I will openly admit that I used to be big on conspiracy theories. On September 11, 2001, (I was 18) the twin towers came crashing down on national television. In the middle of the chaos, I thought to myself:
“This has to be an inside job”
As crazy as this might sound (to some of you), several polls have revealed that 1/3 of Americans, agreed with the 18-year-old version of me.
Now you might be asking yourself, why do I keep referring to this in the past tense? What changed from then to now?
Looking for a fight
At the time I was in a different place in life. I thought I didn't have time to go to college and I hated people that sold out to “the man”. I felt that college was a brainwashing institute, designed to get you to trust the government. It was a tool to control you!
Being an outspoken liberal, I argued with my friends that went to college. If I could prove them wrong, I could prove that they weren’t that smart, and college couldn't help them from losing an argument.
The reality was that a part of me hated my job and really wanted to go back to school. I dropped out of college one class short of being A.S.E. certified as an automotive mechanic, to work in the family business (automotive repair shop). It paid well because I was essentially self-employed. We were successful, but I hated what I did. I was not happy working on cars and towing them 24/7 (I never did repos only road side assistance).
My Japanese wife had a completely different life experience. She had traveled around the world and had settled down in the U.S. after finishing her degree in child development. She never complained about her job as a pre-school teacher. So she was really confused as to why I was complaining all the time. She asked a question that would change my life:
“If you hate what you do, why don't you do something else?”
I don’t why I had such a huge fear of starting all over again. But I knew I wanted to travel and experience new things. My current job was not going to support that life style. After looking at different jobs available overseas, ESL teaching was the easiest option (outside of the military). The only problem was that in order to satisfy the visa requirements, I needed to have at least bachelor’s degree (in any subject).
Going back to school
It wasn’t easy going back to school after 5 years of not writing an essay. I was older than most of my classmates and couldn't relate to spring break vacations in Cancun. With no classmates to distract me, I dove into the reading assignments. The thirst for knowledge seemed insatiable. It wasn’t long until I declared a double major in Social Science and Psychology, with in emphasis in counseling and research.
The years flew while studying about the human brain and society. It was fascinating learning how to apply the scientific method, to psychological research with human subjects (I know people hate the word subjects, I prefer participants)(Brown, & Ghiselli, 1955).
At times, psychology can be a bit terrifying; especially when you learn how easy people can be manipulated to do horrible things by their environment (Haney, & Zimbardo, 1998). Psychology also has a dark history, in the 1960’s, the deinstitutionalization movement (see video) helped stop the involuntary admittance of patients, that were being forcibly admitted into asylums, for unethical practices such as gay conversion therapy (Bachrach, & Lamb, 1982).
The way oppression operated became an interesting topic for me. This was why eventually I conducted research studies on racism for my senior undergraduate thesis. The 8 years I spent studying, ultimately ended with my Masters in Science in Psychology, as well as two B.S. degrees in Social Science and Counseling.
I never would have thought I would go past the basic requirements needed, to teach ESL in Japan, but I did, because I fell in love with science and learning.
What did any of that have to do with conspiracies?!
Don’t worry this isn’t a click bait article. The relationship between the two topics is that the entire time I spent studying, I never stopped questioning everyone (professors, colleagues), about where they got their information. As a researcher I discovered that:
“There’s lies, there’s damn lies and then there’s statistics”
Not surprisingly if you look at history you’ll find that conspiracies can and do happen. The deinstitutionalization movement, Watergate, the Tuskegee experiments and the Bay of Pigs, are all proven conspiracies (Clarke, 1979;Kornbluh, 1998;Olson, 2003; Thomas, & Quinn, 1991).
However, one thing they all have in common is the simplicity to their discoveries. Although the organizations involved tried to hide the truth, somehow, sooner or later, people found out. In many of the cases, such as with the deinstitutionalization movement, it wasn’t so much a conspiracy, as much as misguided values and application of unethical practices.
The reason people love conspiracies is because they play with a primordial part of your brain. In the Big Picture Science podcast: “Fear Itself” , researchers from the Setti Institute, interview several social scientists, from different fields to explain how this works. To sum it up, conspiracy theories satisfy our want for complicated events to have complicated solutions (Brotherton, 2015). Only problem is that sometimes, complicated events have simple answers.
Paranoid Schizoid Personality Type
The latest version the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders has proposed that mental disorders are on a spectrum, rather than a set category. This means that anyone can sit on the spectrum of a disorder, without ever being diagnosed. However, this doesn’t mean it does not effect how they see the world.
On the spectrum of Paranoid Schizoid Personality Type, the person can be susceptible to delusions of persecution. This disorder can influence these individuals to believe in conspiracy theories that have no scientific evidence. As long as these individuals do not present a threat to others or themselves, they can live out their lives without ever being diagnosed.
Taking the Blue Pill
After learning what I have about the human brain, I realized a few things about myself:
First: When I was young I was projecting my fears of being uneducated, by arguing with my friends who were in college.
Second: My love of conspiracy theories was fueled by my up bringing as a Jehovah’s Witness (at the time a doomsday cult).
Third: I am on the spectrum of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
For me, the last realization was really scary. But at the same time, having insight into how your mind works, gives you the power to not be a victim of your own thinking (Hamilton, & Roper, 2006).
This is why I don’t dive into conspiracy theories anymore. After all, once it is said and done, how does knowledge of a conspiracy theory (proven or unproven) help me take care of my family?
Truth is following a conspiracy theory, feeds the primordial part of my brain, which is addicted to anxiety and fear. For me personally, I would rather live without those things. How about you?
Social Gelo with Angelo
Angelo Ferrer (M.S. Psychology)
Bachrach, L. L., & Lamb, H. R. (1982). Conceptual issues in the evaluation of the deinstitutionalization movement. Innovative approaches to mental health evaluation, 149-161.
Brown, C. W., & Ghiselli, E. E. (1955). Scientific method in psychology.
Brotherton, R. (2015). Suspicious minds: Why we believe conspiracy theories. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Clarke, G. J. (1979). In defense of deinstitutionalization. The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly. Health and Society, 461-479.
Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1998). The past and future of US prison policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist, 53(7), 709.
Hamilton, B., & Roper, C. (2006). Troubling ‘insight’: power and possibilities in mental health care. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 13(4), 416-422.
Kornbluh, P. (Ed.). (1998). Bay of Pigs declassified: The secret CIA report on the invasion of Cuba. New Press.
Olson, K. W. (2003). Watergate: the presidential scandal that shook America (pp. 168-75). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Thomas, S. B., & Quinn, S. C. (1991). The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932 to 1972: implications for HIV education and AIDS risk education programs in the black community. American journal of public health, 81(11), 1498-1505.