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There’s nothing “WEIRD” about conspiracy theories

Summary:
The first time I visited Mexico I was 16 years old. I was rather surprised to discover that many Mexicans believed in conspiracy theories, ideas that I’d never heard before. Some involved the CIA as a puppeteer behind much of what went on in the world. My wife just visited China and found that many people there also believe in conspiracy theories, such as the claim that Covid-19 was created in a US lab. Based on what I’ve read in various news sources, it seems that conspiracy theories are pretty common in most developing countries. Over the last few decades of the 20th century, I paid little attention to conspiracy theories.  One would occasionally hear a conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination or UFO cover-ups, but they never seemed to be a major part of

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The first time I visited Mexico I was 16 years old. I was rather surprised to discover that many Mexicans believed in conspiracy theories, ideas that I’d never heard before. Some involved the CIA as a puppeteer behind much of what went on in the world.

My wife just visited China and found that many people there also believe in conspiracy theories, such as the claim that Covid-19 was created in a US lab. Based on what I’ve read in various news sources, it seems that conspiracy theories are pretty common in most developing countries.

Over the last few decades of the 20th century, I paid little attention to conspiracy theories.  One would occasionally hear a conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination or UFO cover-ups, but they never seemed to be a major part of our culture.

In the 21st century, conspiracy theories have become a much bigger part of America life. There are major conspiracy theories that suggest all four presidents elected during this century are illegitimate, with one election basically being stolen by the Supreme Court, another won by a candidate born overseas, another influenced by a Russian disinformation campaign, and another tainted by vote fraud. The idea of an illegitimate president has gone mainstream. And it’s not just elections, something as innocuous as a vaccine trial announcement is now entangled in various conspiracy theories.

So why have conspiracy theories exploded in 21st century America? First we must ask why people believe conspiracy theories. Penn Jillette argues that there’s a sort of preference for conspiracy theories. Imagine if people want to believe X, but the officials at the top of society (government, media, science, etc.) say that X is false. Also assume that those officials are in a position where they would know the truth.  If you want to continue believing X, then you are forced to develop a conspiracy theory as to why the officials would deny that X is true.

A relatively small share of the world’s population does not engage in “motivated reasoning”, rather they form beliefs based on evidence, apart from what they wish to believe.  Of course these are just tendencies, I suspect that everyone engages in motivated reasoning to at least some extent (including myself), but some do it more than others.  Polls show that the views of Democrats and Republicans on the state of the economy immediately flipped after the 2016 election, before there was even time for the actual economy to change very much.

Psychologist describe a certain type of relatively unbiased person as “WEIRD”, which doesn’t mean strange, it means people from areas that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.”  But even in those countries, only a modest share of people are actually WEIRD.  This category more often applies to moral values, for instance those people who think nepotism is wrong, that it’s wrong to be biased in favor of those you know and like.  But WEIRD also overlaps with a non-biased epistemic style that is often called “rational”.

There are certain ideas that are highly seductive, so much so that even “WEIRDOS” occasionally dabble in conspiracy theories.  So why weren’t conspiracy theories a bigger part of life in the late 20th century?  I believe this is because the media was almost completely controlled by WEIRD people.  The news desks at ABC/NBC/CBS stuck to the mainstream version of events, unless they had clear evidence that the official were lying (say after the Ellsberg Papers came out.)  So there was no major institution to form and disseminate conspiracy theories.  These theories did exist back then, but never gained enough traction to have a big impact on society.

The internet changed everything.  More specifically, it democratized information sharing all over the world.  There are no more “gatekeepers”.  Because less that 10% of the world’s population is truly WEIRD, the internet has made conspiracy theories the dominant epistemic style of the 21st century.  Just as the 21st century will be a low interest rate/high asset price century (as I predicted years ago), it will also be a century of widespread conspiracy theories.  I doubt whether I’ll live along enough to see another president who is generally accepted as legitimate.

PS.  Think about the bizarre coincidence that there’s almost a 100% correlation between people who believe an election was stolen and those who support the losing candidate.  If you think that correlation is weird, then you are probably WEIRD.  If you think that correlation is not in the least surprising, then you are probably not WEIRD.

PPS.  There’s another (much less interesting) question to consider.  Are these conspiracy theories actually true?  Some of them?  All of them?  None of them?  I suspect that a unit within the federal government has looked into this question—perhaps the NSA.  And I imagine that by now they’ve been able to ascertain the answer to this question.

But they aren’t telling us.

PPPS.  There’s some speculation that President Trump will release information on UFOs as he leaves office.  If so, will he be exposing a government conspiracy?  Or would it be a Trump conspiracy to make our intelligence services look devious?

PPPPS.  People who don’t like my ideas want to believe that I don’t actually believe what I write.  These are almost always people who disagree with me.  Scratch that; they are always people who disagree with me.  Hence my comment sections (especially at MoneyIllusion) are full of claims that I am part of a conspiracy to disseminate ideas favored by powerful people.

PPPPPS.  It’s likely that some people will view this post as part of a conspiracy.  Whose interests are served in trying to analyze the psychology of conspiracy theories at this exact moment in history?

Think about it.

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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