Conspiracy theories have been popular largely because the human mind responds to the irrational and the intoxicating inexplicable or enigmatic. This is largely because the rational and empirically-based explanation is not nearly as stimulating to the brain that craves excitement to fill the emotional void. It has always fascinated me that people cling to conspiracy theories, even long after empirical evidence is presented to prove them incontrovertibly false. In some cases, however, empirical evidence validates conspiracy theories, thereby providing further ammunition to those that find such theories appealing, especially in cases involving social, political and economic elites that are involved in scandals, corruption, and "conspiracies". When the World Bank estimates that at least 10 percent or $7.3 trillion of the world's GDP estimated at $73 trillion is black market or subterranean economic activity, how can the average person not accept conspiracy theories and lapse into fatalism?
Naomi Klein's book about the IMF is an example of populist hollowness that appeals to the masses already suspicious of large organization that impact the lives of millions. Those who have studied the role of the IMF using archival materials realize that this extraordinarily thin account that Klein presents is intentionally designed to appeal to the reader's emotions and sense of cynicism about powerful institutions. While scholarly works about the role of the IMF do in fact reveal that the agency works to sustain and strengthen finance capitalism at the expense of the middle class and laborers, Klein's work has as much relevance to reality as Martians building the pyramids in ancient Egypt.
However, the book sells precisely because it is not scholarly, takes the reader through a fictional ride of intrigue like a James Bond film, and at the same time, it indoctrinates without providing any redeeming value to the reader interested in understanding the IMF's true mechanisms and relationship to governments and finance capital. That the book is more fiction than non-fiction appeals to people not just in the US but around the world as much as Harry Potter because it reads like Harry Potter, and it has about as much value in terms of entertainment, that is to say, stimulating and satisfying the irrational the mind.
Are people attracted to conspiracy theories because the dominant irrational in the mind craves to be fed; is it because we live in the age of cynicism when institutions from religious and education to political and business thrive by deceiving or at the very least manipulating the public; is it because there is a sense of loss of personal control of the environment and the individual yields to conspiracy to explain the deeper complexities of simple reality; is it that humans have a fundamental mistrust of each other and of themselves and would rather believe the worst; does belief in conspiracy theories makes us feel more intelligent and affords us the illusion that we have control of the situation; or it is because we love heroes and villains and conspiracies feed on such protagonists? No matter how we deconstruct the mass appeal of conspiracy theories, they do fill an emotional gap and entertain the mind like no empirical evidence can.
Many people are favorably inclined to conspiracy because they are conditioned to be cynical by life itself that beats them on the head on a daily basis. Conspiracy theories are not the exclusive domain of any political ideology or political organization or regime. Besides infamous dictators like Hitler and Stalin that have manipulated public opinion by advancing conspiracy theories, leaders of democracies like George W. Bush have done the same to advance policies linked with domestic security and foreign affairs.
How can people not be conspiratorial in their thinking when their politicians, priests, and social leaders either lie or hide the truth and are guilty of hypocrisy. Priests ask their flock to be virtuous, while they are hardly up to the task; politicians demand honesty in citizens, while their acts are hardly exemplary; community leaders using their positions for private gain at the expense of the community. The amazing thing is not that there are so many cynical people, but why isn't everyone in this world that we live in?
The more corrupt and perfidious secular and religious leaders, the greater mass appeal conspiracy theories will have. Everyone must have seen an adult parent instructing the child not to smoke while the parent is holding a cigarette in hand; or not to do drugs while popping sleeping and tranquilizer pills. However, conspiracy theory belief goes beyond such hypocrisy to the core of a sense of fatalism about life itself and the belief that free will has severe limitations. People are so overwhelmed by institutions that determine their lives that they feel powerless. This sense of powerlessness helps to weaken the masses and strengthens the elites. Therefore, conspiracy theories about the elites inadvertently help elite interests as they make the masses feel paralyzed in their fatalism.
In examining the "Iran-Mexico plot" of 2011, it is now very clear that there was a rush to judgment by the mass media and US and pro-US governments, before there was a full investigation in the case. Not just the US government, but all of the Western World and its mass media lined up behind US official explanations about an Iranian role where there was none. Today, there is some evidence that an exiled group may have been behind the plot, but that is lost in history and all one remembers is that Iran carried out an "evil act". This is merely one of many conspiracy theories where the only thing remaining is the conspiracy theory while facts, especially in this case that they are damaging to US credibility, are ignored. The lesson here then is not that the individual is intellectually lazy and prone to superstition craving emotional fulfillment through conspiracy theories, but that governments and private institutions such as religion and the mass media shape the conspiracy minded public to be receptive and remain fatalistic for this fosters docile behavior and acceptance of the status quo.