We feel that we can trust you with an important secret: There is a secret group controlling the highest reaches of government, including the Federal Aviation Administration. Every day this nefarious group impregnates jet fuel with a variety of chemicals that mist out from the engines and float down into your lungs. The white lines above you aren’t just contrails—they’re chem trails—made from chemicals expressly designed to subjugate people, turning normally free-thinking Americans into docile drones who accept without question this group’s propaganda. What propaganda? Not only the liberal media but also the subliminal messages embedded in your favorite television programs. With only a 767 passing silently overhead and the right commercial, shadow governments can rob you of your free will.
As you may have guessed, this is an example of a conspiracy theory, broadly called the “chem-trail” theory. Although there is virtually no evidence to support it, that hasn’t stopped many people from believing it and attempting to use their innate psychic powers to disperse the sky chemicals. Conspiracy theories are as old as human society. For as long as there have been social ills, people have blamed them on nefarious, high-agency, low-experience groups such as the Illuminati, the Freemasons, or the shape-shifting lizard people known as Reptilians. Today conspiracies are implicated in everything from the devastation of the 9/11 attacks to the suffering caused by the rise of autism.
Why do conspiracy theories emerge so robustly to explain tragedies such as disease, war, and death? The answer is dyadic completion—bad outcomes lead people to search for an agent to blame. When there is a tragedy, people seldom throw up their hands, say, “C’est la vie,” and accept the inherent randomness of life. Instead they search for meaning, asking not only how something bad could have happened but also who is behind it.
“When there is a tragedy, people seldom throw up their hands, say, “C’est la vie,” and accept the inherent randomness of life. Instead they search for meaning.”
The link between perceptions of harm and perceptions of evil intention is nicely illustrated by a pair of scenarios designed by philosopher Joshua Knobe. Both scenarios feature a chairman of the board presented with a new, profitable project by a company vice president. In the first case, the VP says, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also help the environment.” The chairman of the board then answers, “I don’t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” The question is whether the chairman intentionally helped the environment. Most people in this case answer no—if the CEO doesn’t care about helping the environment, then the help is unintentional. But now consider the second scenario with only one word changed.
The VP now says to the chairman of the board, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.” The chairman of the board then answers, “I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” Did the chairman intentionally harm the environment? Most people now answer yes—if the CEO doesn’t care about harming the environment, then the harm is intentional. This is a striking reversal. His words and deeds were exactly the same in both cases, and in both cases he was motivated only by profit. However, psychologically we perceive the good act to be merely incidental and the evil act to be intentional.
Harm compels us to find a mind to blame, but not all minds are equally blameworthy. You’ll notice that the environmental harm was pinned on a business leader and not a puppy, as dyadic completion can only occur with someone or something that possesses a lot of agency. You’re not going to blame a little girl for the downturn of stocks or a plane crash but instead presidents, cabinet ministers, and corporations. Agentic dyadic completion often locates specific agents to blame. When the environment is harmed because of corporate policies, we blame the CEO; and when a loved one dies from botched surgery, we blame the overconfident doctor.
However, some events are difficult to pin on any one person, whether because the chain of blame is uncertain or because the magnitude of suffering is too great to imagine its being caused by a single individual. In these cases, such as JFK’s assassination, we seek to blame something even more powerful and mysterious: the agentic minds of conspiring groups. Mass destruction calls for mass intentional evil, which conspiracies—with their collection of calculating senators, bankers, and spies—can easily provide. Perhaps the best example of this is from the show The X‐Files, in which a group of men smoke in a shadowy room, pulling the strings on alien abductions, secret experiments, and mind control.
Conspiracy theories are helped by the complicated nature of causation. The most immediate causes of events are often obvious, but their ultimate causes are unclear. Consider the case of the common cold. The immediate reason for your sickness is a quickly replicating virus, but why did you get the virus at that exact time, and why is it making you sick and not your coworkers? Lack of sleep? Lack of vitamin C? Licking too many doorknobs? In the case of JFK’s assassination, the proximate cause was a bullet. But less clear is the ultimate cause of these events: How did Oswald get to the depository unnoticed? How did he purchase the guns? Was the CIA involved?
With any tragedy there are levels upon levels of causation, and we usually keep going up them until arriving at a sufficiently agentic mind, such as a conspiring group. Typically, the bigger the tragedy is, the larger the conspiracy we perceive. Groups harvest their mind from their members, and so the more members are involved in a conspiracy, the more it seems to have agency.
From ”The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels and Why It Matters,” by Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Gray, published on March 22, 2016 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Gray, 2016.
Daniel M. Wegner was the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in Memory of William James at Harvard University, and recipient of the 2011 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association, the 2011 William James Fellow Award of the Association for Psychological Science, and the 2011 Distinguished Scientist Award of the Experimental Social Psychology. He is the author of The Illusion of Conscious Will and The Mind Club, among other books. He passed away in July 2013.
Kurt Gray is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He received his BSc from the University of Waterloo and his Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University. He studies the mysteries of subjective experience, mind perception, and moral cognition. He has been named an APS Rising Star and was awarded the Janet Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Research.
Further Reading & Resources
- Wegner, D. M. & Gray, K. (2016). The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters. New York, NY: Viking.
- Gray, H. M., Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2007). Dimensions of mind perception, Science, 315, 619.
- Gray, K., Young, L., Waytz, A. (2012). Mind perception is the essence of morality. Psychological Inquiry, 23, 101-124
- Gray, K., Knickman, T. A. & Wegner, D. M. (2011). More dead than dead: Perceptions of persons in the persistent vegetative state. Cognition, 121, 275-280
- Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2012). Feeling robots and human zombies: Mind perception and the uncanny valley. Cognition, 125, 125-130.
- Knobe, J. (2003). “Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language.” Analysis, 63, 190-193.
- Wegner, D. M. (2003). The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.