Conspiracy theories are not just part of the lunatic fringe, argues Jesse Walker in The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. They are part and parcel of American culture.
Could it be that we need conspiracy theories?
This week, we’ve relied on Walker’s book and discussed its main theme. We’ve talked about how everyone is susceptible to paranoid thinking, the lavender scare, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and a potpourri of theories from the assassination of JFK to NSA surveillance and more.
Today, we discuss how these theories emerge. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Walker says three things collide:
1.) We have a natural tendency to see patterns, connections, and relationships—even in random information.
2.) Something makes us fret, worry, and be concerned.
3.) There are some real conspiracies out there. When these three come together, conspiracy theories arise.
In the interview, Walker concludes: “When a story catches on with enough people, we’re not talking about mental illness. If believing in conspiracy theories is a sign of mental illness, it means 90 percent of Americans have been crazy since the beginning.”
My colleague, social psychologist Karl Weick, developed the idea of sensemaking as it applies to organizational studies. Making sense of the world—of our own experience—is a fundamental human endeavor. For some, conspiracy theories help to make sense of the world. In an odd way, it’s comforting. A conspiracy theory means that large forces are at play, perhaps an epic drama of good versus evil, a grand design of the world in which we get to take part.
Sadly, the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard have already spanned conspiracy theories about the government’s role and possible motives.
Do we need conspiracy theories?
Why do they persist throughout American history?
Do they serve a purpose?
CARE TO READ MORE ON CONSPIRACY THEORIES? Columnist and author Rodney Curtis serves up a street-level view of this kind of thinking.