The Cost Of Conspiracy Theories

Linda Besner considers how extreme or unorthodox viewpoints reshape mainstream culture:

Recent research suggests that the current prevalence of Enemy Above conspiracy theories [in which the threat comes from our own government and institutions] has a direct social consequence—lower voter turnout and public engagement. A study by psychologists Daniel Jolley and Karen M. Douglas, published in the February 2014 issue of the British Journal of Psychology, found that exposing subjects to conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana or climate change decreased participants’ self-reported likelihood to vote, donate money to political groups, or wear campaign stickers.

These conspiracy theories can take a while to kick in:

In the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, people were inclined to believe the official story. In 1963, a poll showed that 29 per cent of Americans trusted the accuracy of the Warren Commission’s report; in 2001, only 13 per cent believed the official narrative. Similarly, the Joint Inquiry that compiled the government’s take on the events of 9/11 was initially well received, but by 2004 polls showed a growing disbelief in its findings. A polling company found that in April of 2013, 11 per cent of American voters believed the U.S. government let the attacks on the World Trade Center happen. The “truther” movement has been actively organizing lectures and tours to tout their point of view, and while mainstream audiences may not be attending these events … [exposure] to the doubts of others has a psychological effect, even when we consciously dismiss their objections.