Friday, July 8, 2011

Conspiracy theories are easier to maintain from a distance

I have always scratched my head over conspiracy theories.  It is hard enough to get a group of reasonably intelligent people organized to run their own fantasy football league.  It would require true organizational geniuses to have carried out truly big conspiracies like the alleged conspiracy to kill JFK without somebody finding out about it at some point.  But many of the characters who are supposed to be deeply involved in these conspiracy theories hardly seem like organizational geniuses.  Yet, conspiracy theories abound.

Some research by Marlone Henderson in the October, 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin helps to explain why. 

He capitalizes on an observation I have talked about before in this blog that people think about things more abstractly when they are far away in space or time than when they are close in space or time.  In order for a group to be united to a common purpose, they all have to have the same goal.  If you think about a group close up, then you can start to think about all of the different people involved, and it is easy to realize that lots of the group members are going to have somewhat different motivations.  But if you think of the group from a distance, then these individual differences in motivation get fuzzy.  Instead, you tend to focus abstractly on the group’s mission. 

To test this prospect, Henderson asked participants to think about a group consisting of a variety of different types of people.  They had come together to work on a project.  Some of the participants in the study were told that the group was meeting in New York (where the study was conducted).  Other participants were told that the group was meeting in San Francisco.  The participants were asked to judge how united the group was toward their common project.  The group that was far away was judged consistently to be more united in their efforts than was the group that was meeting close by.  That is, people really did consider groups that are far away to be more coherent than groups that are close by.

And that is one psychological mechanism that can support conspiracy theories.  You would be hard-pressed to believe that you or your friends, or people you have met could carry out a diabolical plan without someone messing it up or letting a key piece of information slip out.  But at the same time, it seems easier to swallow that a shadowy group operating far away can somehow keep focused on a common goal and then vanish without a trace.


  1. This makes sense intuitively, but it's a slippery kind of thing. A year and a half ago as part of my PhD, I did a study where I manipulated the perceived entitativity of high-profile financiers and examined the degree to which people were willing to believe that the 2008 market crash was the result of a conspiracy by those same bankers to sabotage the financial system. Couldn't find an effect at all.

    I have to wonder if it goes more the other way - i.e. a group is suspected of a conspiracy, which leads to the inference that they must be highly competent in order to have pulled it off. Or the perceived competence might be domain-specific - it's an article of faith in the American far right that the government is too incompetent to perform the most basic functions of governance, yet at the same time is an ultracompetent cabal orchestrating massive conspiracies to take away everyone's guns.

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