In this era of “fake news” and rising populism, encountering conspiracy theories is becoming a daily phenomenon.
People usually shrug them off, they find them too simplistic, biased or far-fetched but others are taken in. And if a person believes one kind of conspiracy theory, they usually believe others.
Psychologists are very interested in why some people are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, especially since the consequences can be harmful: for example, by avoiding getting their kids vaccinated, believers in vaccination conspiracies can harm wider public health; in other cases, a belief in a conspiracy against one’s own ethnic or religious group can foment radicalism.
One of the main differences between conspiracy believers and nonbelievers that’s cropped up in multiple studies is that nonbelievers tend to be more highly educated. For a new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Ian-Willem Van Prooijen at VU Amsterdam has conducted two large surveys to try to dig into just what it is about being more educated that seems to inoculate against belief in conspiracy.
For the first survey, Van Prooijen recruited over 4000 readers of a popular science journal in the Netherlands, with an average age of 32. He asked them about their formal education level and their belief in various well known conspiracy theories, such as that the moon landings were hoax; he tested their feelings of powerlessness; their subjective sense of their social class (they located their position on a social ladder); and their belief in simple solutions, such as that “most problems in society are easy to solve”.
The more highly educated a participant, the less likely they were to endorse the conspiracy theories.
Importantly, several of the other measures were linked to education and contributed to the association between education and less belief in conspiracy: feeling less powerlessness (or more in control), feelings of higher social status, and being sceptical of simple solutions.
A second survey was similar, but this time Van Prooijen quizzed nearly 1000 participants, average age 50, selected to be representative of the wider Dutch population. Also, there were two phases: for the first, participants answered questions about their education level; feelings of power; subjective social class; belief in simple solutions; and they took some basic tests of their analytical thinking skills. Then two weeks later, the participants rated their belief in various conspiracy theories.
Once again, more education was associated with less belief in conspiracy theories, and this seemed to be explained in part by more educated participants feeling more in control, having less belief in simple solutions, and having stronger analytical skills. Subjective social class wasn’t relevant in this survey.
Taken together, Van Prooijen said the results suggest that “the relationship between education and belief in conspiracy theories cannot be reduced to a single psychological mechanism but is the product of the complex interplay of multiple psychological processes.”
The nature of his study means we can’t infer that education or the related factors he measured actually cause less belief in conspiracies. But it makes theoretical sense that they might be involved: for example, more education usually increases people’s sense of control over their lives (though there are exceptions, for instance among people from marginalized groups), while it is feelings of powerlessness that is one of the things that often attracts people to conspiracy theories.
Importantly, Van Prooijen said his findings help make sense of why education can contribute to “a less paranoid society” even when conspiracy theories are not explicitly challenged.
“By teaching children analytical thinking skills along with the insight that societal problems often have no simple solutions, by stimulating a sense of control, and by promoting a sense that one is a valued member of society, education is likely to install the mental tools that are needed to approach far-fetched conspiracy theories with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest
WHY WE BELIEVE CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Down The Rabbit Hole
ALL is not as it seems. There is a hidden side to reality, a secret realm buzzing with clandestine activity and covert operations. This invisible network constantly screens, sifts, and manipulates information. It conjures up comforting lies to hide the real, bewildering truth. It steers what we think and believe, even shapes the decisions we make, molding our perception to its own agenda. Our understanding of the world, in short, is an illusion. Who is behind this incredible scheme? Some sinister secret society? Psychopathic bureaucrats in smoke-filled boardrooms? The Queen of England? The intergalactic shape-shifting lizards who she works for? All of the above?
No. This is an inside job. It’s not them, it’s us. More specifically, it’s you. More specifically, it’s your brain.
Everything Is a Conspiracy
There’s a conspiracy theory for everything. Ancient Atlanteans built the pyramids. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the orders of his vice president, Andrew Johnson. The Apollo moon landings were filmed on a sound stage in Arizona. Area 51 is home to advanced technology of alien origin. Alex Jones, a conspiracy minded radio host based out of Austin, Texas, is actually the alterego of comedian Bill Hicks (who faked his death in the early 1990s to pursue a career in conspiracism). And then there’s Big Pharma, black helicopters, the Bilderberg Group, Bohemian Grove . . .
The rabbit hole runs deep. The conspiracy allegedly extends to the air we breathe (tainted by chem-trails), the food we eat (monkeyed with by Monsanto), the medicine we take (filled with deadly toxins), and the water we drink (spiked with mind-warping fluoride). Elections are rigged, politics is a sham, and President Obama is a communist Muslim from Kenya.
These are a few of the theories, but who are the theorists? According to cliché, conspiracy theorists are a rare breed, a small but dedicated lunatic fringe of basement dwelling, middle aged men, intelligent outsiders with an idiosyncratic approach to research (and, often, a stockpile of Reynolds Wrap).
Most elements of the stereotype, however, don’t hold up. On the whole, women are just as conspiracy minded as men. Education and income don’t make much difference either. The ranks of conspiracy theorists include slightly more high school dropouts than college graduates, but even professors, presidents, and Nobel Prize winners can succumb to conspiracism. And conspiracy theories appeal to all ages. Senior citizens are no more or less conspiracy minded than Millennials, on average. At the low end of the age bracket, legions of American teens suspect that Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles of the inordinately popular boy band One Direction are secretly an item, and that the band’s corporate overlords invented a fake girlfriend for Louis as part of the cover-up.
As for the idea that conspiracy theories are a fringe affair, nothing could be farther from the truth. All told, huge numbers of people are conspiracy theorists when it comes to one issue or another. According to polls conducted over the last decade or so, around half of Americans think their government is probably hiding the truth about the 9/11 attacks. Almost four in ten suspect that climate change is a scientific fraud. Something like a third believe the government is likely hiding evidence of aliens. More than a quarter are worried about the New World Order.
In a 2013 survey, 4 percent of the people polled (which, extended to the entire population of the United States, would mean twelve million people) said they think “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies.” A further 7 percent said they just weren’t sure.
These sorts of public opinion polls, it’s worth bearing in mind, only provide a rough indication of any particular theory’s popularity. Estimates vary depending on exactly who you ask, how you ask them, and when. But this much is crystal clear: There are more conspiracy theorists out there than you might expect. Chances are you know some. Chances are you are one.
It’s not just Americans. People in the United Kingdom and Europe are similarly suspicious. And it’s not just Westerners. Conspiracism is a global phenomenon. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, between half and three quarters of people in various Middle Eastern countries doubt that Arab hijackers pulled off the 9/11 attacks. In many parts of the world, vaccines and other Western medicines are viewed with suspicion. Four out of ten Russians think that America faked the moon landings, according to a 2011 poll. In India, shortly after the country’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in 1984, her successor told an audience of a hundred thousand people gathered in New Delhi, “the assassination of Indira Gandhi is the doing of a vast conspiracy whose object is to weaken and divide India.” And in Brazil, a popular conspiracy theory asserts that the American military is planning to invade the Amazon rain forest and take control of its rich natural resources. As part of the propaganda campaign to prepare American citizens for the impending invasion, the theory goes, maps of South America in American junior high school textbooks show a huge swath of the Amazon under the control of the United Nations.
So, was there a gunman on the Grassy Knoll? Is Elvis alive, relaxing by the pool with Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana in some secret resort for aggressively reclusive stars? Who really rules the world, and what did they do with flight MH370?
If you’re looking for answers to these questions, then I’m afraid you’ve picked up the wrong book. The truth might be out there, but it’s not in here. If there really are sinister schemes taking shape behind closed doors at this very moment, if the real perpetrators of atrocities have not yet been brought to justice, if everything we think we know is a lie, it’d be nice to know. But there are plenty of other books dedicated to compiling evidence of some alleged conspiracy, and almost as many books that purport to tear the theories to shreds. That’s not what this one is about. In fact, this book isn’t really about conspiracy theories at all (though we’ll encounter plenty of theories along the way).
It’s about conspiracy thinking, about what psychology can reveal about how we decide what is reasonable and what is ridiculous, and why some people believe things that, to other people, seem completely unbelievable.
Of course, if you ask someone why they believe, or why they don’t believe, some theory or other, they’ll probably tell you it’s simple: They’ve made up their mind based on the evidence. But psychology tells a different story. It turns out that we’re not always the best judge of why we believe what we believe.
Tidy Desk, Tidy Mind (or: The Unexpected Virtue of Neatness)
In a recent experiment, psychologists at the University of Amsterdam had students think about something that they felt ambivalent about, any topic about which they had both positive and negative feelings. Imagine, for instance, eating an entire tub of ice cream. It would be a nice way to spend twenty minutes, but it’d also be pretty bad for you in the long run. You know there are pros and cons. That’s ambivalence.
Each student sat at a computer, thought about whatever it was that made him or her feel ambivalent, and typed up a few of the pros and cons. At that point, an error message appeared on the screen. Fear not-it was all part of the psychologists’ devious plan. The researcher monitoring the experiment feigned surprise, and told the participant that they would have to complete the next (ostensibly unrelated) questionnaire at a different desk. The unwitting subject was led to a cubicle across the room, where they encountered a desk in disarray, strewn with pens, books, magazines, and crumpled pieces of paper. Then, nestled comfortably amid the detritus, the participant was shown a series of pictures.
Some pictures, like the one on the left, had a faintly discernible image, in this case, a sailboat. Others, like the one on the right, consisted of nothing but random splotches. The students weren’t told which were which; they simply had to say whether they saw a pattern in the static. Pretty much everyone spotted the boat and all the other real pictures. More interestingly, a lot of the time people said they saw images where, in reality, there was only randomness. There were twelve pictures that contained nothing but random blobs. On average, the students saw imaginary images in nine of them.
At least, that’s how the experiment went for one group of students. For another group, things started out pretty much the same. They had to think about something that made them ambivalent, they saw an error message, they were led to the messy cubicle. Then there was one crucial difference. Before carrying on with the experiment, the experimenter asked each student to help tidy up the mess. Once the desk was straightened up, the students saw those same pictures. Compared to students who had worked amid the clutter, these students consistently saw fewer phantom images. They saw imaginary patterns in just five of the twelve meaningless pictures, on average, which was about the same number as people who hadn’t been made to feel ambivalent at the start of the experiment.
Feeling conflicting emotions about something is unpleasant, the researchers explained. We habitually seek order and consistency, and to be ambivalent is to experience disorder and conflict. When that happens, we might try to change our beliefs, or simply ignore the issue. Or we can use more roundabout strategies to deal with our unwanted emotions. Ambivalence threatens our sense of order, so, to compensate, we can seek order elsewhere. This is why the first group of students saw so many imaginary images. Seeing meaning in the ambiguous splotches, connecting the dots, allowed them to satisfy the craving for order that had been triggered by their sense of ambivalence. And it also explains why the second group of students saw fewer imaginary images. The simple act of tidying the desk, transforming the chaos into order, had already satisfied their craving. They were no longer on the lookout for patterns in the static. They didn’t need the dots to be connected.
What does this have to do with conspiracy theories? In another experiment, the researchers again made people feel ambivalent. This time, instead of looking at strange pictures, the students were asked to imagine they had been passed over for a promotion at work. What are the chances, the researchers asked, that a conniving co-worker had a hand in the boss’s decision? Compared to a group of people who hadn’t been made to feel ambivalent, the ambivalent students were more likely to suspect that a conspiracy was afoot.
Sometimes, it would seem, buying into a conspiracy is the cognitive equivalent of seeing meaning in randomness.
A bit of clutter isn’t the only thing that can subtly influence our beliefs. In another recent study, almost two hundred students at a college in London were asked simply to rate how plausible they found a handful of popular conspiracy theories. For half of the students, the allegations were written in an easy to read font, regular old Arial, size twelve, like so:
For the other half of the students, however, the allegations were written in a font that was a little harder to read, like so:
The students who read the theories in the clear, legible font consistently rated them more likely to be true. The students who had the harder to read font found the claims harder to believe.
The remarkable thing is that if you were to ask the students who took part why they rated the conspiracy theories the way they did, they might have told you something like “I heard a rumor about the New World Order the other day,” or “Conspiracies happen all the time,” or “It just makes sense that people are up to no good.” None of the Dutch students would have told you that feeling ambivalent about a bowl of ice cream had influenced their judgment. None of the Londoners thought to themselves, “This is an attractive font, so I suppose the New World Order really is planning to take over.” They didn’t consciously choose to see the theories as more or less plausible. Their brains did most of the work behind the scenes.
Who Is Pulling the Strings?
As neuroscientist David Eagleman points out in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, there is a complicated network of machinery hidden just beneath your skin. Your body is chock full of organs, each with its own special job to do, all working together to keep you alive and healthy, and they manage it without any conscious input from you. Whether you’re paying attention or not, your heart keeps on beating, your blood vessels expand and contract, and your spleen does whatever it does. Our detailed scientific understanding of how the body works is a relatively recent development, and yet, for some reason, the idea that our organs can go about their business without us telling them to do it, or even being aware of what they’re up to, doesn’t strike us as particularly hard to believe.
Your brain seems different, though. The brain is the most complicated organ of them all. It is made up of billions of specialized cells, each one in direct communication with thousands of others, all ceaselessly firing off electrical signals in cascading flurries of activity. Somehow, it’s still largely a mystery, out of this chaos arises consciousness: our experience of being us, of being a thinking, feeling, deciding person, residing just behind our eyes, looking out on the world, making important decisions like when to cross the road and where to go for lunch.
Consciousness is all we know about what’s going on inside our head, and it feels like it’s all there is to know. Masses of psychological studies, however, lead to a surprising conclusion. Consciousness is not the whole story. We are not privy to everything, or even most, of what our brain is up to.
The brain, like its fellow organs, is primarily in the business of keeping us alive, and, also like its less mysterious colleagues, the brain doesn’t need much input from us to get the job done. All sorts of activity goes on behind the scenes, outside of our conscious awareness and entirely beyond our control.
But just because our brain doesn’t let us in on all of its antics doesn’t mean its subconscious processes are unimportant or inconsequential. On the contrary, our perception, thoughts, beliefs, and decisions are all shaped by our brain’s secret shenanigans. Imaginative psychologists have come up with various metaphors for our mistaken intuition that we’re aware of, and in control of, everything that happens in our brain. As David Eagleman put it:
“Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.”
Social scientist Jonathan Haidt likened consciousness to a rider on the back of an elephant: The rider can coax and cajole the elephant to go one direction or another by pulling on the reins, but at the end of the day, the elephant has whims of its own, and it’s bigger than we are.
Daniel Kahneman, one of the pioneers of the psychology of our brain’s hidden biases and shortcuts, described the division of labor between our conscious and unconscious mental processes in cinematic terms. “In the unlikely event” of a movie being made in which our brain’s two modes of activity were the main characters, consciousness “would be a supporting character who believes herself to be the hero,” Kahneman wrote.
I’d like to propose a similar metaphor, one more in keeping with our theme.
We imagine ourselves to be puppet masters, in full control of our mental faculties. In reality, however, we’re the puppet, tethered to our silent subconscious by invisible strings, dancing to its whims and then taking credit for the choreography ourselves.
Does this mean that conspiracy theories are inherently irrational, nutty, harebrained, confused, crackpot, or pathological? Some pundits enthusiastically heap this kind of scorn and ridicule on conspiracy theories, painting them as the product of faulty thinking, which disbelievers are presumably immune to. Because of this dim view, tensions between conspiracy theorists and their critics can run high. As far as some conspiracy theorists are concerned, looking for psychological reasons for believing conspiracy theories is worse than simply challenging them on their facts. It can seem like an attempt to smear believers’ credibility, or even to write conspiracy theorists off as mentally unbalanced.
That’s not my goal.
This book isn’t about listing conspiracy theories like some catalog of bizarre beliefs. It’s not about singling out conspiracy theorists as a kind of alien species, or as a cautionary tale about how not to think.
The scientific findings we’ve amassed over the last few years tell a much more interesting story, one that has implications for us all. Michael Billig, an early trailblazer of research into conspiracy thinking, warned that when it comes to conspiracism, “it is easy to overemphasise its eccentricities at the expense of noticing what is psychologically commonplace.”
Conspiracy theories might be a result of some of our brain’s quirks and foibles, but, as we’ll see, they are by no means unique in that regard. Most of our quirks simply slide by unnoticed. Psychology can tell us a lot, not only about why people believe theories about grand conspiracies, but about how everyone’s mind works, and about why we believe anything at all.
So here’s my theory: We are each at the mercy of a hundred billion tiny conspirators, a cabal of conspiring neurons.
Throughout this book, we’ll be pulling back the curtain, shining a light into the shadowy recesses of our mind, and revealing how our brain’s secret shenanigans can shape the way we think about conspiracy theories, and a whole lot else besides.
Whether conspiracy theories reflect what’s really going on in the world or not, they tell us a lot about our secret selves. Conspiracy theories resonate with some of our brain’s built-in biases and shortcuts, and tap into some of our deepest desires, fears, and assumptions about the world and the people in it. We have innately suspicious minds. We are all natural born conspiracy theorists.
The Age Of Conspiracy
“THIS is the age of conspiracy,” a character in Don DeLillo’s Running Dog intones, ominously, “the age of connections, links, secret relationships.” The quote has featured in countless books and essays on contemporary conspiracism, reflecting a belief, widely held among laypeople and scholars alike, that conspiracy theories have never been more popular than they are right now. As one scholar put it, “other centuries have only dabbled in conspiracy like amateurs. It is our century which has established conspiracy as a system of thought and a method of action.”
There’s no shortage of guesses about what ushered in this alleged golden age of conspiracism. The prime suspect, as far as many twenty-first-century pundits are concerned, is the rise of the Internet. Political scientist Jodi Dean began an article published in the year 2000 by asserting that “as the global networks of the information age become increasingly entangled, many of us are overwhelmed and undermined by an all-pervasive uncertainty.” Presumably things have only gotten worse since then; a 2015 study of the spread of conspiracy theories on social media dubbed this the “Age of Misinformation.”
Other pundits point to tangible events. For journalist Jonathan Kay, the collapse of the Twin Towers opened up “nothing less than a countercultural rift,” a sort of intellectual black hole that has sucked in “a wide range of political paranoiacs.” Others trace the rise of conspiracism back farther. Maybe it started in the 1970s, with a crisis of faith in government that followed the unraveling of Richard Nixon’s paranoia-tinged presidency. Or maybe the sixties, and the collective loss of innocence that came with the death of John F. Kennedy and the escalating debacle of Vietnam. Or maybe it began with the creeping Cold War paranoia of the fifties.
Until recently, this kind of hand-waving guesswork was all we had to go on. But in 2014, two political scientists, Joe Uscinski and Joseph Parent, undertook an inventive and ambitious project to find some solid answers.
It’s not immediately obvious how to go about measuring the rise and fall of conspiracy thinking over a long stretch of time. In our digital age, getting an idea of what people are talking about is as easy as checking which hashtags are trending or how many “likes” a Facebook page gets. It’s less obvious how we might figure out how much people were talking about conspiracies a century ago. But Uscinski and Parent realized that our analog ancestors left behind a rich trove of data: letters to the editor. The letters page of the newspaper, it’s fair to say, is often overlooked, and is sometimes seen as a repository for the emotional outbursts of cranks. Yet social analysts have shown that letters to the editor are a good barometer of public opinion writ large, and therefore an invaluable research tool.
And so Uscinski and Parent set about analyzing more than a century’s worth of letters to the editor published in the New York Times. They gathered a sample of a thousand letters per year, from 1890 to 2010, amounting to more than a hundred thousand letters in total. Then a team of welltrained (and, hopefully, well-compensated) research assistants painstakingly combed through each letter, checking for conspiracy theories. It didn’t matter if a letter was promoting or debunking a conspiracy theory; either way, Uscinski and Parent reasoned, reciting the theory shows that the writer deemed it a topic worthy of discussion, and that the editor deemed it important enough to everyone else to be worth publishing.
Out of the hundred thousand or so letters, 875 mentioned conspiracies. At less than 1 percent of the entire sample, that might seem like a tiny fraction but, as Uscinski and Parent point out, the letters page is open to any subject under the sun. It’s no surprise that singling out any particular niche, be it conspiracies or comedy or cooking, results in a relatively small slice of the pie.
In terms of the allegations that the letter writers were throwing around, the researchers discovered some real peaches. Among the accused conspirators there were all the usual suspects, such as presidents, big business, and the media, as well as a fascinating array of lesser spotted culprits, including dairy farmers, post office workers, the Walt Disney Company.
In the 1890s, people worried that England and Canada were conspiring to reclaim territory from the United States, or that Mormons were rigging elections in favor of Republicans. For the first few decades of the twentieth century, typical theories involved financial interests attempting to subvert democracy. From the thirties until the sixties, many of the alleged plots featured communists. For the last fifty years or so, suspicion has shifted toward the American government itself, particularly its various intelligence agencies.
So what about the questions at hand? Has talk of conspiracies increased since the Second World War? Did it gain traction with the Kennedy assassination, the Watergate scandal, or the 9/11 attacks? Has it skyrocketed since the advent of the Internet? “Despite popular hoopla,” Uscinski and Parent report, the answer to all these questions was a resounding no.
There were a couple of bumper years for conspiracy theories, but they weren’t the ones you might expect. The number of conspiracy-themed letters shot up in the mid-1890s, when fears about big business flourished, and in 1950, when the Red Scare hit fever pitch. But these spikes were short-lived, and the number of letters quickly fell back to baseline. There has been no exponential increase over the years. If anything, people are talking about conspiracies a little less than they used to. The researchers counted slightly fewer conspiracy-themed letters per year, on average, in the five decades since the Kennedy assassination compared to the seven decades before it. The overall trend, however, was long-term stability. The amount of conspiracy talk was, for the most part, a stable background hum, remarkably impervious to political events, the economy, or advances in communication technology.
“The data suggest one telling fact,” Uscinski and Parent concluded. “We do not live in an age of conspiracy theories and have not for some time.” So if our current fascination with conspiracies is not new, how far back does it go? Pretty far, it turns out.
While Rome Burned
July 19, CE. 64, was a scorching summer’s day in Rome, according to historian Stephen Dando-Collins. It was the eve of the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris, the immensely popular annual Roman Games. The Circus Maximus, a giant stadium with capacity for a quarter of a million spectators, was already being prepared, and visitors were flocking into the city. That evening the fast-food joints that lined the narrow streets around the stadium stoked their ovens, busily preparing to feed the dawn crowds. It is impossible to say where exactly, but somewhere in the vicinity of the stadium, a fire broke out. Fires were not uncommon in Ancient Rome, but this one proved to be different.
Fanned by strong wind, the blaze quickly spread through the narrow, winding streets, consuming the tightly packed buildings. The inferno, which would become known as the Great Fire of Rome, raged on for almost a week. Countless people died in the flames, and half the city’s population was made homeless. All told, two thirds of the city was reduced to rubble and ash.
Even before the embers had cooled, conspiracy theories began to spread. Suspicion immediately settled on the emperor, Nero. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, who had lived through the fire as a child, “nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders.” As for Nero, Tacitus reports that he had been thirty-six miles away, in his hometown of Antium, when the fire broke out. When he got back to the city, he quickly organized shelter and food for the homeless masses. Yet his relief efforts earned him little gratitude from the public. Rumors were already spreading that while the city was burning, the young, immature, self-involved emperor had been in Antium giving a singing recital.
Tacitus stayed on the fence about Nero’s involvement in the fire, reporting the rumors without explicitly endorsing them.
Others were less reserved. Suetonius, who was born five years after the fire, had at one time been a respected historian with unfettered access to Rome’s official archives. After offending Emperor Hadrian, possibly by having an affair with the empress, his access to the archives was revoked. As a result, his biography of Nero, written fifty years after the fire, was based largely on gossip. “Pretending to be disgusted by the drab old buildings and narrow, winding streets of Rome,” Seutonius wrote, Nero “brazenly set fire to the city. Although a party of ex-consuls caught his attendants, armed with [kindling] and blazing torches, trespassing on their property, they dare not interfere.” In a dramatic flourish, Suetonius adds that, after arriving back from Antium, “Nero watched the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called ‘the beauty of the flames,’ then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang ‘The Sack of Ilium’ from beginning to end.”
Cassius Dio, writing 165 years after the fire, went even farther, claiming that Nero had a team of well-organized lackeys torch the city out of sheer malice. Dio was clearly taken by the idea of Nero singing with demented glee while the city burned around him, too, and added embellishments of his own. His melodramatic retelling of the fire is worth quoting at length:
“Nero set his heart on accomplishing what had doubtless always been his desire, namely to make an end of the whole city and realm during his lifetime . . . Accordingly he secretly sent out men who pretended to be drunk or engaged in other kinds of mischief, and caused them to first set fire to one or two or even several buildings in different parts of the city, so that the people were at their wits’ end, not being able to find any beginning of the trouble nor to put an end to it . . . While the whole population was in this state of mind and many, crazed by the disaster, were leaping into the very flames, Nero went up to the roof of the palace, from which there was the best general view of the greater part of the conflagration, and assuming the lyre-player’s garb, he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself, though to the eyes of the spectators it was the Capture of Rome.”
Whether the fire was an inside job or not, and whether Nero really serenaded it with his lyre, we do know this: He was not happy to be the subject of conspiracy theories. In an effort to scotch the rumors, he came up with a conspiracy theory of his own. According to Tacitus, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” False confessions were forced out of a few Christians, on the basis of which many more were rounded up. They were convicted, Tacitus reports, “not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.” Nero’s treatment of the scapegoats was ruthless. “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths,” Tacitus reports. “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
The Great Fire was far from the only event in Roman history that gave rise to conspiracy theories. Rome’s infatuation with conspiracy goes back to the very beginning of the empire. Romulus, one of the city’s founders and its first king, supposedly disappeared under mysterious circumstances. It was rumored that his political advisers, the senators, had assassinated their leader in a bid to increase their own power. Cassius Dio described the deed in his signature lurid style, writing that the power-hungry senators had surrounded Romulus as he was giving a speech, and “rent him limb from limb” right there on the floor of the senate-house.
Adding an ironic twist, Dio claimed that the deed had been concealed “by a violent wind storm and an eclipse of the sun, the same sort of phenomenon that had attended his birth. Such was the end of Romulus.”
As historian Victoria Pagan has cataloged, the entire history of ancient Rome is suffused with stories about suspected plots. Many of the stories were based on truth; assassinations and other nefarious schemes were par for the course in ancient Roman politics. But many, such as the sensational rumors of Nero’s pyromania or Romulus’s dramatic demise, were unquestionably embellished, or fabricated entirely.
It wasn’t just Rome. The ancient world was teeming with conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Going back at least as far as the fifth century B.C.E., historian Joseph Roisman points out that the work of the famed orators and playwrights of ancient Athens was riddled with “tales of plotting that involve almost every facet of Athenian life. There are plots against people’s lives, property, careers, or reputations, as well as against the public interest, the regime, and in foreign affairs.” Just about everyone was on the receiving end of charges of conspiracy, from politicians and businessmen to immigrants and slaves, and both the establishment and the masses seem to have taken such stories seriously.
Fascination with conspiracy endured throughout the Middle Ages. As before, conspiracy theories were popular among the unwashed masses and the aristocratic establishment alike. Famine-struck peasants often saw their plight not as “simply the result of bad weather, or poor distribution methods, but of the nefarious actions of speculators,” as historians Barry Coward and Julian Swann put it, while the ruling elite frequently blamed unwelcome change on “the plotting of courtiers, ministers, favourites, heretics or freemasons.”
Though the names and dates changed, the thread of conspiracism runs unbroken through the centuries.
Coward and Swann point out that “English MPs in the early seventeenth century, for example, often drew on Tacitus and Roman history to interpret the politics of their own day.”
The Great Fire of London, which ravaged the city for four days in the year 1666, offers a striking example of history repeating itself and conspiracism regurgitating itself. Even as the fire was still raging, Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that rumors had begun to flourish “that there is a plot in it.” There were those who suspected it was an inside job, started on the orders of King Charles II himself, some even drew “an odious parallel between his Majesty and Nero,” according to a contemporary report.
Others suspected that the fire was a terrorist attack by Catholic conspirators or England’s European enemies. A Frenchman, Robert Hubert, was soon arrested, and confessed to having started the fire acting in league with a cabal of French popish spies. His confession didn’t quite stack up. For instance, he claimed at first to have started the fire in Westminster. When he was informed that the fire had actually started on Pudding Lane, and had never even reached Westminster, his story changed. Regardless, Londoners, and the authorities, seized the opportunity to lay blame for the fire at the feet of a willing scapegoat. With his questionable confession as the only evidence against him, Hubert was hanged on October 27, 1666, in front of a mob of delighted spectators.
As this potted history goes to show, the golden age of conspiracy theories goes back thousands of years, and shows no sign of letting up. Some of the theories of antiquity bear a remarkable resemblance to contemporary conspiracy theories. There are some noteworthy differences, however.
For classical conspiracy theorists, alleged plots generally concerned local, isolated issues, and the motives behind the ostensible plots were fairly petty and personal. It’s also worth noting that, even though many of the theories were unquestionably embellished, they weren’t all that farfetched. When absolute power was invested in emperors or monarchs, taking up cloak and dagger against them was often the only way to effect any meaningful change.
Over time, people’s conspiratorial concerns broadened. There was a shift from theories about local and petty conspiracies of self-interest, to altogether grander theories. The proposed plots became more mysterious, subversive, and universal. The conspirators were imagined to be working toward less tangible, and more sinister, ends.
The road from the trivial theories of old to the allconsuming theories of today was marked by two major milestones, the first of which came courtesy of a young German idealist named Adam Weishaupt.
In 1772, following in the footsteps of both his father and godfather, Adam Weishaupt became a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. Law was never his real passion, though. At just twenty-four years of age, Weishaupt was restless and idealistic. Disillusioned with his strict, mechanical Jesuit education, and inspired by the blossoming Enlightenment, he had developed a headstrong ambition to improve society using the power of reason to dispel religious superstition. He was also a “cynical and unscrupulous careerist and liar,” the historian John Roberts wrote; “All the evidence of this period of his career reveals him as a familiar hazard of academic and collegiate life: the clever, cantankerous, self-absorbed and selfdeceiving bore.”
According to Roberts, Weishaupt’s true passion was for intrigue. From an early age, he had been fascinated by secret societies like the Pythagorean Brotherhood. He joined a Masonic lodge in 1774, but found himself disappointed by the Freemasons’ lack of political aspirations or genuine secrecy, and by the high membership fees. He decided to start a secret society of his own. The inaugural meeting was held on May 1, 1776, with just Weishaupt and four of his students in attendance. He called it the Order of the Illuminati.
Weishaupt’s dual personality was woven into the fabric of the Illuminati. Its philosophy was idealistic to the point of na’iveté. The sole goal of the order, according to the statutes Weishaupt drew up, was
“to render unto man the importance of the perfection of reason and his moral character . . . to oppose the wicked designs in the world, to assist against the injustice suffered by the unfortunate and the oppressed, to encourage men of merit, and in general to facilitate the means of knowing and science.”
On the other hand, being the supreme leader of his very own secret society allowed Weishaupt to indulge his taste for attention and subterfuge. He carefully curated an aura of mystery for his sect. Initiates were required to take false names, learn a secret vocabulary, go through an elaborate set of initiation rites, and were instructed to sever ties with family and friends. To recruit new initiates, Weishaupt had Illuminati members infiltrate Masonic lodges and pick off their members. Weishaupt developed an elaborate hierarchy, which was itself concealed from all but the most senior members. Advancement required complete, unquestioning obedience. The true political goals of the order, the peaceful transformation of society, were only gradually revealed as a member climbed up the many ranks.
By the early 1780s, the order had gained around three hundred members spread across Europe. But the expansion came at the cost of secrecy. Weishaupt’s pedantic, domineering personality rubbed some recruits the wrong way. A few members spilled the beans about Illuminati activity to nonmembers, often with alarming exaggerations.
By 1784, rumors about the order had caught the attention of the authorities. The Bavarian government issued an edict banning unauthorized associations, and Weishaupt suspended the Illuminati’s meetings. Material continued to leak, and scurrilous rumors were increasingly published by journalists and repeated by preachers, accusing the Illuminati of “irreligion, disloyalty to the dynasty, political intrigue and moral corruption.”
In a last-ditch effort to exonerate his order, Weishaupt personally approached Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria, and told him most of the Illuminati’s secrets. It proved to be in vain. On March 2, 1785, Theodore issued another edict, specifically condemning the Illuminati. Weishaupt fled Bavaria. Investigations commenced, arrests were made, and masses of the llluminati’s secret documents, including Weishaupt’s personal letters, were published for all to see. The Illuminati was gone, but not forgotten.
The discovery of a very real secret society with very real political aspirations, combined with the many horribly embellished rumors about its sordid, subversive activity, was a recipe for confusion and alarm. Already it was rumored that Weishaupt’s secret society continued to operate, and had simply gone underground. Freed from the hassle of actually existing, the Illuminati grew to mythic proportions in the fretful imaginations of its critics, not only in Bavaria, but across Europe and as far afield as the newly independent United States.
The exposure of Weishaupt’s Illuminati tarnished the reputation of the Freemasons, too. A few lodges really had been infiltrated, after all, and who was to say that all the Illuminati operatives had been ferreted out. The conspiratorial machinations of subversive secret societies increasingly looked like a viable explanation for troubling events. And then the French Revolution happened.
“It is very easy today to underrate the emotional shock of the French Revolution,” Roberts notes. “Because it opened an era of revolution in which we still live, we are used to the idea of revolution in a way in which the men of the eighteenth century were not.” Over the course of ten violent, chaotic years, between 1789 and 1799, the age-old ways of hereditary aristocratic privilege crumbled, to be replaced with a new, more egalitarian, secular society. The revolutionary ideas began to spread across Europe, and soon millions of people had been granted basic human rights that they had never before enjoyed, while the aristocracy suddenly found their power and wealth decimated.
It was a profound and unprecedented transformation, the rapid emergence of an entirely new political reality. People understandably struggled to come to terms with it. “The scale and violence of the changes . . . seemed to exhaust all conventional and familiar categories of explanation,” Roberts wrote. “Some new dimension of understanding was needed.”
At the tail end of the Revolution, in 1797, two authors published, almost simultaneously, books that provided that new dimension of understanding. One was Augustin de Barruel. Barruel was a French nobleman, an ordained Jesuit priest, and a polemicist. He had already earned some literary success for his publications criticizing the Enlightenment philosophy, based on his staunch religious views.
In 1789, the year the French Revolution broke out, Barruel had published a pamphlet blaming it on the corrupting ideology of the Enlightenment and the weakness of the French clergy. But by 1797, when he published the first two volumes of his Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, Barruel had become convinced that the whole thing had actually been carefully engineered from behind the scenes. “Even the most horrid deeds perpetrated during the French Revolution, every thing was foreseen and resolved on, was premeditated and combined,” he wrote; “they were the offspring of deep thought villainy.” The villains, he claimed, included the Enlightenment Philosophers, the Freemasons, and the Jacobins. But these groups, Barruel wrote, were only the “most obvious villains in a great plot whose authors and agents have been far longer at work and are far more widespread.” Lurking behind them all, coordinating the whole scheme, Barruel said, was an even more powerful, sinister enemy: Adam Weishaupt’s dreaded Illuminati, whose “aim is not merely the destruction of the French monarch but universal dissolution, the overthrow of society and religion itself.”
Scotsman John Robison, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, had the same idea. He published his book shortly after Barruel, under the snappy title Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free-Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies, etc., Collected from good authorities. Though Robison disagreed with Barruel over a few of the details, his premise was the same. The Illuminati was behind the French Revolution, he said, and it was only their first step toward inciting total, worldwide anarchy.
According to Robison, the Illuminati leaders “disbelieved every word that they uttered, and every doctrine that they taught . . . Their real intention was to abolish all religion, overturn every government, and make the world a general plunder and a wreck.” In case his readers weren’t alarmed enough, Robison warned that the Illuminati “still exists, still works in secret . . . Its emissaries are endeavoring to propagate their detestable doctrines among us.”
Rob Brotherton is an academic psychologist and science writer who likes to walk on the weird side of psychology. Rob completed a doctoral degree on the psychology of conspiracy theories, and taught classes on why people believe weird stuff and science communication as a member of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. He now lives in New York City. Rob writes about conspiracy theories on his website ConspiracyPsychology.com.
Suspicious Minds. Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories
by Rob Brotherton
get it at Amazon.com