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Requirements for a Conspiracy Theory

January 1, 2009

What are the attributes of a Conspiracy Theory?

We love conspiracy theories. Ideas about the perpetrators of 9/11, reasons for hiding aliens at Roswell, NM, or how a local politician came to power provoke heated explanations for adherents to each particular conspiracy theory (CT).

What are conspiracy theories? How are the grown? How do they evolve? What purposes do they serve? How do they trap us? How do they help us explain the World? Why are they so attractive?

Below are attributes of conspiracy theories that I distilled from recent conversations with coffee, beer and hiking buddies.  I am not convinced it is useful to distinguish whether a particular CT is true or not. I don’t know that actual conspirators have any of these attributes. Rather, below I am trying to describe what external adherents to a CT must project on the inside actors of the CT for it to maintain its vibrant, attractive CT status:

(1) Theme or Metaphor.  There is always a central, organizing idea.  Usually some awesome or horrific event gains a back story and not-so-obvious context.

(2) Inside (and Outside) Actors.  There is an inside group of Actors (the conspirators). The identity of the inside actors may not be known, but it is very important to the CT.  Outside actors are tools or pawns–ignorant players in someone else’s game. Inside actors are conscious of their actions and identity. A good CT splits the World into three neat groups:

    (a) Inside Actors
    (b) Ignorant Outsiders: They don’t know "what is really going on"
    (c) Helpless Outsiders: They know, but are powerless to stop the CT.  (This is the person telling you about the CT!)

(3) Secrecy. Information has to be held back by the inside actors. Transparency kills the need for a CT.  Secret information can be about the actors (it may be known that there are many actors, but their identities are be kept secret), the theme (you will hear the phrase "what is really going on") or the actors plans for future actions. I refer to these as identity, metaphor and plans.

(4) Nefarious Objectives.  We don’t have a good CT without the actors’ bad intentions. A benevolent and secret objective is an O’Henry story, not a CT.

(5) Steadfast Motivations.  This is closely related to (4) but important to call out separately because sustaining a CT sometimes requires the actors to have very powerful motivations that are not fleeting (e.g. anger and lust are out because they come and go much too quickly) but rather enduring (revenge, religious fundamentalism, spite).

(6) Discipline.  Again, this is related to (4) and (5). In most cases, the CT depends on the Actors keeping the secrets (identity, metaphor and plans), acting in alignment with the metaphor, and nurturing possible unusual motivations in the face of opposition, punishment and failure.  And they often have to carry all this knowledge to the grave for the sake of the survival of the actors and the metaphor.  This property of CT insiders is remarkable given normal people’s general lack of ability to keep the smallest secrets.

Are there any attributes missing?


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