Conspiracy theories seem to hold particular appeal for Americans, said Robert Goldberg, a historian at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. One reason is that we’ve been raised on a diet of Hollywood movies that are full of sabotage, double agents and convoluted plots.
At the same time, he said, the U.S. government has long invoked conspiracy to disparage its enemies, from Communist supporters to militia groups. Even Hillary Clinton talked about the vast right-wing conspiracy that was out to get her husband.
Eighty percent of Americans believe that conspiracy was involved in JFK’s death, Goldberg said. And more than a third believe that the United States either had a hand in the 9/11 attacks or stood aside when they occurred.
Only about 20 percent of Americans trust the government to do what’s right all or most of the time, according to a recent poll, he added. That decline of faith, combined with the appeal of a good story, sets people up to believe theories that involve secret plots.
Conspiracy theories also appeal when an event is especially horrible and when available explanations are plagued by ambiguity.
“Conspiracy theories give us a rationale, they give us reason to remove the randomness from what seem to be random, senseless acts,” Goldberg said. “They provide emotional sustenance and retaining power. They tell us what happened and why it happened and they point fingers at perpetrators. They give us targets that we can do something about.”
For some people, conspiracy theories are a fun way to speculate about what-ifs. But at their root, Goldberg said, suspicious hypotheses symbolize a lack of trust in an institution. Taken to an extreme, that same sentiment can motivate terrible acts like the Boston bombing.
“Lots of people for lots of different reasons become very fixated on different beliefs and sometimes they do so independent of the evidence,” Marcus said. “Most conspiracy theorists don’t commit crimes because it’s fun to talk about whether there was another shooter in the Kennedy assassination.”
“But some people cross the line and take a belief that’s important to them and act on it in the worst case in a violent way,” he added. “You probably don’t become a terrorist unless you have strong beliefs.”