time.”

The study, still unpublished, shows that conspiracy believers displayed a greater propensity than nonbelievers to jump to conclusions based on limited evidence.

“It seems likely that conspiratorial beliefs serve a similar psychological function to superstitious, paranormal and, more controversially, religious beliefs, as they help some people to gain a sense of control over an unpredictable world,” French says.

Swami now plans to investigate attitudes of British volunteers to conspiracy theories about the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London.

Well, well

I did my MA at Westminster University (Applied, Social and Market Research). Maybe I will have to contact Mr Swami.

I want to do my own on-line research among the British population. Does any one like to comment? The 9/11 Q's are at the end.

Please do that

(contact Mr. Swami) have him ring Annie Machon. Or perhaps Ray McGovern. The prick can take his pick.

it says

"The study, still unpublished, shows that conspiracy believers displayed a greater propensity than nonbelievers to jump to conclusions based on limited evidence."

How about the general public, who jumped to believe the official (conspiracy) theory based on the limited 'evidence' presented by the mass media?

I can only hope that, someday, "teams of psychologists" will look at studies like this one and will be amazed at how delusional "teams of psychologists" once were.

Yeah, this "study" is

Yeah, this "study" is pseudoscience at its worst.


All this shows is that "birds of a feather.." of course they would converse with like minded individuals.. We ALL do. What's disturbing is this part:
"Conspiracy believers are highly doubtful about information from the government or other sources they consider suspect. But, without criticism, believers accept any source that supports their preconceived views, he says."

The same goes for the general kool-aid drinking public. They'll accept any source despite the incredulity of their evidence. Such as a 47 story steel skyscraper falling to the ground in 6.5 secs, 2.5 of which were complete freefall, into a neat 4 story pile of rubble piled up in its own basement. Who would question THAT!!

peace all



I wonder if this publication is bait for a rebuttal, since the study is 'still unpublished'. Perhaps Swami anticipates a highly deprecatory response from the 9/11 truth movement, and he wants to 'analyze' this response and include it in his 'study'. In any case, this 'research' is easily debunked, and I may write a blog entry to deal with this sorry collection of fallacious nonsense.

Or perhaps, Ken Jenkins can deal with it, because it would probably be much more fun to have a psychologist challenge a psychologist, since that means the whole knee-jerk response of "9/11 researchers are clearly nuts, a psychologist says so" is void.

By the way, the link to the source is down. (Not a 404, but a page load error, indicating the server doesn't respond at all) Is the link correct?

Works for me.

Works for me.

What kind of world

is the gentleman suggesting? One in which people stop thinking and questioning? He suggests the demarcation between normal people and conspiracy theorists is a threshold of evidence. That's a judgment call. It's not a form of insanity, as he is suggesting. He mentions a single true conspiracy as a tool by conspiracy theorists to justify their skepticism. How would real conspiracies ever be uncovered without people realizing that not everything should be taken at face value?

The world he envisions is one without imagination, one without any checks and balances, one in which total faith in government is rewarded, while any questioning would be considered a mental health issue. Who would be the arbiter of information threshold, and thus, the sanity of individuals? If he truly wanted to address the information issue, he would have to present the evidence for or against whether 9-11 was an inside job and demonstrate that one side did not meet his information threshold.