Don’t Be Surprised When Conspiracy Nuts Act Like Conspiracy Nuts

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The urge to ridicule all the conspiracy theorizing surrounding the capture of alleged Beghazi-attack mastermind Ahmed Abu Khattala is understandable. As Brian Beutler explains, some folks with relatively big megaphones appear to be publicly arguing that the U.S. government had Kkhattala in its sights forever, but only chose to pounce now, when doing so could give a boost to Hillary Clinton’s political ambitions. Makes perfect sense! But it is a useful example of how this stuff works.

It’s easy to fall into the head-slapping mind-set of “How the hell could anyone think that?” given how ridiculous a notion this is. But this is a misreading of how people process information that assumes there’s such a thing as an “objective” fact that everyone will receive the same way. Conspiracy theorists really do view the world differently, at least when it comes to their obsessions.

We all suffer from confirmation bias, from only heeding information that supports our preconceived ideas, but conspiracy theorists are plagued by a particularly virulent form of it. Whatever new information comes in is in effect melted down and poured into a mold shaped like the theory in question. If you’ve ever interacted with these folks, you’ll know what I mean. The sentence “I hadn’t thought of that — it sorta punches a hole in my theory, doesn’t it?” doesn’t really exist. Any new evidence they come across, no matter how debunking it may seem, will somehow, often through feats of mind-melting logical contortion, be put to use in service of the original conspiracy theory.

So, notwithstanding the separate conversation of the political opportunism on display during this “controversy,” that’s what’s going on here, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone. The psychology of conspiracy theorizing is a fascinating subject — and a frustrating one given how hard these theories are to dislodge —  so I’d recommend Jonathan Kay’s book Among the Truthers for a good rundown, Kurt Eichenwald’s recent Newsweek article for a summary of how conspiracy theories make it harder for our elected officials to do their jobs, and Joe Keohane’s 2010 Boston Globe article for an explanation of how facts can backfire.