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The unbelievable psychology of conspiracy theories (Book Review)

99 Days ago

Title: Suspicious Minds - Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories; Author: Rob Brotherton; Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma; Pages: 304; Price: Rs.499

There are people who believe the world or their country is run by by a secret society, John F. Kennedy's assassination was a bigger conspiracy, the moon landings were faked, Princess Diana was murdered, 9/11 was not an Al Qaeda plot, UFOs exist and global warming is a myth.

In the Indian context, many believe Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose didn't die in the air crash in 1945 and there is a conspiracy to hide the truth about his fate, there was much more than has been revealed about the assassinations of Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi, and more recently, that some particular institutions are anti-national hubs, and so on.

Conspiracy theories can be found anywhere. And we may not have to go far.

Many of us may suspect them in our own life and work, when we have an unsuccessful relationship or opportunities or promotions at work bypass us. We do enjoy them as a form of leisure - remember Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code"?

But what actually is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and does the internet era of instant communication and boundless information play any role?

These, and many other related questions are what academic psychologist and writer Rob Brotherton, who "likes to walk on the weird side of psychology", seeks to deal with in this book.

First taking on the perception that conspiracy theorists are "just a few (male) kooks lurking on the paranoid fringes of society with bizarre ideas about shape-shifting reptilian aliens running society in secret", the former lecturer of psychology at London's Goldsmiths College stresses that they are no fringe affairs, women can be as conspiracy-minded as men, and age, education and intellect level don't make a difference.

"There are more conspiracy theorists out there than you might expect. Chances are you know some. Chances are you are one," he notes.

But the difference between conspiracies and conspiracy theory must be appreciated, with the latter being greater the sum of its parts, in not simply being a theory about conspiracy but a bigger psychological phenomenon with many similar motifs even when they are uniquely different theories, he says.

And they are not an modern phenomenon, fuelled by mass media and the internet, with with one of the oldest and most famous stretching back to the first century AD when Nero fiddled as Rome burnt.

But Brotherton, who mentions several of the most notorious conspiracy theories, says his intention is not to provide a list of them and prove or disprove them, as his book is more about "conspiracy thinking" or "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".

And in the course of an wittily entertaining but most illuminating romp through history and psychology, he seeks to throw light on why "many of us are drawn to implausible, unproven and unproveable theories", believe in them more when others try to prove them false - and what this tells us about ourselves.

Brotherton however does admits "there is a hidden side to reality, a secret realm buzzing with clandestine activity and covert operations", an "invisible network" which screens and manipulates information, "steers what we think and believe", "even shapes the decision we make" and molds our perception to its own agenda.

Is it the Illuminati? The Priory of Sion? The New World Order? A powerful bureaucracy, business corporation or media? All of them? No, it something more powerful - and inescapable.

It is our own brain - and its strange processes and cognitive biases, our "deepest desires, fears, and assumptions about the world", and with an built-in inclination for order and recognisable patterns which can allow some to use incomplete, contradictory, and coincidental information to see connections and conspiracies even where they are none.

Will you believe this, or think this is a conspiracy too?

(19.02.2016 - Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians. (IANS)

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