It's more than the 'rigged' election: Voters across the political spectrum believe in conspiracy theories

Michael Cannilla, a 53-year-old Staten Island, N.Y., maintenance contractor, is a gregarious guy who keeps up with high school friends on Facebook, quotes his barber, and signs off of phone conversations with a cheerful “God bless.”

But when talk turns to presidential politics, this otherwise good-natured Donald Trump supporter sees dark forces at work everywhere. Along with 41% of registered voters in the country, Cannilla is certain the election has been fixed.

If Hillary Clinton wins, her ascent to power will have been engineered by President Obama, the news media and the Muslim Brotherhood, he said. A group of powerful bankers he calls the “oligarchy” may also be involved, he added.

“It’s almost diabolical,” Cannilla said.

Conspiracy theories, usually dismissed as a fringe phenomenon, have taken center stage in the current electoral season. “Rigged” has become the watchword of 2016, invoked by candidates and embraced by voters across the political spectrum. Surveys show that close to half believe media moguls have picked the election’s winner and coordinated their coverage accordingly.

But the belief that powerful cabals scheme to shape the world is neither rare nor a sure sign of a disordered mind, researchers say.

Humans have probably embraced such theories for as long as we’ve struggled to make sense of a complex world in which not all thrive equally. It’s how at least half of us, at one point or another, cope with feelings of confusion, powerlessness, stress and disappointment.

For a democracy, the proliferation of conspiracy theories may signal a toxic breakdown of trust, order and governmental legitimacy. But for the people who embrace them, these narratives help hold chaos and despair at bay by serving as a buffer against hopelessness.

“We’re not talking about crazy tinfoil-hat-wearing men who live in bunkers,” said University of Minnesota political scientist Joanne Miller, who specializes in studying conspiracy theories. “At some point in our lives, we all believe in conspiracies — whether it’s in the domain of politics, sports or our social lives.”

In a 2014 study, 51% of Americans either agreed or strongly agreed that “much of what happens in the world today is decided by a small and secretive group of individuals,” according to University of Chicago political scientists J. Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood. In addition, 25% said the financial crisis that began in 2008 was “secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers,” and 24% said Obama was not born in the United States.

Incredibly, 11% agreed with a conspiracy theory that Oliver and Wood simply made up — that the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs is a government plot to make Americans “more obedient and easier to control.”

And while conspiracy theory is often seen as a creature of “right-wing thought,” believers are actually scattered across the political spectrum.

“Both sides are equally conspiratorial in their thinking,” said University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski, another pioneer in this young field of research. “No one has a monopoly.” 

The belief that the other party cheats to win elections is hardly unique to Trump supporters, Uscinski said. After the last presidential election, he found that 36% of Republicans thought Obama’s supporters had “committed  significant voter fraud” to win. That same survey found that 37% of Democrats believed that President George W. Bush’s supporters had “committed significant voter fraud” to win Ohio in 2004.

After elections, members of the losing party are most likely to adopt conspiracy beliefs that cast the winners as villains, Uscinski and his University of Miami colleague Joseph M. Parent have found. The longer a party remains out of power, the more receptive its partisans become to conspiracies that impugn the other side.

For those who worry that conspiracy beliefs will hijack democracy, Uscinski echoed the view of many researchers: the regular turnover of power that sees winners and losers trade places may serve as a natural brake on the growth of conspiracism in the United States.

Who believes? While most of us embrace a conspiracy at some point, a small minority of Americans view the world as an interlocking web of conspiratorial forces. At this extreme, paranoia and psychotic tendencies run high. Uscinski said these conspiracists are less likely to vote, participate in the political process, or invest money in the stock market.

Generally speaking, those who readily believe conspiracy theories tend to be less educated, have lower incomes, and be less trusting of others than people who view conspiracies with skepticism. 

But to paint all believers with that brush would be wrong, says psychology professor Viren Swami, who researches conspiracy belief at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom. Most are people well within the bounds of normal mental health.

When the world is a random place over which one has little control, Swami said, believing a conspiracy theory (or two or three) offers assurance that “there are people responsible” for the distress one feels, “and there are things you can do about those people” — put up yard signs, find fellow believers on the Internet, build a bomb shelter.

“You don’t feel helpless anymore,” he said.

Experiencing a loss of control can drive perfectly reasonable people to see patterns where none exist. In a series of experiments, social psychologists Jennifer A. Whitson of UCLA and Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia University showed that when people were prompted to feel less powerful, they were more likely to discern objects embedded in fields of random patterns of dots.

“The need to be and feel in control is so strong that individuals will produce a pattern from noise to return the world to a predictable state,” Whitson and Galinsky wrote in the journal Science.

This drive to make order of chaos may explain why, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, those who lived in and around New York City were far more likely to embrace conspiracy theories about the event than people in other parts of the country.

Similarly, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011, those who lived close to the reactor were more likely than other Japanese to espouse conspiracy theories about the accident.

Belief in conspiracies is hardly limited to those who are uneducated, credulous or not that smart. In fact, researchers believe that knowledge and reasoning skill can play a powerful role in crystallizing and sustaining an individual’s allegiance to conspiracy theories.

Whether they involve charges of rigged elections, a faked lunar landing or claims that commercial airliners spray chemical agents on an unsuspecting public, to accept the many layers of a conspiracy theory takes significant mental effort. Believers must follow a complex trail of events and suspend disbelief at every turn.

In a process psychologists call “motivated reasoning,” adherents collect and absorb new information that’s consistent with the conspiracy theory while rejecting information that doesn’t fit. Contradictory evidence — say, the vehement denials of those implicated in a supposed plot — serves only to further confirm the conspiracy.

Knowledge, then, “is not the panacea,” Miller said. It does tend to drive liberals away from conspiracy theories that blame conservative villains. But among conservatives, being conversant in current events makes one more likely to endorse conspiracies involving liberal schemers, Miller and her colleagues found

In a growing number of studies, researchers are finding that those most likely to embrace conspiracy theories tend to look at the world in ways that prize certainty over complexity, intuition over analysis, and faith over science.

Conspiracy theorists are more likely than others to believe in angels, Biblical prophecies, supernatural phenomena and paranormal activity. They are more likely to embrace “natural” cures and take herbal supplements. They can be deeply trusting and readily taken in by scammers whose message accords with their gut instinct. “And they are really loath to update” their beliefs with new or contradictory information, Oliver said. 

Some social scientists hope this knowledge can be used to push back on conspiracy theories. Swami hopes to immunize people against them by boosting their analytical thinking. 

In a series of experiments, he asked research subjects to complete word exercises that required rational, systematic choices. Then he tested their propensity toward conspiratorial belief. 

It worked — the analytic exercises notably decreased their conspiratorial thinking. Whether these effects can be sustained is still anyone’s guess.

It also remains to be seen whether voters will keep clinging to conspiracies beyond election day. Researchers will be watching closely.

“My friends joke that if Donald Trump wins, it’s a win for researchers like me,” Miller said. She acknowledged that such jokes could sow the seeds of a new conspiracy theory.

melissa.healy@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @LATMelissaHealy and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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