April 5th, 2014
11:37 AM ET

Why we believe conspiracy theories

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By Fareed Zakaria

For those of you tired of the coverage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, I want you to try an experiment.

When you're with a group of friends – whose eyes might roll over when you even bring up the issue – ask them what they think happened to the plane. Very quickly you will find yourselves in the midst of a lively discussion – with many, different, competing theories, each plausible, each with holes.

The plane was hijacked, someone will say. But then why were there no demands? It was an accident, someone else will say. But then why were there no distress signals? This mystery of what actually happened is at the heart of the fascination with this story. And the mystery has now morphed into an ever increasing number of conspiracy theories about what actually happened that fateful day last month when the aircraft disappeared.

There are YouTube clips suggesting that aliens are involved, blog posts accusing the Iranians of hijacking the plane, and many who believe that the passengers and crew are still alive, perhaps on an island somewhere – like in the television show "Lost”.

I was thinking about some of these theories the other day as I was looking at a new book by Harvard law professor and former Obama official, Cass Sunstein. It's titled, Conspiracy Theories – and Other Dangerous Ideas. The lead essay in the book explains why conspiracy theories spread – and Flight 370 is a perfect example of his logic. Sunstein treats conspiracy theories seriously, by which I mean he doesn't assume that people are crazy to believe them.

In fact, he argues that so many people in so many countries believe such theories that we need to understand why and how.

A key condition that helps fuel conspiracy theories is a lack of information. When information is scarce, conspiracies abound. And we don't actually know a lot of things about what happened to that plane.

Now, the trend is heightened where there is distrust of politics, politicians, and people in authority. One can see that in somewhat opaque political systems like Malaysia and China. But one can also see that in the United States, a country famously distrustful of its government.

Sunstein points out that when a triggering event produces intense feelings and emotions, people – in a state of fear or rage – find it easier to believe in far-fetched ideas. An assassination like that of John F. Kennedy, a terrorist attack like 9/11, or an airline crash all tend to produce high emotions and a search for something or someone on which to put the blame.

Group-think also takes over. When the people who are affected or interested tend to gather, talk to one and other, and communicate in isolation, their convictions tend to get hardened. So, if everyone you talk to – and listen to and watch – believes that President Obama is hiding his birth certificate, you get even more sure about this secret plot over time.

But the most important, overriding reason, suggests Sunstein, is that we human beings don't like to believe that things happen for arbitrary reasons. We search for a pattern and, if we see one, no matter how implausible, we prefer that to the idea of randomness.

Sunstein points out that the philosopher Karl Popper said that human beings like to believe in intention – that an event is caused by specific human intention and action.  So we exaggerate the competence of people or governments or big banks because someone must have directed things.

Now, sometimes there are conspiracies.

But my own sense of the world is that things often happen because of mistakes, bad information and unintended consequences. Or as Hanlon's Law puts it: never attribute to malice what can be better explained by incompetence.

Perhaps the biggest driver of events is something truly mysterious – chance. Things go well or badly because of luck – sometimes good luck, sometimes bad luck – much more than we would like to admit. And the combination of chance, ignorance, and incompetence often produces something that looks like a mystery and feels like a conspiracy.

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soundoff (232 Responses)
  1. Andrey

    Conspiracy theory is great at explaining the past. The only thing that prevents it from becoming the real officially recognized theory is that it is has never successfully used to predict the future. Anybody knowing anything about theories would know that!

    April 7, 2014 at 9:33 pm |
  2. same old guy

    it all makes sense now mr. Zakaria! just like your past thoughts on marijuana in compare to lastest "present" materials... Conspirasy Theorys emarge when people start to use logic and think on their own (right side of the brain) not stting in their houses (whitch they bought on credit from big banks ) and watching tv all day (where they are fed with that load of BS!!!!!!)
    thank you

    April 9, 2014 at 7:21 pm |
  3. kaiypov


    April 10, 2014 at 11:20 pm |
  4. kaiypov

    ______________________________________________________pause the war

    My name is Emil Kaiypov. I am a citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic, a lawyer, and a father of two children. The proposal for which I am asking your kind support is the suspension of all currently existing hostilities on Earth.

    The main goal of my entire project is to save and improve the lives of children who are suffering from the present conflicts and violence.

    The challenge is to create a moment of "pause" [a technical term from video language] in hostilities now and in the future, as well as to refusal to restart them at all. I believe that in this context, such "pause" in the war action seems do-able and practical, much more effective than the idealistic and utopian pressing of an imaginary "stop" button. In the future the first action will equate to the second: "pause" will become "stop". In order to alert the international community and potential supporters, I made a demonstration of my own at 18 October 2013 on the territory of Syrian embassy in Beirut, with poster "pause the war".

    The purpose of this demonstration, is to show through an example that:

    1) one person has the power to perform an action directed to the benefit of all mankind.

    2) no one should be indifferent, when war is concerned.

    3) war requires us to drop everything else, in order to stop it. Daily activities, against the background of war, look meaningless and empty.

    I believe, that this idea will resonate and supporters will wish to join it. The age of information technologies, will help to spread it around the globe. Definitely there will be supporters among the world's famous celebrities. In the event that a large number of ordinary people and celebrities join this campaign, the dream to stop all military actions on the planet will be realized. This will serve as an occasion to announce the call for volunteers in the "international army of peace". It will consist of unarmed "soldiers" who are ready at any time, to go to the hot spot to "pause" the hostilities with the fact of their presence and to encourage the warring parties to engage in dialogue. Ideally, this army should consist of a world-famous and beloved celebrities from all spheres of human activities.

    I suggest that countries be ready to support my initiative, in solidarity, by placing on the cloth of their national flags, the well-known pause symbol "II". I believe that in the course of implementation of this anti-war action, the reasons for which the suspended armed conflict began, will be resolved or continued in a civilized manner. This anti-war action will bring about a new peaceful reality, when there will be no state left, which "international army of peace" had not visited.

    The termination of all hostilities, will become the point of departure for further continuous progress in all directions.

    We are able to bring about the time, when the world will be fairly managed by a workable international organization which will be trusted by all citizens of the earth. When this happens, all kinds of weapons will be transferred to international United Nations control, the purpose of which, will be the preservation of peace and sustainable development of mankind.

    We live in a world, when the collective effort makes possible the colonizing of other planets in the foreseeable future. I believe, that we have enough strength and resources for the child born tomorrow to see a world, where uniform international standards of education, labor, pension and medical care, will be established everywhere. A world, where the primary human needs will be satisfied for free.

    A world, where nobody talks about freedom, because absolute freedom will accompany each person from the moment of birth, to his last breath. A world, where the happiness and freedom of the individual, will not happen in isolation but will include freedom and happiness of all of humanity. A world without war.

    A world without war is undisputed goal, that sooner or later humanity will definitely reach. It is the primary duty of every adult to fulfill a "world in peace"– everyone’s childhood dream. Every child surrounded by the horrors of war dreams that one day somebody will come and say "It is enough!" and by saying it bring war to an end. Then war will stop. That day has come! It's time to combine our efforts in order to make that dream come true.

    April 10, 2014 at 11:20 pm |
    • deniz boro

      I read the first few paragraphs and that felt utterly helpless. A break in opposing forces might just save the physical (let alone mental) health of thousands of children.This is one of the human rights that all United Nation members put their signature to.But those signatures were invalidated time and time again by the actions.
      I do not have any thrust in the protection of human rights and freedoms nor democracy anymore. After the Gezi events in Turkey and the following (rather funny) elections.
      All I can say is that when the knife cuts to the bone....

      April 14, 2014 at 9:18 am |
  5. valentine donato

    maybe thats why it became a conspiracy because it was an arbitrary random reason by somebody in control that day.....

    April 11, 2014 at 12:54 am |
  6. denis heliot

    Never attribute to evil what can be explained by stupidity (especially when CNN is involved).

    April 12, 2014 at 12:33 pm |
  7. USAPeasant

    Well Ukrainian government is now attacking separatist rebels that swear allegiance to Russia. How will the Tsar respond I have little wonder.

    Now we see the true faces of many world leaders very soon, for the Game of Thrones is on once again.

    Don't do WW3 mighty globalist factions whom are merely factions within factions. Just let's keep peaceful and prosper under the Lord, by making things good and governing eachother and earth correctly, or at least turning this ship around from where its going.

    Where's those atomic doomsday clock conspiracy theoriests and where we at on the clock? We at 3 mintues? 4 minutes? However many minutes it takes to travel where and when I suppose?

    April 13, 2014 at 3:39 am |
  8. Lizzie

    How can you allow John Friedman to go on Natl.TV and tell everyone that he would be HAPPY if Putin turned off the gas to Europe. Is that what you and your liberal fried advocate, HARDSHIP.

    April 13, 2014 at 1:49 pm |
  9. Eric

    Conspiracy theories spread because the facts given in the case to the PUBLIC just DONT add up . SO people have these wild ideas that some type of cover-up is afoot . Like the fact the Airplane that slammed into the Pentagon on 9-11 could do so without a single frame of surveillance video of the tragic event . The Pentagon being one of the most secure building in the world has hundreds of video surveillance cameras on the building it's self .. Yet NOT a one captured the image of a huge 757 aircraft slamming into the side of the building that fateful day .. You know stuff like that is just the kind of fodder for Theorists to just grab a hold of .. It makes no sense it's highly unlikely and any rational person would know they ARE BEING LIED TO for some covert reason ...SO flight 370 is the same type of deal .. the Transponder was purposely turned off a new Flight Plan was entered into the onboard computer and there is no surface wreckage of the aircraft not so much as a seat cushion and what's more Search and Rescue waited until the Black Box's were almost expired to begin there PING search . Yet no one has a clue what happened to the aircraft . I for one just don't buy it ... I do believe that we are being told some real lousy cover story and the plane is indeed intact and on the ground somewhere and was hijacked for a specific purpose to fulfill a specific role in a very well thought out terrorist exercise and or plot .. Most terrorist organizations do things to be NOTICED and gain more recruits so they can justify the murder of more of there own people ...It's a sick business model but it they seem to work that way . Terrorist make STATEMENTS and kill allot of innocent people in the process , that is what they do ...So far not a peep from any Terrorist Organizations .. concerning flight 370 and that is in it's self concerning ... because it means the loss of the flight was not a end unto it's self ...We have not heard the last of flight 370....I hope I am wrong ...I prey I am wrong ..but hey we all know these bad guys ...There crazy ..Nutz ...and what's more we have no idea what's going on

    April 14, 2014 at 11:53 am |
  10. Harald Meling

    "....But my own sense of the world is that things often happen because of mistakes, bad information and unintended consequences. Or as Hanlon's Law puts it: never attribute to malice what can be better explained by incompetence..."

    Did you just explain 9/11 for yourself?

    "...Sunstein wants conspiracy advocates neutralized, using "independent groups to supply rebuttals, and by cognitive infiltration designed to break up the crippled epistemology of conspiracy-minded groups and informationally isolated social networks." In other words, destroy them by conspiring against them from within, using illegal and extralegal tactics...."


    April 14, 2014 at 7:11 pm |
  11. Unga Ramires

    Why we believe conspiracy theories
    Simple,,,,, They are like a good book or great movie that you only got to see half of...... A good theory will stimulate the mind to draw out it own "ending"

    April 16, 2014 at 7:30 pm |
  12. matt greder

    flight 370 conspiracy – the answers are not in the black box! http://studios.amazon.com/users/122885?ref_tag=twitter #User via @Amazon_Studios

    April 25, 2014 at 2:41 pm |
  13. joe

    We all have different thresholds for what can be explained as coincidences. Many people cannot face the thought of a media and government who lie about big events and then cling to the reasoning of coincidences. This will satisfy them....others demand evidence and reject multiple coincidences occurring regarding that event. Those of us who do not believe the coincidences and seek evidence must be mentally ill. FREEDOM FRIES.

    June 15, 2014 at 1:06 am |
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