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. Syd

    Here's my theory and this one makes all the pieces of the puzzle fit. The 2 Iranians were not seeking asylum. Whoever said that was feeding disinformation. They were Iranian agents. It's not easy for a couple of innocent guys to get their hands on stolen passports. This was supplied to them by Iran. And who was this unknown Mr. Ali who bought their tickets? The copilot was probably also in cahoots with them, It adds up. This is also why no terrorist group is claiming responsibility. Iran wouldn't dare admit this. This would mean certain war and it would wreck their relationship with China. I also figured out why they planned on hijacking the plane. They were avoiding all detection and flying low until they could get close enough to an American warship in the Arabian Sea or Persian Gulf and pull a 9/11 by ramming it. The warship would either shoot down the plane and cause a major diplomatic furor, especially with the Chinese, or get blown up. Without admitting to anything this would be Iran's subtle message to the U.S. that they will hurt them badly in any conflict.
    Fortunately or unfortunately, these mullahs didn't have the brains to realize that there wasn't enough fuel. Or perhaps there was a conflict and one of those nuts blew up the plane with a bomb (they were never checked but were waived through customs). I'm more inclined to think that these guys were too dumb to realize that there wasn't enough fuel and the plane went down with very little fragments.
    If the black is never found or there is no tell-tale clues indicating Iran's role, then watch for a similar game. This time they'll hijack a plane that's probably going to take off from somewhere closer like Pakistan or maybe India just to make sure there's enough fuel. It will take them about 2 or 3 years to plan the next episode.

    April 6, 2014 at 8:38 pm |
    • Dawn

      Syd-Please take your medication that the nice nurse is attempting to give you. If you do so like a good boy, I promise that I'll bring you fresh tinfoil for a new hat which you can make during "activity hour" tomorrow.

      April 6, 2014 at 10:32 pm |
  2. Paul

    The Israehell Government brought the plane down with a new secretive tech weapon produced by the USA government.
    Never trust the Jews! They'll kill anyone!

    April 6, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
    • Dawn

      ...And never trust an idiot named "Paul." He is the result when a brother and sister mate.

      April 6, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
    • Dave Segal

      Hello, Paul. You don't know me, but you hate me because I'm a Jewish Christian. I'm responding to you in the loving, forgiving spirit taught by Yeshua (Jesus). I suspect that you have experienced far too little love and forgiveness in your life, I give you mine, in spite of your hatred. I hope that you will think about this carefully. I also pray that you will repent of your anti-Semitism and other sins, and accept Jesus, the greatest Jew of all time, as your personal lord and savior. Ask Him to expel the demons that have led you down the dark, evil path of bigotry with their lies. Otherwise, you could remain enslaved to Satan forever. May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

      April 7, 2014 at 1:51 am |
    • jim g

      paul, you saw it happen??? wow. why didn't you call CNN right away? give me your email address and i will send you there phone number. we are so lucky that you saw it.

      April 7, 2014 at 8:01 am |
    • Jim S.

      Paul, your reasoning is astounding to say t he least. For one thing, it's far more likely that a Muslim Country would be behind any "money business" on an airline than any Jew.. Secondly, nobody and I mean NOBODY actually knows what happened to this airline or these souls on board. To make a comment like you did not only shows your bias and hatred, but also your ignorance.

      April 7, 2014 at 8:44 am |
    • jim g


      April 7, 2014 at 1:38 pm |
  3. Lauren

    The flight path was deliberate and skilled. The path around Indonesia exploits radar knowledge. Moreover the indicated path would have been picked up by Diego Garcia. The Malaysians have said they sealed intelligence that they will not release pending the investigation, if ever. It's not conspiracy thinking to observe a strange event happened that in no way can be explained as a mechanical accident. The truth will be a long time coming.

    April 6, 2014 at 8:54 pm |
    • observer


      "It's not conspiracy thinking to observe a strange event happened that in no way can be explained as a mechanical accident."

      Another conspiracy theory not based on facts. Try again.

      Planes have lost stabilizers and drifted aimlessly before.

      April 6, 2014 at 9:58 pm |
    • jim g

      wow, i don't know why the investigators haven't talked to you by now. so glad you have come forward with the answe!!!!. lol.

      April 7, 2014 at 8:03 am |
    • swift and silent

      That is precisely it. Recall, (if we can believe it) that as SOON as the aircraft left Malaysian airspace it turned 128 degrees SW and simultaneously the transponder and ACARS were manually shut off. And not ONE communication from anyone? if it walks like a Duck and sounds like a Duck- it's probably a ......

      April 7, 2014 at 9:48 am |
  4. readerpan

    The AFLAC duck did it to persuade people to buy insurance.

    April 6, 2014 at 8:55 pm |
  5. jon

    The idea that this plane was taken for nefarious reasons is just as good as any other thought that it crashed in the Indian Ocean - which is what the U.S. officials seem to want us to believe.

    April 6, 2014 at 8:59 pm |
  6. bob

    Your network throwing ideas like black holes and what not = conspiracy theory.

    That the plane was hijacked or intentionally taken off course = rampant speculation that may or may not be true

    April 6, 2014 at 9:07 pm |
    • Ike

      All conspiracy theories that are swirling around these days about the fate of Flight 370 may not be true but there must be one that is true! And it would be hard to pinpoint which one is the true theory? So whatever truth is we may not ever find out but I do believe that there is some one who knows the truth........whether terrorists who hijacked the plane and landed it somewhere out there in no-man land or the US or China has made the plane disappeared along with all those passengers for hiding about some secret payload on the plane abound to China will remain mystery for a quite some time, perhaps for ever! Interest shown, time and money spent by these two countries in finding the plane wreckage is too compelling to believe that their zeal to find the wreckage is just for the love of humanity! Am I cynical? May be!!!

      April 6, 2014 at 10:32 pm |
      • jim g

        simple answer-wait for some facts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        April 7, 2014 at 7:59 am |
  7. sinsear

    The older pilot methodically killed the co-pilot and then the passengers. Killed the passengers by going up to 45,000 and decompressing the passenger compartment. He then set autopilot to fly until it ran out of fuel. In one word, this was a suicide. Plain and simple. He wanted a suicide where he could become immortalized.

    April 6, 2014 at 9:14 pm |
    • George Marshall

      How could he become immortalized if no one knows he did it?

      April 6, 2014 at 9:48 pm |
    • Dawn

      Of course, sinsear-what a brilliant analysis. That dastardly "elder pilot" certainly was a classic "suicide with a bang" candidate,wasn't he? Yup, by george-there he was, the sole survivor of a plane of death, just bopping along hour after hour, silent and pouting. No radio communication, no coughs, sneeze's or clearing of the throat-no "dramatic statement" announcing his intent. Nothing. Absolutely NO indication in any way, shape or form that he had ANYTHING to do with #370's disappearance. Yet somehow, by gazing intently at your crystal ball, you've nailed his "bid for immortality" right on the 'ole noggin. Sherlock Holmes would be mighty impressed.

      April 6, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
    • jim g

      you do realize these pilots have families? how would you feel as a member of the family hearing your groundless, tin foil hat theory concocted with few, if any facts. we do not know what happened. unless you were there for and eyewitness account, you don't either!!

      April 7, 2014 at 7:58 am |
  8. hschumann

    I would suggest to Mr. Zakaria and Mr. Sunstein that instead of trying to psychoanalyze those who question the accepted consensus, whether it is the JFK Assassination, the Shakespeare Authorship debate, or the whereabouts of Flight 370, they examine each case on its merits and try to discover the truth for themselves. The attempt to marginalize dissent and ridicule the dissenters is not only anathema to serious inquiry but is a dangerous weapon in the hands of powerful interests and contrary to democracy.

    April 6, 2014 at 9:22 pm |
    • Eric

      I would suggest to you that before accusing the author of psychoanalysis or ridicule, you actually read the book first and try to discover the point for yourself. This is an opinion piece, not a dangerous weapon in the hands of powerful interests. There is nothing wrong with dissent, but if you have a dissenting opinion based upon facts that you made up, THAT is dangerous.

      April 6, 2014 at 9:45 pm |
      • hschumann

        All I'm saying Eric is that articles such as this create fear in the minds of people that any opinion contrary to the orthodoxy is going to be met with ridicule and derision. That is where the danger lies. People who don't go along with the status quo should be able to speak their minds in a democracy, not labeled and dismissed. Remember all those conspiracy theorists who said that the Sun was the center of the solar system and not the Earth?

        April 6, 2014 at 11:54 pm |
  9. twalk

    Teabagger/Republicans I am sure believe Obummer did it to take the attention off of him.

    April 6, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
  10. George Marshall

    To a conspiracy theorist absence of evidence of a conspiracy is taken as further evidence of a conspiracy.

    April 6, 2014 at 9:50 pm |
  11. observer

    I'm surprised that there has been apparently little talk about the possibility that an event might have wiped out key components such as a stabilizer.

    In 1985, the worst single-plane accident in history happened to Ja-pan Airlines Flight 123 when a pressure bulkhead failed and wiped out the vertical stabilizer. Out of control, the plane drifted around for 32 minutes before crashing into a mountain. Obviously, it might have flown longer over an ocean. The passengers even had time to write farewell notes. Among them was Kyu Sakamoto, the singer of the U.S. hit "Sukiyaki".

    April 6, 2014 at 10:19 pm |
  12. tearsinhvn

    I think it was a HYJACK gone bad...

    April 6, 2014 at 10:46 pm |
  13. colinator

    I like how Fareed and his buddy from Harvard who authored the book he referenced enjoy lecturing those of us who believe in alternative explanations like we are cub scouts who need to be told "The Truth" from leaders like him and other Ivy Leaguers who are more enamored with themselves and their fancy degrees than they are in anything remotely resembling critical thinking. The first mistake Mr. Zakaria makes is that he doesn't define what a "Conspiracy Theory" is to begin with. Notice that none of the mainstream media insiders ever define what a "Conspiracy Theory" is because their definition sadly, is anything the status quo doesn't endorse which turns out to be quite an enormous number of beliefs and positions that they all lump together. Please define it first at least before you claim that whatever other people are saying about MH370 and other world events necessarily fits the definition. Perhaps Mr. Zakaria you could acknowledge that what you're really upset about is that you and your CNN cohorts have lost an entire generation of viewers who simply find your patronizing meanderings irrelevant and outdated. Perhaps that is the simple truth that you ignore since, well, using your own psychological profiling technique you've described above, you simply become too angry and emotional over the fact that no once cares about what you or your buddies think anymore.

    April 6, 2014 at 11:12 pm |
  14. Therealconspiracy

    Only the CIA or the KGB could hack the autopilot, decompress the plane, killing everyone aboard and send it the deepest part of the Indian Ocean. Now they send false pings to lead the searchers astray.
    The CIA could do it but they can't keep anything secret. Putin's KGB associates did it to distract attention from his crimes in Crimea. The CIA knows this, but won't do anything for fear of starting war, just like when the KGB killed JFK.

    April 6, 2014 at 11:23 pm |
    • longjohn

      The Russian KGB sub making the pings will move away before the side scan sonar comes out. That's why they found it at 300 meters, rather than the bottom.

      April 7, 2014 at 3:17 am |
    • jim g

      another garden variety crackpot.

      April 7, 2014 at 7:51 am |
  15. imwithstoopid

    I continually wonder why religious people, who believe in miracles, will not posit an argument that a plausible reason for the plane's disappearance is simply because god usurped it straight into heaven.
    Sorry if this is a misplaced question

    April 6, 2014 at 11:30 pm |
    • Therealconspiracy

      The Scientology Gods might have taken it since their 707 spaceship is getting very old.

      April 6, 2014 at 11:41 pm |
  16. marty in MA

    One psychologist said that Conspiracy Theories are for low-level thinkers who are paranoid and have achieved little in life, blaming others for their lack of success.

    I like that definition. It fits.

    April 7, 2014 at 12:01 am |
  17. Piyush

    I would not call them conspiracy theories. Lets call them plausible scenarios. This is no different than trouble shooting an anomaly in an engineering design. You propose a hypothesis and see if it can be disproved. Its called the scientific method. Each conspiracy theory should be disproved by conflicting data. I am very intrigued by this 777 disappearance because I had a small indirect part in its design.

    In God we trust, every body else bring data! I like Fareed on political matters but he may not be the best commentator when it comes to the scientific method. So here is my theory:

    This a pilot gone D B Coopper on us. Which one - hard to tell. Quite likely the co-pilot or both.

    There was something of value on that plane that the pilot knew about. He takes the plane to 45k feet, kills the cabin pressure – instantly killing all the passengers – has a gas mask for himself – gets what he wants, brings the plane down to 5k feet and bails out. (5k is minimum ht to successfully parachute off). Puts the plane in autopilot into the Indian Ocean for eventual watery grave for the passengers.

    What was on that plane that was of such great value? Who were the passengers? What were they carrying?

    April 7, 2014 at 12:03 am |
    • jim g

      another BS i have no conclusive facts but i know what happened therory. lol.

      April 7, 2014 at 7:50 am |
  18. ardvark

    The conspiracy is the Navy spent 39.8 million dollars for their black box detector supplied by Koch Brothers. Yet the pinger was found by the Chinese using a waterproofed Mr Microphone and a apple ipod earphone on a blow up raft from Walmart.

    April 7, 2014 at 12:41 am |
    • longjohn

      The navy version used the same Mr Microphone but in a housing designed by Ralph Laren in consultation with George Lucas.

      April 7, 2014 at 3:13 am |
      • deez nutz

        ardvark, point well made. The most bootleg country in the world detects the pinger

        April 7, 2014 at 6:53 am |
  19. kaiypov

    pause the war

    April 7, 2014 at 1:39 am |
  20. jim g

    there are still not enough facts to determine what happened to the plane, yet many are able to determine what happened. lol. the pilots committed suicide, or were terrorists. it landed taking the northern route. my favorite – i was shot down by the israelis. lol. WE DON'T KNOW IS THE REAL TRUTH. hard to humans to admit that. we may never know. accept it. leave the pilots alone. there are no facts found to condemn them. remember they have families.

    April 7, 2014 at 7:13 am |
  21. Freddie

    Because its our duty.

    April 7, 2014 at 7:57 am |
  22. jim g

    the 3 stooges did it!!! i have proof. now, where did i put it? anyway, the 3 stooges were re-incarnated by the new government in the ukraine. they used a tractor beam from the last star wars movie. the plane is being hidden in area 51, or is it 61?, in new mexico. it is being repainted. i will be posting the proof as soon........as i can..........find it. where the he ll..........

    April 7, 2014 at 8:07 am |
  23. Etf

    The mob has already taken over the amazon review for the book which has been plastered with 1 star reviews.

    Good book though.

    April 7, 2014 at 8:14 am |
  24. MollyBee

    Sustein has explained perfectly why the FOX hate meisters are so successful.

    April 7, 2014 at 8:24 am |
  25. goldhill2020

    You wrote: " It was an accident, someone else will say. But then why were there no distress signals?" The answer is because in many accidents the pilots don't have the time or capability to send distress signals and the last thing on their mind is to send a distress signal. Look at Colgan Flight 3407. Fifty people died in that crash and there was not any distress signal sent.
    One reason conspiracy theories arise is because of the really bad reporting coming from CNN; like the article above. Did you really write this?

    April 7, 2014 at 8:29 am |
  26. ardvark

    In this case, I'll put my money on, it was some sort of a conspiracy, rather than it was an accident.

    April 7, 2014 at 8:49 am |
  27. jim g

    BREAKING NEWS!!! today is the start of the contest to choose the best crackpot, unsubstantiated , no facts allowed story about the disappearance of flight 370. first prize is a years supply of tin foil hats . second prize is not yet determined as we don't have all the facts about the contest. stay tuned. contest rules will be posted as soon as we can find them. immediate disqualification if your story makes any sense at all. contest rules will be at Ibelievethevoicesinmyheaddotcom.

    April 7, 2014 at 8:53 am |
  28. stinksgood

    What could have been on the plane, that caused the CIA to down it. Records of Supreme Court USA, Swiss bank accounts from election of W to present.
    BTW the conspiracy theory that Justice Thomas is deaf and dumb is not correct. He is not deaf.

    April 7, 2014 at 9:12 am |
  29. Lisa

    Has there been any evidence to show that the powering-off of the communication systems was anything but intentional? I feel like this was a suicide by one of the pilots, perhaps with a jones to create a mystery. Perhaps he didn't realize that evidence would be able to point investigators to where the plane ended up. He wanted to end his life and at the same time, create a mystery that might never be solved. Or perhaps more simply, cover up that he was killing himself altogether by making the plane disappear altogether, hoping the suicide would never be detected.

    April 7, 2014 at 9:36 am |
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