More than ever, we need to discern what’s real and true about the events and circumstances of modern life. Unresolved emotions can clutter our mind, obstructing access to objectivity and wisdom. This is happening with 9/11 conspiracy buffs, many of whom believe that powerful individuals in the United States government orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Studies have shown that various beliefs can be strongly influenced by our emotional issues (here, here, and here.) These issues, often relating to inner fear, are usually unconscious. People often aren’t aware of how, for emotional reasons, they can unwittingly be discounting or misreading relevant evidence while at the same time elevating the significance of marginal evidence.
Conspiracy adherents have evidence that they say supports their claim. Obviously, varied hypotheses can be drawn up from inconclusive evidence. Selected evidence can produce many logically consistent pathways through the maze of a complex event, yet only one of these pathways might lead to the truth. The remaining paths, though believable or plausible, lead to wrong conclusions. I want to present more evidence—psychological evidence—that conspiracy theorists have not included in their assessments.
Many of us experienced emotional disorientation and a sense of helplessness as we unwittingly identified with the thousands of victims of the calamity who were trapped in the targeted buildings and in the four airliners used in the attack. To cope with these feelings, some people desperately seek a compensating sense of power or orientation. Based on the proposition that knowledge is power, conspiracy adherents can proclaim: “I know what actually happened! I know the truth! I embrace the truth!” This “knowledge” produces an impression of power and a sense of orientation. It backfires, however, and becomes self-sabotage because it bestows pernicious power on the faceless government officials who allegedly orchestrated 9/11. In locating such horrendous evil in their backyard, conspiracy buffs feel even more at the mercy of powerful malicious forces and hence more “reason” to feel helplessly oppressed.
As one of the larger conspiracy websites indicates, conspiracy adherents continue to protest against “a nightmare scenario” in which they feel oppressed by the fallout effects of 9/11. Indeed, some of those fallouts have an oppressive quality—for instance, the global war on terror, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, warrantless phone tapping, and so on. Yet for emotional reasons, conspiracy adherents are tempted to magnify their sense of oppression and to feel overwhelmed and even impotent in the face of it. This leaves them less likely to engage in vital activities that could help the world get to a better place. Obsessing in this way about 9/11 becomes a form of psychological resistance, a way to avoid becoming truly effective and powerful.
Looking deeper still, we uncover the appeal of the uncanny. People enjoy a sense of the uncanny while watching horror movies or reading ghost stories and thrillers. According to classical psychoanalysis, this enjoyment is a tension that stems from the “libidinization” of inner fear. People actually enjoy spine-tingling thrills and the mild shock of fright. Though they feel distress and anxiety on a conscious level, they unconsciously indulge in the titillation of the uncanny. An early sense of the uncanny was encountered in childhood through the mystery of parental sexuality. Our tendency to libidinize fear gives terrorism a certain uncanniness, along with an added jolt of menace and power. (Another version of the uncanny is at play in the zombie craze now infecting popular culture.)
The events of 9/11 released repressed instincts of rage in the psyche of many people. Conspiracy theorists often feel rage against the government. They also tend to scorn people who challenge their beliefs. Out of a sense of helplessness, people can be quick to feel rage toward others. Anger and rage can feel like power. When children feel helpless or forced to submit to parental authority, they can erupt into temper tantrums and rage toward parents. The government is a pseudo-parent. Some people, particularly those on the Right wing, can feel rage toward the government for allegedly being too powerful and controlling. On the Left Wing, the rage can be directed toward “all-powerful” corporations.
It’s possible to go still deeper in this search for psychological understanding of the hidden appeal of the conspiracy position. We’re all born with considerable self-centeredness. All we know as infants are the sensations of our own existence. It can feel as if everything we see around us is just an extension of us. Classical psychoanalysis says we are born with a primitive megalomania along with a sense of omnipotence. The baby’s impression is, “Whatever happens is what I myself wished for.” These irrational impressions linger in the psyche of many of us, accounting for much of the egotism and narcissism that exists in the world. Under this unconscious influence, people can project great (even absolute) power on to some faceless entity.
A male child tends to experience his father as a powerful competitor for mother’s affections. A few years later, the boy has begun to identify with the father, and projects a sense of absolute power on to the father-figure. As adults, people can easily enough project lingering infantile megalomania on to some allegedly all-powerful entity, particularly when the entity is a father-figure such as the U.S. government. This projection can interpret the entity as either a benevolent or a malicious force, depending on other aspects of the individual’s psychology. A nationalist or patriot, for instance, can identify with the government as a powerful, benevolent force.
Conspiracy adherents are engaged in a modern, secular version of the bygone devil fixation: the individual projects lingering megalomania and his unrecognized dark side on to an imagined sinister entity while cultivating, through unresolved inner fear, a feeling of being at the mercy of that entity.
A person’s tendency to project malice on to others or on to some entity is also influenced by inner dynamics involving the inner critic or superego. In our psyche, we tend to be on the receiving end of malice (criticism, harassment, and mockery) from our inner critic. When we’re unaware of this inner dynamic, we can’t locate where the sense of oppression or malice is coming from, and we end up identifying false sources.
Our intelligence is much better equipped to discern truth and reality when we become more conscious of psychological dynamics. Now our intelligence weighs the evidence more astutely. Isn’t it evident that no government or private entity in the United States could remain undetected after killing thousands of Americans by flying four airliners into skyscrapers and the headquarters of the world’s most powerful military force? To do so, such an entity would have to be both evil and all-powerful. Fortunately, there is no such thing on the face of the Earth.
UPDATE: From Scientific American Mind, September/October, 2013, p. 43 — “A number of studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. For example, a large 2008 study . . . showed that participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive illusory patterns, including conspiracies. The authors note that observing patterns where there are none fills a need for structure and organization.”