The Stories We Tell Ourselves – Conspiracy Theories

I’m obsessed with conspiracy theories. Not because I believe any of them, but rather I’m obsessed with why people not only believe them, but are completely unwavering in their belief.

Part of it is the very nature of a good conspiracy, that the media and “experts” are all in on it, thus no contradictory information is to be trusted. But, recently, I came across an article in another context that talked about why we tend to blame victims when something bad happens. I quoted it on my other blog, in fact:

“We want to think that if we do the right thing, it’s all going to be OK,” says Hamby. “It’s threatening to see other people not be OK, so we want to come up with an explanation of why that experience won’t happen to us.”

The linked article talks a whole lot about fairness, and our stubborn insistence that life be fair to us. Much of it reminded me of people who believe in conspiracy theories. They want to believe that someone, some group, is manipulating everything. That’s the reason that life can seem unfair at times, not because life is, inherently, unfair, but because someone else is cheating, controlling “the system”.

It’s comforting to us as human beings to think of life as being fair. We’re told from day one that if you’re good, good things will happen. If you work hard, you’ll be rewarded. If you do well in school, you’ll get a good job. If you’re a good spouse, your spouse will love you, and on and on. It’s the story we’ve been told our whole lives and we desperately want it to be true. But we never stop to consider what that would mean if something bad happened to us. Until it does. Then we reach for explanations, no matter how far-fetched.

Stories are powerful things. Anyone who works in marketing will tell you that. As a trainer for all those years, I knew the best way to help solidify a point about how to do something was to tell a story, put it in a context that the student could relate to. We love our stories, as evidence by the way we hang on every new episode of Game of Thrones, or every new Marvel movie, or hate how much our Star Wars story has been altered. 😉

That simple fact though, also creates a weakness in us. We are so desperate to believe in our stories, that we will ignore contradictory evidence. That basic story about life being fair is so ingrained in us that we can too easily buy into anything that explains away reality. Real life really isn’t that clear cut. Lots of people work hard, and get nowhere. “Good” people get sick, die, or become victims. Rather than face that harsh truth, it might just be easier to believe that outside forces are causing things to not be as fair as they should be. Thus, we blame the most serious ills of society on “elites”, or Masons, or whatever group you want to name, who really run things. As if any group of fallible human beings could keep things that organized, secret, and tidy for generations. When we think about the ways social media has been used to “influence” users this is what actually happened. Not that anyone changed their mind about anything, they just saw things that agreed with their story, and starting sharing away! Most without even reading past the headline.

This is the power of a good conspiracy theory, the way it encourages us to believe in those basic stories that we already want to be true. It allows us to suspend doubt, to stop being curious, and to simply disregard anything that doesn’t conform to our story. But human truth is not that easy. In fact, it’s quite messy and complicated. Understanding an issue requires delving into the details, looking at the various opinions and maybe reading actual articles and posts before reacting to them based on a shareable headline.

Of course, that much detail wouldn’t fit in a tweet, so I’m not holding my breath for a deep dive on the details on social media. We can be better than that though. As I said in that other post, maybe if we took the time and learned a more mature way to think about fairness, we could figure out a way to let people who are suffering not also be stigmatized for it. That would actually help them overcome their difficulty, and offer them support, and then, maybe, we could eliminate the knee-jerk reaction of trying to figure out why it wouldn’t ever happen to me. Because it could happen to you, or me, or anyone. The only thing stopping it is not fairness, it’s just dumb luck. Count your blessings, and support those who haven’t been as lucky today. That’s a story worth believing in.


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