April 5th, 2014
11:37 AM ET

Why we believe conspiracy theories

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

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. Mansoor Siddiqi

    Dear Fareed,
    A relatively minor error, which we can't attribute to malice or stupidity... It's Hanlon's razor, not Hanson's ;).
    Cheers,
    Mansoor

    April 5, 2014 at 11:50 am |
    • Matt

      It's actually "Occam's Razor"

      April 6, 2014 at 10:02 am |
      • Matt

        Excuse me, I guess it could be either 🙂

        April 6, 2014 at 10:03 am |
    • Keksi

      Here is another conspiracy.

      Fareed Zakaria is member of Scroll and Key secret society,sister to Skulls and Bones.
      Also member of Council on foreigner relationships just like owners of Freescale whos employees were on plane.

      April 7, 2014 at 12:46 am |
  2. bobcat2u

    An man is terribly overweight, so his doctor puts him on a diet.

    "I want you to eat regularly for two days, then skip a day, and repeat this procedure for two weeks," the doctor ordered. "The next time I see you, you'll have lost at least five pounds."

    When the man returns, he's lost nearly 20 pounds.

    "Why, that's amazing!" the doctor said. "Did you follow my instructions?"

    The man nods, "I'll tell you, though, I thought I was going to drop dead that third day."

    "From hunger, you mean?" the doc questioned.

    "No, from skipping."

    April 5, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
    • ✠RZ✠

      Two men are fighting over a loaf of bread. They are stopped and given, not just one but, three loaves of bread each for themselves in hope of ending the violence. However, the battle resumes with even greater intensity. When stopped again and asked why they are still fighting the men say there is now six times more to fight for. So all the bread is then taken away to bring about peace. But no luck, the men immediately continue to fight with extreme rage. When stopped once again and asked why they are still fighting, each now vehemently blames the other for losing six loaves of their bread.

      April 5, 2014 at 4:57 pm |
      • mani

        both the jokes are way better read than the article itself.. the article is all fluff and no stuff..

        April 6, 2014 at 10:46 am |
    • Jeff Roem

      If I gave up my pepperoni pizza obsession I'd wither away to nothing. And excercise? Pffffft. It's all can do to heave myself out of mt BarcaLounger to answer the door for my bow chicka bow wow pizza "delivery."

      April 6, 2014 at 11:37 am |
  3. Ferhat Balkan

    We will never know until we find the black box. Even then, some questions will remain. Whatever happened, my thoughts and prayers are with the passengers' families and friends. I can't imagine what they are going through.

    April 5, 2014 at 3:39 pm |
    • Mike

      And surely 30 days is enough time for the conspirators to have altered the black box data and hoked up some fake wreckage to mislead us ...

      April 6, 2014 at 12:32 pm |
    • ergo sum

      The discovery of the black box will not help all that much, since it only records the last two hours prior to the crash. Therefore it can not reveal what had occurred to make the plane change course many hours earlier.

      April 6, 2014 at 1:58 pm |
  4. Matthew Slater

    On the other hand why do you think conspiracies don't happen? Its clear enough that there are coverups happening all the time. If the government was a little more transparent we wouldn't have to fill in the gaps with theories, would we? And who's interests are you and Cass supporting, saying that we're all mad to believe such things? Why don't you call for transparency instead and call out the crimes when they do happen and are reported in less subsidised media outlets?

    April 5, 2014 at 7:53 pm |
    • jzzz

      It does not matter if you find facts to refute conspiracy theories. Once people are invested in a conspiracy, presenting facts to them, only makes their theory more credible.

      April 6, 2014 at 10:42 am |
    • HM

      Well done Matthew, you've done really well understanding this piece.

      April 6, 2014 at 10:56 am |
  5. ✠RZ✠

    God speed to all those in relentless pursuit of bringing closure to the bereaved and tormented over the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. As publicly stated by The Honourable Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia, "We owe it to the families, we owe it to everyone who travels by air, we owe it to the governments of countries who had citizens on that aircraft, we owe it to the wider world." I hope that we can all not only acknowledge but perhaps even take some pride in the remarkable team effort and cooperation being put forth by an international coalition to find Flight 370. And though highly commendable, such efforts should not be limited only to missing aircraft, but moreover to humanity and world peace itself. So perhaps as a living legacy to those who have likely perished aboard Flight 370, let the standard of effort and cooperation by this international coalition continue forever in their names. If we, as stated by the Honourable Tony Abbott, owe so much in this one case, then surly we must owe an infinite amount more in the name of all humanity and world peace.

    April 5, 2014 at 7:54 pm |
  6. Matthew Slater

    Instead of theorising in public why people believe in conspiracies why don't we go out and get some hard evidence and start proving these theories false?
    Then you would actually have some news to report.
    No? I thought not

    April 5, 2014 at 7:57 pm |
    • jzzz

      It does not matter if you find facts to refute conspiracy theories. Once people are invested in a conspiracy, presenting facts to them, only makes their theory more credible. You are welcome!

      April 6, 2014 at 10:43 am |
  7. The GOP Solution

    The GOP Solution: Turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. Then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. And don't forget the GOP all time favorites........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!

    April 5, 2014 at 8:19 pm |
    • E

      Tuesday is Soylent Green day...

      April 6, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
  8. +RZ+

    Hi. I like pepperoni pizza. Thin n crispy.

    April 5, 2014 at 9:44 pm |
  9. The GOP Solution

    Me too, I like pepperoni pizza.

    April 5, 2014 at 9:45 pm |
  10. Mathew Slater

    Hi guys. Chrissy and banasy are my co harts.
    We just go back from papa johns. Had pepperoni pizza.

    April 5, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
    • Tony

      Try Papa Johns veggie pizzas. They are quite good.

      April 6, 2014 at 12:16 pm |
  11. Mary Jane Manzano...from Chicago

    I will retire from St. Jude Hospital as a RN in three months. So glad.

    April 5, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
    • Jeff Roem

      I need to check in to find out as a 44 year old man, I have the juvenile tendencies of a 12 year old computer troll. Can you get me in on the cheap? I don't know if my Obamacare covers voluntary stupidness and pepperoni pizza obsession.

      April 6, 2014 at 11:44 am |
  12. Zandie

    I think they crashed in an island. Few survivors. Maybe six or seven waiting to be rescued from some island like in Giligan's island.

    April 6, 2014 at 8:37 am |
  13. bobcat (in a hat)©

    I don't mean to sound so pessimistic, but most likely the plane and its occupants are under water in wreckage. I hope I am wrong, but what would be the alternative?
    So devastating and sad.

    April 6, 2014 at 8:44 am |
    • Jeff Roem

      Not even one of my better efforts at imitation. Sorry.

      April 6, 2014 at 11:45 am |
  14. George

    Every morning I turn to the news hoping to find out what happened because nobody really knows until they find it.

    April 6, 2014 at 8:49 am |
    • Jeff Roem

      Every morning I open the Times to see if if my obituary is in there. I'm disappointed every day, so I come on to CNN to steal posters names to spread my bitterness.

      April 6, 2014 at 11:48 am |
  15. rupert

    I don't like to post on serious stories, and I don't wanna say what I think happened, but I think their families are going through the worst time of their lives, and it hurts to feel what they feel.

    April 6, 2014 at 8:53 am |
  16. Steve

    What a tool. What are you trying to hide and who has told you to write an article blaming the people as stupid fools that believe implausible conspiracy theories due to ignorance.

    April 6, 2014 at 9:20 am |
  17. Wood

    BS! There is overwhelming evidence proving 9/11 was a total setup. I don't beleive everything I hear, but I'm not stupid. When your government won't acknowledge simple facts, we all have a serious problem! What about the rich guy from The Carlyle Group, who made a fortune when his other partners died in that plane crash? Who's going to report that? Weren't they benefiting from 9/11 as well. Wake up!

    April 6, 2014 at 9:45 am |
  18. Bill

    The hardest thing for many people to say is "we don't know". Scientists are pretty good at it. They're in the "we don't know" business. Most other folks have a really hard time with it. In the absence of facts, extrapolating on the facts that one does have to concoct an explanation is just human nature.

    As for Americans being distrustful of government, that's only rational. Ever since governments got big enough that they could out-gun the people that they are governing, they have been generally less than trust-worthy.

    April 6, 2014 at 9:59 am |
  19. maggie

    journalists who plagiarize are not in a good position to tell others why they do what they do. they themselves are masters of fabrication. let's not fool ourselves.

    April 6, 2014 at 10:21 am |
  20. Chuck

    The Official Story being told is the Real Conspiracy

    April 6, 2014 at 10:31 am |
  21. Yora Nidiot

    ... the minute I got to the words "Cass Sunstein", I stopped reading. Faruok.. you're a muslim socialist. Please, get off CNN

    April 6, 2014 at 10:49 am |
    • Jeff Roem

      And you are an uneducated buffoon who shouldn't be allowed near your mommy's computer.

      April 6, 2014 at 11:41 am |
      • yikesboy

        Agreed. I suspect that our friend above doesn't even know what socialism is. The fact he threw "Muslim" in there indicates that he's using the same kind of intellectual rigor that allows Rush and the other ignorance peddlers to thrive.

        April 6, 2014 at 1:28 pm |
  22. Ron

    I think normal human interest is behind many events labeled as conspiracies. For example, I think there are people in the Defense industry which try to create international conflict to benefit their monetary interests. This is not a conspiracy, but normal lobbying for self interest. not for the common interest.

    April 6, 2014 at 11:20 am |
  23. Bob

    Here's what happened.
    Some nefarious group found the islands where the US abandoned several airstrips after WW2. There's dozens of them.
    So, they decided they wanted a plane. The pilots of this flight flew way up above 40000 feet, turned off life support for the passengers and killed them all, then dropped down below 10000 feet to avoid radar. At that point they had 7 hours of fuel left. They flew to one of these islands, parked the plane, and will use it in a future attack.

    April 6, 2014 at 11:31 am |
    • Wallace

      Interesting thought, though I think a plane would not be worth that much effort. There are easier means to getting a large plane, and that plane will never be able to hit civilian/military radar again without being recognized and abruptly shot down. I would theorize there was probably something on the plane worth more value than the plane itself.

      April 6, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
    • Doug

      Sad and scary, but that's what I think happened. The purported Flight 93 story shows what passengers can do if made aware of their situation, so sadly I think all the passengers are gone. The scary part is the amount of thought and planning that went in to this operation, if it turns out to be correct (even if it is never proved). Whoever is clever enough to have pulled this off certainly has a much more sinister plan waiting in the wings, literally.

      April 6, 2014 at 12:08 pm |
    • ✠RZ✠

      Better yet, the pilots' goofed up by inadvertently letting hijackers who take control of the plane, embarrassing mistake #1. Upon making their their b-line of escape they're picked up by RMAF Command who had no idea what to do, mistake #2. Taking the usual knee-jerk reaction of a terrorist plot Washington issues 562 orders to intercept and divert the jet out on a course of open water, mistake #3. After hours of failed negotiations way out over the ocean, the military interceptors realize they have to turn back or face running out of fuel. But of course the fate of the hijacked jet is now sealed. So a code Jimmy Hoffa is quickly issued to cover up the whole event and the jet disappears never to be found. But not unless the Chinese know more than they're letting on and actually recover the black boxes exposing the inconvenient truth.

      April 6, 2014 at 12:21 pm |
      • Mike

        An air refueling tanker can keep those ifghters in the air a long time.

        April 7, 2014 at 8:24 am |
      • Mike

        Fighters. sorry

        April 7, 2014 at 8:25 am |
  24. Wallace

    First of all, there's a difference between a "conspiracy theorists" that the public has been taught to hate, (by a government that has much to hide...) and those who have had no choice but to find alternative answers because the official information was full of lies and holes.

    A person who has come to a separate conclusion through research and observation, are not crazies.. They are intelligent and thinking for themselves... If they argue a point against your's and it’s about a conspiracy... that doesn't automatically make your argument right, and it sure as hell doesn't mean the person has the inability to grasp a different concept... The odds are if it’s about conspiracies your argument is corporate generated propaganda from the government aimed to silence conspiracy theorists. Like George W Bush had to address it right away at 9/11 which was rather weird, now they have to do it on this site, both events had issues with evidence and NO PLANE WRECKAGE *cough*.
    The US tries to make itself look so "free" and full of liberty, except EVERY single avenue of media is owned and censored. Until this goes away and transparency prevails... Conspiracies are the only shot at having any truth about secret criminal activity that happens in the country while everyone is expected to turn a blind eye and ignore.
    This plane had all its electronic tracking and communications disabled before the engines stopped running. The pilot that radioed last was "unknown", the flight path took it to hypoxia levels... To assume this is anything else than a hijack or intentionally diverted is complacent.
    Ten years ago, Edward Snowden would have been labeled a conspiracy theorist and crazy for saying "the government spies on you and can read ALL your information" All the people who think they know everything would be "shut up and put your tinfoil hat on and take your meds"..
    It's funny, all anyone ever has to say to someone who might believe in something different than what the government tells their audience is a "crazy tinfoil hat conpsiracist" and is often ridiculed and sometimes hostily confronted. And for what? Because they believe something you don't? No, because they are asking questions and have a problem with something that has been done and covered up.
    As mentioned before, conspiracies are born at the shortfalls of criminal activity. If there was total transparency and accountability, issues would be resolved before people have to try and figure it out for themselves.

    April 6, 2014 at 12:00 pm |
    • MrComments

      There was plenty of plane wreckage on 9/11. You are just too lazy to look for the photos because you are too busy reading Comic Book sites.

      April 6, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
      • Wallace

        There was none in PA or the Pentagon

        April 6, 2014 at 12:07 pm |
      • Wallace

        A plane flew straight down into the ground at Kazan airport... Google image it.. THAT Is what a plane looks like that crashed into the ground.. Notice the engines are still alive and above ground. The pentagon wreck site is even sadder because the damage on the wall (before it collapsed) does not correspond to the sheer size of a 737, there's NO engines, no engine holes.. AND the only piece that looks like anytying

        April 6, 2014 at 12:12 pm |
    • Dimus

      Wallace,
      You are 100% right. 1. Theory is good until it does not contradict known facts. 2. Better if it explains all facts. 3. Even better if it can predict new developments. Another criteria it should be "elegant" and simple enough. In case of 370 any theory need to answer basic questions: who, when, why, how? But most important – Cui bono? (who benefit?). Please see my iReport (under Dimus name 26 Mar) with such theory – very high level of conspiracy, indeed. It is not perfect but at least gives directions where and what to look for.

      April 6, 2014 at 1:43 pm |
  25. DrewL

    Very well said. But perhaps the most confounding conspiracy of all is the "conspiracy of one." Every human being has, at some level, the ability to create a situation on his or her own by utilizing nothing more than his or her own intention. And while we'd like to believe that terrible things happen only by the willful planning and execution of many co-conspirators, the fact remains that most bad things happen because of individual intention. Loose lips sink ships, as they say. But that's usually not a problem when just one set of lips isn't talking.

    April 6, 2014 at 12:18 pm |
  26. Stefan

    Conspiracy theories exist because mainstream news LIES ALL THE TIME!

    April 6, 2014 at 12:19 pm |
  27. John Sharpe

    Fareed, you forgot (for obvious reasons) to mention all the people suffering from mental illness of varying types and intensity. By my estimates that's about 1/3 of the population. Fascinating how they work themselves into conspiracy circles and extremist groups and add a whole lot of life to the party.

    April 6, 2014 at 12:33 pm |
  28. Ted

    Another meaningless article by Zakaria, except that at least now, his is quoting people rather than plagiarizing them.

    April 6, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
  29. jews

    why has no one pointed a finger at the usual suspects, i.e. jews

    April 6, 2014 at 12:54 pm |
    • Dawn

      You are one sick, sad broken record.

      April 6, 2014 at 10:46 pm |
  30. star69

    what about this one?what if the plane was shot down in another country's airspace?They keep changing the path of what direction the plane went,right?Anyway,most conspiracies begin with an amount of truth-the possibilities can be endless-one must see through events logically and with a degree of understanding to comrehend most likely scenario's.I am a believer in some conspiracies,others not.Depends on what it is.

    April 6, 2014 at 1:48 pm |
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