Source: Wikimedia Commons, “Jonathan G. Meath portrays Santa Claus”

Rumors, Conspiracy Theories and Santa Claus???

I know you are asking yourself, what does Santa Claus have to do with conspiracy theories? Before I go much further, I want to give credit where credit is due. Cass Sunstein used Santa Claus to explain conspiracy theories and I love the analogy! Santa Claus is a fairly familiar mythical figure in American society and for some youngsters, especially around Christmas time, he is quite real. For children, their parents, their adult relatives and their teachers (All powerful persons in the child’s world) all conspire to keep Santa’s legend alive in their minds. Hopefully most of the little tykes are not worried about secret cabals on a greater societal level yet, so Santa is probably one of their first exposures to conspiracy. Of course when we think of conspiracies as adults, we are more concerned with the machinations of powerful people working behind the scenes to achieve an often nefarious or sinister objective.

Many Americans believe in conspiracy theories. Even in modern day America, the belief in conspiracy theories is alive and well. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that 37% of adults believe that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a conspiratorial plot, 23% believe that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen, 24% believe that the American government knew in advance about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but did nothing about it, 14% believe the moon landings were faked and 8% still believe that the AIDS virus was created in a CIA laboratory. If you add in the numbers of people who are undecided about these poll questions, then the numbers look even worse.

Why do so many Americans believe in unproven or, worse yet, demonstrably false conspiracy theories? We live in the information age, yet disinformation seemingly continues to thrive.

One reason conspiracy theories might get traction is the fact that some of those theories turned out to be fact. For example, President Richard Nixon was involved in the Watergate cover-up,in 1953 the CIA actually overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and the Public Health Service conducted a study on African-American males who had syphilis without telling them about their actual medical condition and without treating the patients with penicillin, even after it was known that was the proper treatment for syphilitic patients.

Another reason that conspiracy theories might take hold is because they were planted there by persons or groups eager to cause harm. For example, the conspiracy cited above about the AIDS virus came from Soviet agents during the Cold War. Operation INFEKTION was the name of that plot and the Soviet agents successfully inserted the story into news outlets that they controlled covertly. As you can see from the poll results, that conspiracy theory is still believed today by American citizens, despite the large body of evidence that shows the theory to be nothing more than damaging disinformation.

However, it is probably psychology that provides the best explanation for the continued prevalence of conspiracy theories, even the ones that seem to defy all the available evidence, logic and common sense.

A conspiracy theory is really not very different from a rumor. Rumors are simply circulated stories whose content consists of uncertain or doubtful truths. Conspiracy theories can therefore be seen as a sub-category of rumors.

During World War II, both the Axis and Allied governments were concerned about the spread of rumors in their countries. A carefully crafted rumor could become a powerful psychological weapon. For example, when a German invasion of England seemed imminent in the summer of 1940, a rumor was spread that the British military had a secret weapon that literally could set the sea ablaze and destroy the German invasion forces in a blazing inferno. The spread of the rumor was a success. A captured German pilot told his interrogators that the weapon was common knowledge amongst his squadron mates. The German High Command must have believed the rumors as well, since they conducted some unsuccessful experiments to protect their invasion fleet with flame-retardant asbestos. The British rumor had both demoralized and deceived their enemy.

In the absence of hard facts, a quite normal state of affairs under wartime censorship, rumors would be created and spread to fill that void of public information. Since those rumors could do a great deal of damage, as in the example cited above, a study of rumor itself would be valuable. In 1944, Robert H. Knapp published an article detailing his study of rumor. The article was simply titled, “The Psychology of Rumor.”

During the war, Knapp was in charge of rumor control for the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety, so he was intimately familiar with the subject matter. The popular publication, Reader’s Digest, was used to collect information on rumors from its readers and the rumors were classified by the Committee as fitting one of three rumor categories: pipe-dreams (or wish rumor), bogies, or wedge-driving (or aggressive). The pipe-dream rumors expressed wishful thinking, such as “Lloyds of London and Wall Street are betting 10 to 1 that the war will be over by autumn.” The bogie rumors arose out of fear and anxiety, such as the rumor that, “The entire Pacific Fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor.” The aggressive wedge-driving rumors typically were motivated by hatred and were actually directed at Americans, by Americans, or directed against America’s allies.

1089 rumors from all over the United States were collected and analyzed by the Massachusetts Committee in 1942. Nearly two-thirds of the rumors were categorized as wedge-driving rumors. Approximately one quarter of the rumors were fear (or bogie) rumors. This is understandable in 1942, since the United States had just entered the war at the end of 1941 and the outcome of the conflict was not certain. For that reason, it is also not surprising that only about two percent of the rumors were pipe-dreams, created by wishful thinking.

Knapp postulated that the study of rumor could be used as an “Index of Morale.” Groups susceptible to a certain type of rumor could be identified. Additionally, Knapp asserted that the volume of rumors circulating has an inverse relationship with the availability of official information that is “trustworthy and satisfying.” Finally, Knapp saw rumors as indicative of “underlying hopes, fears and hostilities of the group.” For that reason they are mirror reflections of the trend in morale. A rise in bogie rumors could be indicative of low morale and despondence. A prevalence of wishful thinking rumors might indicate a trend towards a foolhardy sense of security. An increase in wedge-driving rumors could be revealing of a “scapegoating mentality.” In essence, rumors often fill a need for cognitive closure in the human mind and the rumor story fulfills that need and is often shaped by emotions such as hope, fear and hatred.

In 1947, G.W. Allport and Leo Postman released their book, The Psychology of Rumor. Their book builds on the foundation of work provided by Knapp and the wartime rumor clinics. The key finding in the book was that the incidence of rumor is proportional to the product of the importance of, and level of ambiguity about, the topic to the persons engaged in creating and passing on the rumor. This is referred to as the basic law of rumor.

Further research conducted by others, such as Rosnow, have asserted that there are more factors involved in rumor creation and transmission. Rosnow postulates that four conditions affect the creation and circulation of rumors: general uncertainty, outcome-relevant involvement, personal anxiety and credulity. These factors seem to be refinements of the basic law of rumor. For example, it seems logical to judge general uncertainly and anxiety to be included as elements of ambiguity. Outcome-relevant involvement would seem to be linked to the basic law’s variable of importance. However, although Rosnow sees high personal involvement as a factor in rumor creation and transmission, he also believes that there is “less critical examination when outcome-relevant information is low” and that explains studies showing that some rumor were actually damaged by their level of importance, or studies that showed a greater likelihood of the circulation of inconsequential rumors. Credulity is a factor because the rumormonger might face backlash or resentment if the rumor were later found to be false. However, emotion, prejudice and stereotypes might sway a person towards finding credence in a rather dubious rumor.

In the information age, rumors and conspiracy theories now have the Internet to act as a force multiplier. Rumors and conspiracy theories can spread farther and faster than they ever could by simple word of mouth. Worse yet, there are some recent psychological studies that suggest conspiracy theories are damaging to a democratic form of government. For those reasons, it might be time to educate the public about the psychology of rumor and to improve the critical thinking skills that are necessary to ward off stories that could lead to ever-increasing and dangerous mistrust in our leaders and institutions. It is fine, in fact it is correct to challenge our leaders and institutions when those questions are based on legitimate complaints and sound logic. It is quite another thing to tear apart our democracy based on rumors and conspiracy theories. In this case I am reminded of the Russian proverb made famous by a leader I admire, President Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.”

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