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Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories
     

Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories

by Rob Brotherton
 

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Decoding the psychology of believing in conspiracy theories. We're all conspiracy theorists--some of us just hide it better than others.

Conspiracy theorists aren't just a handful of people who wear tin-foil hats and have bizarre ideas about shape-shifting reptilian aliens. Conspiracy theories are as likely to appeal to women as to men, college students as to

Overview

Decoding the psychology of believing in conspiracy theories. We're all conspiracy theorists--some of us just hide it better than others.

Conspiracy theorists aren't just a handful of people who wear tin-foil hats and have bizarre ideas about shape-shifting reptilian aliens. Conspiracy theories are as likely to appeal to women as to men, college students as to retired professors, middle-class bloggers as to blue-collar workers.

Psychological research sheds light on why some people are more drawn to conspiracy thinking, especially when they feel discontented, distrustful, and desire privileged knowledge. But ultimately we are all natural-born conspiracy theorists. Our brains are wired to see patterns and to weave unrelated data points into complex stories. We instinctively see events in the world in terms of human motives and intentions, leading us to discount the role of chance and unintended consequences, and we look for some hidden hand behind catastrophic events. These psychological quirks can lead us to suspect a conspiracy where none exists.

Conspiracy theories have existed throughout history, from ancient Athens and Rome to present day theories about 9/11 and who shot JFK. Suspicious Minds explores the phenomenon and reveals the important consequences conspiracy theories can have--from discouraging parents from vaccinating their children against deadly diseases to hampering political policies to combat climate change.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Adrian Chen
Brotherton's main argument is that we all possess a conspiracy mind-set to some extent, because it is hard-wired into our brains…[His] aim in reframing conspiracy thinking as a common psychological phenomenon rather than a dangerous form of social pathology is to force us to confront the uncomfortable fact that many of our own beliefs rest on the same logically shaky ground as 9/11 truthers and anti-vaxxers…In the end…Suspicious Minds offers a convincing argument against the common practice of tarring political opponents as conspiracy theorists. This is meant as an appeal to reason, but it usually acts as a rhetorical nuke that blows the debate out of rational waters.
Publishers Weekly
★ 09/07/2015
Observing that conspiracy theories can be fluid in nature (“One person’s conspiracy theory is the next person’s conspiracy fact”), Brotherton, a former lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, nimbly sidesteps the rabbit hole of proving or disproving specific conspiracies by focusing on the phenomenon as a whole. The concept has been around at least since Nero’s alleged fiddling while Rome burned (as it turns out, he was out of town at the time and immediately sought to provide food and shelter for victims upon his return). Over the course of this all-too-short book, Brotherton illustrates how incomplete, contradictory, coincidental, and incongruent information can allow people to see conspiracies and connections where there are none, due in part to the theories’ plausibility and humans’ innate desire for order, as well as a given individual’s understanding of how the world works. Put simply, people want to believe. Brotherton maintains an educational approach to the material, leading readers through the logic behind each concept as he explores subjects as diverse as the Illuminati, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (“not a very good fake”), the Kennedy assassination, and birthers. While Brotherton might not convince all believers to remove their tinfoil hats (a concept whose origin he explains), it’s sure to make readers question their worldview. (Nov.)
Library Journal
★ 09/01/2015
If the title of this book makes you suspicious of the author's motives, then Brotherton (formerly psychology, Goldsmiths, Univ. of London) will understand. We all possess brains with the programming necessary to look for and find conspiracies, he says. A little paranoia helped our species survive and evolve, and the trait lingers. His goal is not just to poke holes in the seemingly infinite number of conspiracy theories out there but instead to examine what it is that makes them so enduring. By thinking that conspiracies are the territory of "them" in the tinfoil hats and not all of us, we risk ignoring how our own biases shape our beliefs. Confirmation bias is the most common example of this phenomenon, says Brotherton. We are wired to reach conclusions quickly and then to seek out confirming facts. The ease with which we can now surround ourselves with others who support those pre-existing conclusions gives them impressive staying power. VERDICT Clearly written and with liberal use of humor and numerous examples from scholarly research, this title provides a valuable look at why conspiracy theories abound and why we should continually assess our thinking.—Richard Maxwell, Porter Adventist Hosp. Lib., Denver
Kirkus Reviews
2015-08-15
Combining historical anecdote and psychology research, Brotherton endeavors to explain how the human mind concocts conspiracy theories and the effects of these theories on society. The author is a clear and sober writer, and he describes a host of far-fetched plots in sociological context. He summarizes the origins of the Illuminati, The Protocols of the Wise Elders of Zion, the so-called "Umbrella Man," and the Bilderberg Group, demonstrating how each phenomenon triggered rumormongering and even mass panic. Brotherton also includes current examples, connecting the "anti-vaxxer" movement and disappearance of Flight 370 to earlier instances of vaccination fears and missing aircraft. Setting aside complex neurology, the author cites simple studies and real-world examples, breezily explaining how the brain takes confusing information and "connects the dots." He argues that conspiracy theories are the brain's natural attempt to create order in uncertain times. Some of these conspiracies are harmless or amusing, such as Elvis Presley faking his own death. Others are far more serious and have led to libel, hysteria, and death. By fringe standards, Brotherton is conservative in his assessments of popular theories: he doesn't seem to believe that the moon landings were faked, that vaccines cause autism, or that shape-shifting lizards control the world. However, the author shows empathy for people who want to believe: "Given what we know about the FBI spying on anyone they think is subversive; military plans to assassinate foreign leaders and innocent civilians; and recent revelations about the National Security Agency's unprecedented snooping abilities, we can all perhaps be forgiven a little prudent paranoia." The world of conspiracy theory is a minefield of manic personalities, but Brotherton uses a measured scientific tone to explain our more creative anxieties. His writing style is inviting and even cheeky, and the book is a page-turner. A thoughtful, general analysis of conspiracy theories arguing that belief in secret plots is neither new nor unusual but a time-tested part of the human experience.
From the Publisher

"[W]hen we’re faced with events we cannot understand, it’s natural for our brains to create a narrative--even if it means ‘casting the world in terms of "us versus"' to potentially dangerous ends, as Brotherton puts it. ‘There are more conspiracy theorists out there than you might expect,’ he writes. ‘Chances are you know some. Chances are you are one.’" - TIME

"[Brotherton] casts doubt on the assumption that far-fetched beliefs are reserved for the simple-minded or the exceedingly paranoid . . . Although we like to think our judgments are based on evidence, Brotherton reveals that a host of psychological factors come into play whenever we choose what to believe." - Scientific American

"Brotherton relates the history of conspiracy theories, from the Illuminati and the Great Fire of London to Area 51 and the 9/11 attacks. But he is loath to write off any of these ideas as limited to a lunatic fringe." -Psychology Today

"Clearly written and with liberal use of humor and numerous examples from scholarly research, this title provides a valuable look at why conspiracy theories abound and why we should continually assess our thinking." - starred review, Library Journal

"Brotherton illustrates how incomplete, contradictory, coincidental, and incongruent information can allow people to see conspiracies and connections where there are none, due in part to the theories’ plausibility and humans’ innate desire for order . . . While Brotherton might not convince all believers to remove their tinfoil hats (a concept whose origin he explains), it’s sure to make readers question their worldview." - starred review, Publishers Weekly

"[Brotherton's] writing style is inviting and even cheeky, and the book is a page-turner. A thoughtful, general analysis of conspiracy theories arguing that belief in secret plots is neither new nor unusual but a time-tested part of the human experience." - Kirkus Reviews

"A thought-provoking analysis and an appealing guide to thinking about conspiracies, real and imagined." -Wall Street Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781472915610
Publisher:
Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
11/17/2015
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
419,199
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author


Rob Brotherton, a former lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, is a leading expert on the psychology of conspiracy theory. He has written about conspiracy theories for periodicals such as New Scientist and the Skeptic magazine, and on his website, conspiracypsychology.com. He currently lives in New York City.

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