Conspiracy Theories Fill a Need

Ron Unger, LCSW

May 4, 2013

While some people find their lives ruined by belief in imagined conspiracies that affect them personally – they may isolate from, or even attack, friends and family, and get diagnosed with psychosis – many other people believe in conspiracies on the basis of little evidence, yet have prominent places in society or even bodies like the US Senate.

Yet it seems clear to me that the same dynamics are often involved in both.  The recent article, Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories suggests we need to better understand the needs that are filled by conspiracy theories, and I believe such an understanding would be useful both in addressing political and social dynamics and in creating better mental health services.

One obvious purpose of beliefs in conspiracies is that they allow us to maintain the stability of our behavior patterns when we get information that would otherwise cause us to interrupt our behavior.  Sometimes of course maintaining stability can be a good thing, other times not.  If I am investing in a company for example, and someone tells me the company is about to collapse, I may suspect that the information about the imminent collapse could be simply a conspiracy to get me to sell, and decide to keep my money where it is, to maintain stability.  This will end up being a good decision if the information about the company collapsing turns out for whatever reason to have been incorrect, but a bad decision if the information was correct.

In short, it can be costly to change our minds all the time, so belief that information that contradicts what we are doing is the result of a conspiracy can help us avoid those costs.  It can also lead us to disaster when the information that challenged us turns out to have been true.

Many Democrats decided 9/11 was a conspiracy, probably because they didn’t want to get sucked into supporting costly national changes designed to confront terrorism, just as many Republicans decided global warming is a conspiracy, because they don’t want to support government regulations designed to combat it.  In each case, the conspiracy belief serves a need by providing a justification for less reactivity to a perceived threat, but also in each case, there is plenty of danger that can result from belief in the conspiracy if in fact it does not exist.

Belief in conspiracy can also help ward off bad feelings.  Maybe it’s not that the music I’m producing is bad or unpopular, it’s just that the music companies are conspiring to suppress it.  Maybe we aren’t really destroying living conditions for future generations on this planet, it’s just that environmental wackos are conspiring to make us doubt ourselves.  There’s research connecting paranoia with self esteem, and in particular with fluctuations in self esteem.

Another good reason for developing conspiracy  theories is simply to develop the ability to think independently, to remember that appearances can be deceiving.  The preponderance of the evidence may point in a particular direction, but this is not proof that such a direction is accurate:  there could be hidden factors, hidden manipulation, which led to the apparently convincing appearances.  Conspiracy theories can provide us with some alternative viewpoints, ways of thinking other than just robotically believing appearances and going along with consensus views.  Such independence of mind can be valuable, though also very hazardous if one simply slips into robotically believing in the conspiracy theory rather than just seeing it as one alternative view among a huge number of alternative possibilities, of which any one, or none, may be true.

There is also of course the need to detect conspiracies that may actually be present in our world.  Failure to look for such conspiracies can lead to giving way too much credence to systematically produced misinformation, such as the misinformation drug companies have created in order to over-promote, and to minimize the hazards of, their products.  People who are more on the lookout for conspiracies are more likely to be on the cutting edge of those who detect actual conspiracies that do exist.

Of course, people who have been betrayed in the past are much more likely to be on the lookout for more conspiracy.  This may be an advantage to them when operating in environments where betrayal is likely, but also may be highly dysfunctional when operating in environments where appearances can largely be trusted and where good allies are available if one only trusts in them.

The belief that the world is organized in the form of a conspiracy against us at least contains the notion that the world is organized:  that may seem more comforting than the notion that the world has no order, or the fear that it may have an order which is unknown to us.  If we tell ourselves we know about the conspiracy, we can feel at least somewhat in control.  Of course, if we organize our lives in response to a conspiracy that doesn’t exist, the actual effect may be to throw our lives further out of control.

Normalizing paranoia and conspiracy theorizing, looking at it as both dangerous yet also an understandable and even sometimes constructive response to normal human dilemmas, is much more helpful than the psychiatric view of looking at it as “illness.”  I look forward to the day when everyone involved in mental health will routinely be trained in such normalizing understandings, and in how to talk to people about the dilemmas we face when we attempt to discern the truth, replacing today’s unhelpful training in diagnostic labeling and narrow bio-medical conjectures.

(All of this is not to deny that some physical health or biological factors can influence how paranoid people are:  it is known that various drugs for example can increase the likelihood of being paranoid, and drugs that amplify dopamine in the brain sometimes increase paranoia, while those that block dopamine can sometimes reduce it.  Like the broader phenomena of fear and anxiety, paranoia is related to biological processes but is also way too complex to be classified as simply a biological mistake:  instead it is more like a process or strategy that may be helpful or not depending on the specific circumstances.)

Ron Unger, LCSW

Dialogues with Madness:  A therapist and educator specializing in cognitive therapy for psychosis, Ron Unger explores emerging understandings of psychosis and of efforts to change mental health treatment to support human rights and full recovery.

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19 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theories Fill a Need

  1. Who would have thought it…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_MKULTRA

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Midnight_Climax

    Note well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Ewen_Cameron

    Donald Ewen Cameron (24 December 1901 – 8 September 1967),[1] commonly referred to as “D. Ewen Cameron” or “Ewen Cameron,” was a 20th-century Scottish-born psychiatrist involved in the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) MKULTRA mind control program,[2] which CIA head Sidney Gottlieb ultimately dismissed as “useless.” [3][4] Cameron served as President of the Canadian, American and World Psychiatric Associations, the American Psychopathological Association and the Society of Biological Psychiatry during the 1950s. Notwithstanding a career of honors, and leadership in early 1950s psychiatric circles, he has been heavily criticized in some circles for his administration without patient consent of disproportionately-intense electroshock therapy and experimental drugs, including LSD, which caused some patients to become permanently comatose.

  2. Yes, the historical documentation of the existence of some very dark conspiracies is certainly one reason we can’t just assume that all conspiracy ideas are incorrect! Colin Ross wrote about having people come into his office and complain about being experimented on in very weird ways, all of which sounded like definitely delusional reports until he heard that the CIA had been actively experimenting on people in his city (see http://www.rossinst.com/military_mind_control_book.html ). Which then didn’t “prove” that the CIA was responsible for those people’s complaints, but it did raise interesting possibilities.

  3. Agreed with both. I personally do not buy into conspiracy theories in general because in most cases they are cheap attempts at denying an uncomfortable reality. Real life is more interesting and nuanced than any conspiracy could ever phantom. At the same time, it is true that historically speaking there have been actual conspiracies that only came to light years (in some cases centuries) later. So we should obviously allow people claim “conspiracy” on anything they want. To have a healthy and open society, you need to allow people to raise their objections to “official truth”. In the case of 9/11, Popular Mechanics did a great job debunking the mainstream 9/11 conspiracy theories http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/engineering/architecture/911-myths ;that was the end of the game for most reasonable people but it was very healthy to let these things play out instead of being shutdown by the government.

    Bottom line, abolish paranoid schizophrenia, in fact any so called “mental illness”, as valid diagnosis (the Tom Insel announcement that the NIMH is dismissing the DSM is having wide repercussions in social media, I think that it should be given more attention in MIA than what it is getting). For truly dangerous people, we already have the criminal justice system in which “conspiracy to commit a crime” under different denominations is already a valid criminal conviction.

  4. @Ron

    Really enjoy your site btw…

    I don’t know if you have ever come across anyone from the TI (targeted individual) community. Nothing like the schizophrenia construct. A whole different ball game. The really sad thing is that very often they do come into contact with the mental health system, however…… they tend to be excluded by “survivors” and associated groups such is the challenge they pose….sad to say. Not to mention sad all the way around.

    http://targeted-individuals-europe.com/?q=node/4

    I’m sure google will throw up similar in the U.S.

    It’s not very common, a psychiatrist could easily go through a forty year career and not come into contact with someone from the TI community. (although they tend to be quite suspicious of each other so how they manage to cope is a thing of wonder!)

    @Cannotsay

    Yes, its a pity that popular mechanics even stooped so low as to address those frankly absurd concerns…the internets democratization of knowledge is one thing but it hasn’t actually changed the laws of physics…. :-)

    Regarding NIMH from the brief…the new domain research criterion will be based on the following principle(s)…

    Quote: “Mental disorders are biological disorders involving brain circuits that implicate specific domains of cognition, emotion, or behavior,”

    imo this is just doubling the bet…it could easily make things worse…

    • “Mental disorders are biological disorders involving brain circuits that implicate specific domains of cognition, emotion, or behavior,”

      Sure, I am not under no illusions. But the silver lining is two fold: 1-) it’s an explicit acknowledgement that DSM labeling is no better than Inquisition sanctioned labeling. 2-) They are pointing to particular bio-markers as the new gold standards. Since I stand by the proposition that “mental illness” is really a metaphor, ie that there is nothing “diseased” in the brain, the effort will fail. In addition, they are giving us that the gold standard will be “bio-markers”. That’s more easy to debunk that “the opinion of DSM committee members”. They are setting themselves up for failure. Once they spend 10-20 years failing, it will be for them impossible to go back to a DSM-like world in which Inquisition-type committees decide who’s normal. These are definitely interesting times. And the opportunity to fight psychiatry is huge.

  5. To the inarticulatepoet: the “targeted individual” website was interesting to look at. I have certainly met people who felt they were “targeted” at this level. Some of the persecution experienced would have to involve large numbers of very well coordinated people, while other parts of it would have to involve technology that doesn’t exist according to what is commonly acknowledged. An alternative explanation, more likely from the viewpoint of “common sense” would be some combination of the person being biased to look at information that confirms their suspicions, and perhaps dissociated parts of the person that actively manipulate incoming information to reinforce perceptions of persecution. Whatever causes it, it is certainly a scary kind of world to live in…..

    As for the biomarkers thing, I think they really do believe they will find something substantial, but the will to find something is so strong I believe they will “find” things, or exaggerate the evidence for things, even when they are really not successful. And they will spend a fortune in the process, if they can get their hands on it at least. It will take lots of critics to continually point out the flaws in their new clothes!

    • The difference with previous scams, is that they are setting themselves up for failure. It is one thing, as the DSM does, to say, ok there is “consensus” that behaviors A, B, C and D are reflection of “mental illness” X, quite another to say that bio-marker A, B, C, D, that can be quantitatively measured, can be described a reflection of “mental illness” X. The second statement can, and will, be falsified, while there is possibly no way to falsify “consensus” like the nonsense that comes from the DSM process.

      • I agree they are setting themselves up for failure if they are to be held to the standards they are holding up – but what I think they are way too devious to just fold when they find they can’t really do it! Instead they will do things like their old routine where they find certain biomarkers are a little more common statistically in people who seem to be having problems of a certain sort, and they will decide that is a definite marker of a certain illness even though it isn’t, and the press will totally let them get away with it. Anyway, I guess it’s wait and see….

        • It’s hard to see how finding a bio-marker would change anything anyway….imagine seeing a psychiatrist when you are feeling depressed only to be told the “test” has come back negative and get told “sorry, you’re not actually depressed….it all in you head”…and so on..now what??

          The other real world effect,as you intimate, of this renewed vigor will be the way research gets reported once “results” are translated by the media for public consumption….this development can only make this currently bad situation worse…and it will redouble the researchers stake in the misreporting…..

          The whole thing reminds me of doomsday cults. When the world doesn’t end instead of taking it as evidence that they are wrong, instead they become even more fervent in their beliefs and just alter the date for Armageddon…

          • My thinking is, if they find a biomarker commonly associated with depression, they will give the condition a special name. If you come in and have depression but don’t have the biomarker, they will just tell you you must have another kind of depression for which the biomarkers aren’t found yet, and they will treat you anyway.

            So what about all the people who will have the biomarkers they find but not the condition that is supposed to go with it? For example, they have the biomarkers for that “special kind” of depression, but aren’t depressed? Well, the biomarker will indicate they are at risk for depression, so they can be treated too!

            Just this morning I found out about a proposed biomarker for “schizophrenia” which can be found by taking tissue out of one’s nose. It is already being proposed that those who have the biomarker but who don’t seem to have schizophrenia can be considered to be “at risk” and so treated. See http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/259854.php or http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=neurobiology+of+disease+shomron

  6. Wow! I told myself i was done writing on this site but this is too much of a softball to give up on. Though you make some good points regarding conspiracies and that people can become too reliant on them, that does not change the fact that there are conspiracies out there and 9/11 is one of them. For me, 9/11 is a barometer of intellectual and moral courage in the public sphere. You can be antiwar, anti-big business, anti surveillance etc., but once you say aloud that 9/11 was a synthetic terrorist event, you seriously alienate yourself from the mainstream. So if you are NOT willing to say aloud that 9/11 was, in fact, a synthetic terrorist event or at the very least say the official gov’t version is total hogwash, than i am very suspicious of your aims. Now i can sit here and rattle off the ways in which 9/11 was such an event, but will spare myself the time (for now) and effort and just implore YOU to do your own research. The myth of 9/11 speaks more to the power of mass media, how easily people are manipulated and whipped into hysteria, and self-delusion than it does about muslim terrorism.

    • Look, I don’t really have the stomach to discuss this, but seriously, this idea that 9/11 was an inside job, part of a “wide government conspiracy” does not hold any ground whatsoever.

      Muslim extremists have been known to engage in suicidal missions for longer than we can remember. We all saw on TV the attack while it was going on. More importantly, I was in the top of one of the twin towers years before the attack. Now the twin towers are no more. You seriously think that thousands of people, including survivors of the attack, journalists, TV producers, politicians from every political persuasion -who usually do not agree on anything-, foreign intelligence services, Al Qaeda itself, -which took credit for the attack- “conspired” to tell a lie? Come on!! This is what I referred to that to believe in this type of conspiracy theories you need to have a very vivid imagination and some reason to deny reality, which was much more rich and nuanced than this “conspiracy”.

      • So bc you were on top of the Twin Towers that makes the official 9/11 story true? Secondly, the government is not one monolithic entity. The government is a HUGE bureaucracy employing millions of people with different agendas, budgets etc. So is it that unreasonable for a small minority of this huge bureaucracy to take hostile actions against the US to further their own interests? It is not like GWB got a memo on 9/11/2001 saying their was going to be an attack. He probably had no idea. Furthermore, isn’t this site essentially devoted to dispelling another huge MYTH saying mental illness is a chemical imbalance and that pills are the answer? Think how many very intelligent people buy this myth wholeheartedly and how many lives this myth has destroyed. Better yet, how many people STILL believe the myth after all the evidence dispels it? Just like the current myth of mental illness must be dispelled, the 9/11 myth must be dispelled also.

        • You are making a false analogy. In fact, the whole DSM scam has never been a 9/11 type of conspiracy. DSM/psychiatry is plain old self interest. As Thomas Szasz said, psychiatry is about social control and economics. Even doing something that you know to be false just because you benefit from it does not qualify as “conspiracy” (it qualifies as corruption but no conspiracy).

          The 9/11 conspiracy theorists claim that the official version – an Al Qaeda inspired/directed plot- is wrong. That the US government, that foreign intelligence services, journalists, whiteness (including those who received calls from their loved ones flying in United 93), Al Qaeda itself, all were either fooled by the “illuminati”/”freemasons” or colluded to tell a lie. I need to have more faith to believe the “conspiracy theory” version than the official version.

          As I said, reality is more interesting and nuanced than fiction. Pre 9/11, many in the elites bought the “End of History” theory put forward by Francis Fukuyama. Western Democracy had won the ideological war against the Soviet Union and all that was left was to enjoy the rest of our lives. Successive US/foreign governments dismantled their defense/intelligence budgets. The priority of G W Bush during the first months of his presidency was “No Child Left Behind”. Other items in his agenda were privatizing social security, lowering taxes, etc. Those are the items he campaigned on. The “Clash of Civilizations” was considered a “fringe theory” by an otherwise bored Harvard academic.

          Another data point: the Wikileaks cables. The real victims of the disclosure were conspiracy theorists since they proved that the US government is the most transparent government that has ever existed. It was foreign governments and their leaders that suffered the bad publicity.

          The difference between what the US government said in public and did in private was pretty much non existent while many European governments were exposed saying one thing to their people and another to the US ambassadors.

          So there you go.

          • You make some valid points but in the interest of time, energy, and this forum let’s just leave it at that. You’re not going to convince me, and i’m probably not going to convince you. What i will say is that while the internet is still free use it to research ANYTHING and EVERYTHING but be wary. Even in the conspiracy/alternative media world there is misinformation. Later.

          • I would argue that getting eighty some percent of the public to believe that “mental illnesses” are definitely caused by known “biochemical imbalances” with psychiatric drugs as the best option for treatment, is the result of a very successful conspiracy. Lots of people had to plot behind closed doors and agree on how to put out misinformation disguised as science, they had to sideline critics, etc. They did a great job, though over the years, the holes are more apparent to the minority that might be paying attention.

            Conspiracies to make money are extremely common, but I still think they deserve the name, when they involve massive planned deception and ultimate harm to the public.

          • To me there is difference between the psychiatric scam, in which I see a lot of people working for their salaries/economic interests/power, vs 9/11 truther type of conspiracies.

            In fact, the reason we saw announcements like Insel’s, and other psychiatrists who aired similar concerns before him, undermines the very notion that there a “monolithic” conspiracy behind psychiatry akin to the type that 9/11 truthers allege. Corruption at all levels (intellectual, moral and economic) is a much better explanation for psychiatry, and, more importantly, more human and believable.

          • I definitely agree that deceptions in mental health are not a monolithic conspiracy, except for those within companies like Eli Lilly, which are more organized and fit the classic definition of a conspiracy. In the wider arena, the problem is as you say, corruption, combined with simplistic thinking by people who really want to help but can’t imagine that what seems to help in the short term may actually be making everything worse.

  7. @Ron

    Yes, that paper is littered with may, might, suggests…this gets translated into this is how it really is…as I know you know…

    The pity is that these so called peer reviewed journals are only reviewed by people who have totally bought into the thinking anyway…

    Even so…N=14….thats pathetic…how they publish this stuff with a straight face is beyond me…if it was cardiology you would be looking at N=500 and then they would be couching that in very suspect terms….

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