More Americans Than You Might Think Believe In Conspiracy Theories

Research from the University of Chicago indicates that at least 50 percent of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, drops by with juicy new research. He's here with us again. Shankar, what's on your mind?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I want to talk about conspiracy theories today, David. And this is everything from whether the U.S. government was secretly behind the 9/11 attacks to whether President Obama was actually born in the United States. What proportion of the U.S population would you say subscribes to one of these theories?

GREENE: Ten, 15 percent, maybe? I don't know.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I would've guessed at most 20 percent. And that's why this new research by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood at the University of Chicago took me aback. They find that 50 percent of the country subscribes to at least one of these conspiracy theories. So 19 percent of Americans believe the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks. 25 percent believe the recent financial crisis was caused by the small cabal of Wall Street bankers. 11 percent of people believe the government is mandating a switch to compact florescent light bulbs because the light bulbs make people obedient and easy to control.

GREENE: Oh, wow. Shankar, I wonder if it's worth reminding people exactly what a conspiracy theory is.

VEDANTAM: Here's how I think about it. A conspiracy theory is where you believe in a theory where no matter how much disconfirming evidence comes in, you somehow convert that disconfirming evidence into part of the conspiracy. So with Barack Obama's birth certificate, for example, the moment the birth certificate came out from Hawaii, the people who believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States would say the Hawaiian hospital now is in on the conspiracy as well.

GREENE: Conspiracy theories have been around for a while. I mean, there are questions about whether Pearl Harbor was a way to get the United States and World War II. I mean, there are questions about JFK's assassination. You're not saying that 50 percent believe in all these things, but just 50 percent of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory like this.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think what this research is suggesting is that the willingness to believe in one of these theories is really widespread across the spectrum. And different groups of people might believe different theories, but the propensity to believe seems really widespread.

GREENE: Where does that propensity come from?

VEDANTAM: Well, that's what the research was trying to address. And you know, the stereotype about people who believe such theories is that they're poorly educated, or superstitious or that they are political partisans. It turns out the consistent predictor of such beliefs is something that you might almost call an All-American attitude - a belief in individualism, distrust of authority. And together those things translate into a desire to avoid being controlled by large secret forces.

GREENE: Many things that make us Americans might make us sort of more likely to at least believe in one of these things.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly what the researchers are trying to say.

GREENE: Interesting stuff as always. Shankar, thanks for coming in.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: That NPR's Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR News.

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