Why do we embrace conspiracy theories?
May 6th, 2011
04:17 PM ET

Why do we embrace conspiracy theories?

by Fareed Zakaria, CNN

A number of you on Facebook and Twitter have been asking me about the “birthers” and “deathers” (the former question Obama’s birth; the latter question bin Laden’s death). These questions got me thinking about the prevalence of conspiracy theories in America and around the world.  Here’s what I think:

The propensity of Americans to embrace conspiracy theories has long been attributed to their great suspicion of state authority. America was founded as a revolt against centralized power and there has always been a fear of coordinated action taking place in the dark behind closed doors. American conspiracy theories implicate Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the U.S. government, the intelligence community and many others. But conspiracy theories are certainly not confined to the United States.

Pakistan is rife with them. A leading Pakistani journalist, Jugnu Mohsin (who will be on GPS this Sunday at 10am ET/PT), attributes conspiracy theories in her country to a population that feels deeply disenfranchised. There are so many double and triple games being played on them by the Pakistani military and the Pakistani establishment that it breeds conspiracy theories. The Arab world is also full of conspiracy theories and many analysts blame them on the prevalence of dictatorships.

Conspiracy theories are indeed an odd phenomenon since they are widely present in the world’s leading democracies and the world’s leading dictatorships. They can’t be entirely related to political institutions.

There must be something deep in the human psyche that makes us believe there are patterns to events – order, purpose and meaning.

The simplest alternate explanation to a conspiracy theory is usually incompetence. When people say, “Why did these things happen?” and then point to a series of seemingly implausible events, it’s usually because the government messed up. The right arm didn’t know what the left arm was doing. Government is made of human beings. They are remarkably ordinary in their ability to make mistakes.

There is also a certain amount of life which is luck, chance, coincidence and happenstance. You can’t always divine some larger pattern from the fact that two events seem related or happened in the same month. Often it is just chance.

As you see, I’m not particularly partial to conspiracy theories.

I can’t tell you how many times people ask me about the conspiracy of the Bilderberg Group. It is a conference I’ve occasionally been invited to and have attended once or twice.

If only the people who wrote the alarmist treatises on the Bilderberg Group were allowed in. They would be so utterly disappointed. It’s just a conference like dozens of others around the world. And anyway, the idea that a finance minister or a banker would say something with a group of 150 people that is any different than what he would say in public is crazy in today's world where everything leaks instantly. In my experience, they say the same fairly banal platitudes inside as they say outside.

So on the few occasions in my life when I’ve been inside centers of the conspiracy, I’ve been disappointed and relieved to find they were pretty much like the world on the outside.

Those are my thoughts. I invite you to join me on Facebook and Twitter to pose questions and continue the conversation.

Post by:
Topics: Culture • From Fareed • Reader Q&A

soundoff (761 Responses)
  1. Mark

    People engage in conspiracy theories to add meaning to their mundane lives. Conspiracy theories are more prevalent these days because of the unchecked flow of (mis)information on the internet. It's as simple as that.

    May 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  2. John Brown

    So, if you attended, you agreed to their secrecy agreement and to not to report what they discuss. So, this is more disinformation. Who says I attended "once or twice"? Well, which was it? Once? Or twice? I think you'd remember. Unless you're lying....

    May 30, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  3. MAC TIP

    Now, I respect your thoughts but,That's a bunch-o-bull & you know it. It's no conspiracy, only facts!!!! The bankers, Federal Reserve, Finance Ministers ect... discuss GLOBALISM & WORLD TERROR. These people would never say to the public what they would say in their little private "BILDERBERG MEETINGS". You should know since you've been to a couple or did you miss that part? World population control, microchiping, terror threats, war, poverty, police state, marshal law, FEMA camps, enslavement, homicide & genacide...
    Or did you miss that part too??? The Government "IS" controlled by banks & other thieves... OUR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS, OUR FREEDOM ARE BEING SNATCHED
    YA DIGG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 10, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  4. Why Man

    What about Robert Gates being at Bilderberg in violation of the logan act? So as long as the offical is high enough in the food chain he doesn't have to follow our laws anymore?

    June 11, 2011 at 7:54 am | Reply
  5. Arron Petrucelli

    I wonder if it is gonna be true? Is The Trump gonna run after president? He would gather a bunch of votes!

    July 6, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  6. Conspiracy Debunked

    I think that conspiracy theories are more active than ever thanks to more people being out of work and having the time to make up sometimes very hurtful conspiracies. Theirs an excellent article about conspiracies over at http://conspiracydebunked.com

    October 27, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Reply
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  9. Collene Mclawhorn

    There is a serious hole in the line of reasoning above.Michael writes:"In Michael Moore's worldview, a goodly portion of the American people are ignorant, uneducated, clueless pinheads too stupid to realize the fundamental principle of a loan: you have to have collateral to secure the loan!"and:"I have a much higher view of the American public than does Michael Moore."But why?Mr. Moore got where he is by praying on those "pinheads" didn't he?And isn't it pinheads who believe in all those things that Randi has been working his whole life (mostly in vain)to disprove?

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  11. Mike

    You "have attended once or twice"? Fareed Zakaria can't remember if he went there "once or twice".

    Americans are not as stupid as you think Fareed.

    Can you give us the actual number of times you attended the Bilderberg meetings?

    Was it one or two times?

    It's simple math.

    Thousands of protesters showed up at Bilderberg 2012, and CNN refused to cover it when asked by hundreds of people. CNN is controlled by the elite, and they want to start a war with Syria.

    These wars could escalate to thermo nuclear war.

    Stop with the war propaganda.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:38 am | Reply
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  12. Mike

    CNN's censorship of the mass protest of the 2012 Bilderberg meeting shows it's a corrupt news agency, working for the establishment, not the American people.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:45 am | Reply
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  16. Jim

    We believe them because they have happened, mk ultra, the manhatten project and many others.

    December 25, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  17. edelio

    no conspiracy? why don't you be specific as to what was actually said at the meetings? its only a conspiracy if it is lacking evidence. there is an abundance of evidence supporting the Bilderberg story yet not one television network gives it any attention or investigation. with all the big name people attending these meetings each year you would think that the whole of global media would be converging with helicopters and crane shots ,yet, not a peep......CNN is the equivalent of 24 hour "maury povich" media..........as I type this Anderson is reporting on toddlers and tiara's ,plus, honey booboo,,,now its time to hand of to piers morgan .....CNN is a series of real time sit coms

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  21. Alejandro

    Conspiracy theories, why do they happen? You see a pattern, you make hypothesis, you test the hypothesis, your make a conclusion. To an outsider the actions of a group of people who collaborate in some negative way relative to the outsider, and the outsider does not know the motives, or if the group is secretive, then the natural conclusion is that there is a conspiracy. Whether the group's actions are due to emergent behavior or an active conspiracy, it does not matter. The effect on the outsider is the same.

    Trends, are most likely emergent behaviors of societies, but for an outsider is may seem like a conspiracy. As an individual you have a choice of joining the trend. Most of the time we choose to participate or take advantage of a trend if it benefits us. If the trend, however is evil, in other words, exploits or harms someone, then that trend is called a conspiracy by those who are adversely affected by it. As an individual you have a choice to make. Do you join the trend? If not, do your peers pressure to join the trend? Perhaps you are not aware how the trend harms those outside your group?

    Conspiracy theorist are trying to make sense of their lives, and the events around the world. A group acting secretively or incompetently will naturally be accused of conspiracy, unless there is disclosure. If there is no actual active conspiracy from a legal perspective, the behavior still appears as a conspiracy to those being harmed. A group may be innocent of conspiracy, but the individuals are not morally excused, even if their actions are legal.

    There have been proven conspiracies in the past. There are emergent behaviors that are evil. Each individual must choose what to do. Do I act for my benefit? or do I act ethically?

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