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America's 10 most popular conspiracy theories
America's most popular conspiracy theories and the science behind them.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
First of all, it's not just a few loners on the internet—prior research indicates that half the American public believes in at least one conspiracy theory in any given year.
Political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, who studied the subject, defined a conspiracy theory as “an explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim." A conspiracy theory does not have to be untrue, but it is sure to contradict the usual, popularly-accepted version of the same event or phenomena.
Once a conspiracy theory becomes the accepted explanation, it stops being a conspiracy theory and becomes a fact of history. This certainly is one reason people continue to believe—they hope their views will eventually be proven right.
Some have viewed conspiracy theories as a particular affectation of the American right, with President Trump being both a proponent and target of a number of conspiracy theories. Historian Richard J. Hofstadter's influential essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics" described a paranoid strain that runs through the thinking of far right politicians in America's history that can be still discerned today. This approach views all of history as a “vast and sinister" conspiracy of sorts, whose “gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life". This rather apocalyptic way of belief sees the world in constant turmoil, where only the one who understands the conspiracy can defend the attacked way of life, destroy the enemy and save humanity.
Modern researchers, however, challenge the view that conspiracies are an exclusively rightwing feature, seeing such theories as a kind of magical thinking that allows people from all walks of life and political persuasions to cope with complex emotions, often brought on by an inexplicable event.
Certainly, in the wake of President Trump's victory, there's been no shortage of conspiracy theories that sprang up on the left. Such an occasion can trigger people to look for patterns, to make sense of an emotional upheaval. But the mental shortcuts that we use when searching for patterns (called heuristics) can often find relationships between things and events that aren't necessarily there. An explanation that includes such heuristics can feel very compelling and emotionally satisfying.
The view that people believe in conspiracies when they feel a lack of control was studied by Professor Galinsky:
“The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics," explained Galinsky. "Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening. While some misperceptions can be bad or lead one astray, they're extremely common and most likely satisfy a deep and enduring psychological need."
This understanding can also lead to a strategy for combatting conspiracy theories, as studied by the Dutch researcher Jan-Willem van Prooijen.
“We found that if you give people a feeling of control, then they are less inclined to believe those conspiracy theories," said van Prooijen. “Giving people a sense of control can make them less suspicious over governmental operations."
Another recent theory posed by researchers actually sees conspiracy talk as a way to bolster the status quo. Potential existence of conspiracies can allow people to have a positive feeling about the society they live in when that social system is threatened. This way if something happens that is out of line with their views (like the election of Donald Trump was for many), people can blame a few bad apples instead of coming to feel like their whole country is against them. Although Russia's interference in the United States 2016 presidential election is proving to be true—a conspiracy that may soon enter history as fact.
Here are some of the most common conspiracy theories of the recent past:
1. Secret Group Controlling World - this conspiracy proposes that a secret group called the Iluminati has been really controlling the world and is looking to create a one world government. Their end-goal is supposedly to create the New World Order, which will dissolve national boundaries and people's identities, while allowing for total authoritarian control.
A version of this theory also sees other groups in a similar position of world domination - the Freemasons, the Jewish people, the Bilderberg Group or the “globalists" that are often invoked in rightwing media outlets like Alex Jones and Breitbart News. President Trump himself mentions “globalists" and invokes fighting against insidious “elites" as a battle cry for his base.
2. President Obama Wasn't Born in the U.S. and May Be a Secret Muslim - this untrue proposition was famously championed on Twitter and elsewhere by the current President Donald Trump. The theory that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya and is not a natural-born citizen (and thus ineligible for U.S. Presidency) was used to delegitimize President Obama.
Despite Obama producing a long-form birth certificate to placate the doubters, showing that he was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and an American mother, 72% of Republicans in a 2016 NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll still expressed skepticism about the President's place of birth.
President Obama's long-form birth certificate.
Another aspect of this conspiracy alleges that Obama is actually a Muslim, although he is a very well-documented Christian. This idea is fueled by Obama living with his Muslim father as a baby and speaks to the anti-Muslim fears stoked by politicians and talkshow hosts.
3. The Attacks on 9/11 Were an Inside Job - a community of “truthers" has emerged around the idea that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were actually orchestrated by the U.S. government, stemming from the White House itself. They believe the Bush administration had advanced knowledge of the attacks and allowed them to happen so they could invade Iraq and advance their agenda.
The “truthers" claim that jet fuel from the planes was not enough to melt the steel beams of the World Trade Center towers, which were actually brought down by a controlled demolition.
This theory was, of course, widely debunked but continues to live on. One reason for the idea's longevity is that historical facts did prove that the war in Iraq was justified using incorrect information about the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction.
4. Lizard People aka “Reptilians" Are Running the World - this is a very sci-fi, Hollywood variation on secret groups controlling us, famously championed by David Icke, a professional conspiracy theorist from Britain, who is also a big player in the “truther" movement. The idea also has support from 12 million Americans, according to a 2013 national survey.
What they believe is that the top echelon of our government is actually controlled by shape-shifting reptilian aliens, who have been lording power over humans to make them into mindless slaves for their own purposes.
Photo taken 17 January 2005 in Amsterdam, of an iguana's head. (Photo credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
5. JFK Assassination
51% of Americans believed that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in a large national survey in 2013. The popularity of this particular theory stems from the horrific murder in 1963 of President Kennedy and the subsequent lack of a clear, satisfying explanation for who was really behind it.
While the shooter Lee Harvey Oswald got the official blame, parties as divergent as the CIA, KGB, or the mob have been implicated in the public consciousness. The particulars of the theory focus on analyzing whether there was just one gunman and if more shots were fired than officially claimed.
Photo: Jacqueline Kennedy, Edward Kennedy and Robert Kennedy stand as the coffin of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy passes them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
6. Aliens Are Contacting Us - a variety of events come under the rubric of beliefs in alien contact. Among these are mysteries like the alleged 1947 crash of a flying saucer in Roswell, New Mexico. The ensuing government coverup of that incident supposedly links to Area 51, a top-secret military base where experimental research is carried out, giving rise to rumors that the studies are actually on aliens and their technology.
A group of protestors march in front of the General Accounting Office (GAO) 29 March to raise awareness about an examination being conducted by the GAO for documents about a weather balloon crash at Roswell, N.M. in 1947. The protestors believe the balloon was a crashed UFO.(Photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/AFP/Getty Images)
Believing in UFOs is definitely one of the most widespread alternative beliefs, with ongoing explorations of the topic in cultural products and a steady stream of first-person claims that are spread through the Internet.
7. The Moon Landing Was Faked - one of the most significant scientific and political achievements of the last century, landing on the moon, often comes under attack.
Photo: Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin poses next to the U.S. flag July 20, 1969 on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. (Photo by NASA/Liaison)
Some people believe that the landing did not happen and its appearance was orchestrated by NASA/American government as part of the Cold War, to raise national pride and one up the arch-rival Soviet Union.
Supporters of the idea point to such things as the flag appearing to move in photos from the moon, something that should not happen as there is no wind in space. This was disproved by pointing out that the flag only appears to move during the moment of unfurling, something which would happen even without wind.
A variation of this theory even goes so far as to say that the famous film director Stanley Kubrick was the creative mastermind of the fake footage of the landing.
8. FDA is Withholding the Cure for Cancer - this idea maintains that the FDA and Big Pharmaactually figured out how to cure cancer a while back, but are not making the medicine available. While Big Pharma has not made itself many friends among the public, there is no evidence that such a vast conspiracy is possible as it would require the participation of thousands if not millions of people in both for-profit and non-profit sectors. It makes more sense that selling the cure would actually make more money. It's also hard to believe that these evil medical professionals would not use the cures on themselves and their families, a fact that would likely come to light eventually.
9. Chemtrails - another conspiracy theory mainstay, this idea says that the trails you can spot in the sky behind planes are actually “chemtrails" - some kind of chemical sprayed by the government to control the population. Of course, the trails are just “contrails," created by the combination of vapor from the plane's engine combined with low temperatures at night altitudes.
Photo: Two commercial airliners appear to fly close together as the pass over London on March 12, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
10. The Holocaust Did Not Happen - you would think there's no doubting a well-documented historical fact of 6 million Jews being exterminated by German Nazis in the recent past, supported by thousands of photos, films and first-hand accounts, but there are some people who believe the Holocaust did not happen.
Photo: Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp May 7, 1945 in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for 'scientific' experiments. (Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers)
Only about 54% of the world's population has heard of the Holocaust, according to a large 100-country survey by the Anti-Defamation League. And only a third of those who've heard of it believe the Holocaust is portrayed correctly.
Given political realities, it's not a surprise that only 8% of responders in the Middle East heard of the Holocaust and believed its description was true.
Scientists find routes using arches of chaos that can lead to much faster space travel.
- Researchers discovered a route through the Solar System that can allow for much faster spacecraft travel.
- The path takes advantage of "arches of chaos" within space manifolds.
- The scientists think this "celestial superhighway" can help humans get to the far reaches of the galaxy.
Humanity could be making its way through the Solar System much faster thanks to the discovery of a new superhighway network among space manifolds. Don't get your engines roaring along this "celestial autobahn" just yet, but the researchers believe the new pathways can eventually be used by spacecraft to get to the outer reaches of our Solar System with relative haste.
The celestial highway could get comets and asteroids from Jupiter to Neptune in less than a decade. Compare that to hundreds of thousands or even millions of years it might ordinarily take for space objects to traverse the Solar System. In a century of travel along the new routes, a 100 astronomical units could be covered, project the scientists. For reference, an astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun or about 93 million miles.
The international research team included Nataša Todorović, Di Wu, and Aaron Rosengren from the Belgrade Astronomical Observatory in Serbia, the University of Arizona, and UC San Diego. Their new paper proposes a dynamic route, going along connected series of arches within so-called space manifolds. These structures, coming into existence from gravitational effects between the Sun and the planets, stretch from the asteroid belt to past Uranus.
The most pronounced of these structures are linked to Jupiter by its strong gravitational pull, explained UC San Diego's press release. They influence the comets around the gas giant as well as smaller space objects called "centaurs," with are like asteroids in size but exhibit the composition of comets.
This animation shows space manifolds over a hundred years. Each frame of the animation shows how the arches and substructures appear over three-year increments.
Credit: Nataša Todorović, Di Wu and Aaron Rosengren/Science Advances
"Space manifolds act as the boundaries of dynamical channels enabling fast transportation into the inner- and outermost reaches of the Solar System," write the researchers. "Besides being an important element in spacecraft navigation and mission design, these manifolds can also explain the apparent erratic nature of comets and their eventual demise."
A closer image of the manifolds showing colliding and escaping objects.
Credit: Science Advances
The researchers discovered the structures by analyzing collected numerical data on the millions of orbits in the Solar System. The scientists figured out how these orbits were contained within known space manifolds. To detect the presences and structure of the space manifolds, the team employed the fast Lyapunov indicator (FLI), used to detect chaos. The scientists ran simulations to compute how the trajectories of particles approaching different planets like Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune would be affected by possible collisions and the manifolds.
While the results are encouraging, the next step is to figure out how these arches can be used by spacecraft for much speedier travel. It's also not clear how similar manifolds work near Earth. Also unclear is how they impact our planet's run-ins with asteroids and meteorites or any of the man-made objects floating up in space near us.
Check out the new paper "The arches of chaos in the Solar System" in Science Advances.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."