A friend of mine recently convinced me to watch "Loose Change", a documentary about the alleged conspiracy and cover-up of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by the U.S. government. I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, and I knew little of the specific theories surrounding 9/11, but I watched the film with the most open mind I could muster.
I found the film to be very engaging, and though I didn't buy the film's conspiracy and cover-up hypotheses, it did make me question whether something important was being kept secret. Seeing the conspiracy theories laid out so confidently and so sensationalistically also helped me to understand why one-third to one-half of Americans believe that our government either was somehow involved in the attacks or covered up information about them.
One reason I generally have trouble accepting conspiracy theories is that they're usually based on far-fetched claims that are nearly impossible to disprove, or prove. My skepticism is further strengthened by the fact that we humans have an assortment of cognitive biases that can distort our judgments and allow us to maintain beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some of these biases include the tendency to see patterns where none exist, and to interpret new information and recall old information in ways that confirm our expectations and beliefs. However, most of the time we're unaware of these biases and overly confident that our perceptions represent the objective truth.
Melley proposes that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual's right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one's own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, "intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy" to outside forces or regulators.
When fervent individualists feel that they cannot exercise their independence, they experience a crisis and assume that larger forces are to blame for usurping this freedom. "For one who refuses to relinquish the assumptions of liberal individualism, such newly revealed forms of regulation frequently seem so unacceptable or unbelievable that they can only be met with anxiety, melodrama, or panic."
For one thing, conspiracy theories help us cope with distressing events and make sense out of them. Conspiracies assure us that bad things don't just happen randomly. Conspiracies tell us that someone out there is accountable, however unwittingly or secretly or incomprehensibly, so it's possible to stop these people and punish them and in due course let everyone else re-establish control over their own lives. Conspiracies also remind us that we shouldn't blame ourselves for our predicaments; it's not our fault, it's them! In these ways, believing in conspiracies serves many of the same self-protective functions as scapegoating.