Why do Smart People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

This past week my parents came into town to visit. I hadn’t seen them in the six years since I’ve moved to Texas. My dad has always been super conservative and I don’t begrudge him that. I was more conservative in my youth, but as I’ve grown into my forties, I’ve become more and more liberal. Actually, I think the word skeptical is much more fitting almost bordering on nihilism. Sure I have beliefs and ideals but I also am under no illusion that there is any great force, person or movement who will swoop in and make everything better. I do realize, however, conspiracies don’t have to be liberal or conservative, they come from all directions.

This campaign year has been nothing short of insane. I’ve seen lifelong friends turn on each other, families break apart and even some relationships strained over the political differences. I have my own views on the candidates but it’s the common theme of trying to decide between dunking my face in a vat of acid or lighting myself on fire. But I digress.

So my dad was telling me about a book he read about the Kennedy assassination. For years I grew up listening to my parents and their friends give all their theories. I’ve watched all the documentaries and read some of the books myself. I read a good chunk of the Warren Report when I was sixteen for some fun, light reading.

Anyway, dad goes on to tell me about this theory of some former military special ops guy/CIA agent shot from the grassy knoll and had involvement in other possible conspiracies. I just listened, over the years he’s had different theories on various things. Mind you, I’m not trying to pick on my dad but the conversation had me thinking. I told him after working as a corrections officer for six years I saw some pretty awful things and dealt with even more awful people.

I told him my opinion on the matter is, for something of that magnitude (a presidential assassination and a cover up) there would have to be so many people involved and so many moving parts, after all this time someone somewhere would have spoken about it. One thing I learned as a corrections officer is people like to talk. I’ve seen guys who had literally gotten away with the perfect murder. That is until they bragged about it to someone in a bar, or a family member or anyone many years after the fact.

Even if the government threatened someone’s life, I’m guessing by the time they were eighty years old a death threat no longer holds as much weight. Especially when the threateners are mostly dead themselves. Someone somewhere would have run their mouth, made a deathbed confession or had a journal somewhere. And nothing like this has surfaced. I won’t describe the look he gave me but it was more confused than anything. We didn’t argue over it, I told him I could be wrong and I may very well be. It’s just that I’ve studied human behavior for a long time and this is a conclusion I’ve arrived at.

Over the past eight years under President Obama I’ve heard all kinds of wild theories. Oddly many are the same or similar to ones I’d heard about President Clinton in the nineties. Every time there is a mass shooting more conspiracies fly; false flag attack or crisis actors. Some families of victims have been inhumanely harassed by some of the more extreme conspiracy theorists. Under President George W. Bush I heard theories how he and/or Cheney were behind September 11.

So this had me thinking. Why? What makes people believe these things? What makes people even come up with them? I have my own theory on the theories. Once again I could be wrong. I’m no scientist and I did no actual study. Once again, just my own experience in human behavior.

Let’s take my dad for instance. He’s a good man, a smart man. He’s always been a man of faith. He believes in the system, he votes and pays taxes and has always worked hard. Then things happen, mayhem. Good men get killed, kids die, planes crash into buildings or a fighter blows up a hospital in another country. People like order. People like to look around and know society isn’t crumbling.

With things like twenty-four-hour news and social media, we are bombarded daily with every awful thing that happens in every corner of the world. We can either accept that we humans are horrific creatures who will destroy anything and everything in our path if given the opportunity. Or we can try to make sense of it all in our mind. For some, the best way to do that is a conspiracy.

This guy didn’t just up and decide to shoot up a school, the government sent him so they can take our guns away. Terrorists didn’t really hate us so badly that they wanted to crash planes into our buildings, our own government set it up to take us to war so they can get rich. I could go on all day with this. I truly think this comforts people. For many, it gives them some sense of purpose. Some become obsessed and driven by it which leads to the harassment of victims’ families or just calling anyone who doesn’t agree with them a “sheeple.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think for a minute our government is innocent. But government corruption is not a new thing. I’m certain it is as old as the country itself. I’d not be surprised if during the drafting of the constitution if there were back room deals and money changing hands over who gets what. And I have no doubt that no one in power today has gotten there without burying a few bodies. Perhaps not directly but indirectly at least. But once again, this is skepticism vs. conspiracies.

While I know our government is corrupt, I also know they are very inept. Of course, conspiracy theorists would say that is what they want you to think. You see? The rabbit trails can just go on forever. At best, I feel our government is opportunistic. What it all boils down to for me is this: Sometimes bad people just do bad shit. I think of the oft-quoted line from Michael Caine in The Dark Knight when he says “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” I often explore this in my horror books. Most of my characters have no real rhyme or reason why they hurt people other than the sheer enjoyment of it.

I’ve met some of those men and they are fucking terrifying. Most people cannot wrap their heads around it. Some just don’t want to accept the fact that we have monsters roaming the countryside looking for their next kill. Or that someone they may know could be a walking time bomb just waiting to go off. No, it’s easier to believe it was some elaborate government plan, or better yet all the victims were just actors and no one actually died.

Honestly, I’d love it if that were true. I can’t even think about Sandy Hook without nearly choking up. It would be amazing to find out that no kids were actually killed. But they were. A lot of them. No amount of storytelling, rationalization or conspiracy theories will make them not dead, no matter how much you believe it.