Conspiracy Theories and the Motivation Game

on February 24, 2009

The subject of conspiracy theory keeps nagging at me. The more I think about the kinds of situations that give rise to conspiracy theories, the less they seem like matters that we might hope to resolve by establishing clear-cut facts of history or politics. Instead, they present a kind of philosophical black hole.

A year ago, I suggested — at least half seriously — that conspiracy theories may challenge our assumption that there is a real reality out there which we can discover by applying the proper methods. I still suspect that might be true, but at the moment I’m more inclined to see the problem not as one of ontology — the nature of reality itself — but of epistemology — the sources of human knowledge.

We human beings are, on the whole, very good at starting with an inadequate set of clues and squeezing useful information out of them. The more complex and fragmentary the data we have to work with, however, the more likely we are to run up against the limitations of our methodology.

One of our most tried-and-true approaches is to patiently sift through whatever facts are available, looking for similarities and meaningful connections, until we arrive at some sort of conclusion. This method works best in the physical sciences, where the facts are solid and unambiguous and follow simple patterns of cause and effect.

It becomes less reliable when we try to apply it to living creatures, unless we have enough data to look for statistically meaningful patterns. And if our sample includes many rare or unique events — as is frequently the case with human history — the “noise” of individual goals and idiosyncrasies is likely to drown out the “signal” of any coherent pattern.

That is why our history books tend to be strongest on stirring accounts of kings and wars and revolutions and weak on plausible generalizations about how empires rise and fall or why civilizations appear in some places and not in others. With rare exceptions, we just don’t know enough to distinguish the unique from the universal.

This is the same problem that afflicts conspiracy theories. Because events like the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 are unique in modern American history, there is nothing to which they can usefully be compared. No amount of fact-gathering will ever lead to definitive conclusions, and adding new and possibly irrelevant bits of data to the mix tends to blur the picture instead of clarifying it.

However, data-sifting is not our only tool. When facts alone are insufficient to resolve a complex situation involving human interactions, we typically resort to an alternative strategy — we make tentative assumptions about the relationships and motivations behind the events and then use those assumptions as a template to structure the fragmentary information available to us.

We humans are extremely good at intuiting the motivations and intentions of our fellows. It’s a skill that we’ve been developing since our chimpanzee days, and being good at it is a large part of what makes us human. However, there is a considerable gap between assessing what others might have in mind when we deal with them face to face and developing complex scenarios of what they’ve been up to when they’re out of sight.

Not that we don’t engage in that kind of scenario-building — we do it all the time — but it doesn’t come easily to us and we’re as likely to guess wrong as right. In fact, a great deal of serious literature involves the pitfalls of which might be called the motivation game. Tragedy and comedy alike — from Othello to I Love Lucy — draw much of their dynamic from protagonists making wrong guesses about the unseen actions and motivations of others.

More escapist literary forms, in contrast, are often based on the simpler pleasure of watching a protagonist demonstrate his or her superior capacity for playing the motivations game by figuring what has really been going on behind the scenes. The most obvious example of this is the classic detective story.

As an example of how the motivation game is played, we might imagine an old-fashioned detective story which begins with the murder of a wealthy gentleman. To the police, it seems obvious that he was slain by a nondescript vagrant — a would-be burglar who got in through a door left unlocked by a careless servant, was surprised by the owner of the house as he attempted to abscond with the family treasures, killed the old man and started to flee, and was himself shot and killed as he tried to make his escape.

End of story, case closed — or would be, except for the canny detective who is also on the scene and who quickly starts to suspect that the ne’er-do-well nephew who stands to inherit the dead man’s fortune is not as casual and aimless as he seems. As the detective pursues his or her inquires, he or she turns up three crucial facts — that the nephew had recently been threatened with being disinherited due to his reprobate ways, that the door lock had been tampered with so that it would not latch properly, and that the nephew had been witnessed on the day before the murder talking at length with the vagrant in a local pub.

Suddenly, an apparently unpremeditated murder starts to look like a carefully executed plot, as the detective weaves these various clues together into a scenario in which the dissolute nephew convinced the vagrant that it would be easy to rob his rich uncle and share the loot, alerted his uncle to the crime in progress so that the robbery would end in murder, and finally roused the servants and incited them to shoot the fleeing burglar, thereby covering up his own involvement in the crime.

By any rational standard, this is a highly unlikely scenario, requiring the villain to be a flawless manipulator of both people and timing — which may be why stories of this sort typically end not with a trial but with a dinner party, at which the perpetrator can be surprised into confessing his guilt. But no matter. We enjoy stories of this sort not for their plausibility, but because they offer the vicarious pleasure of seeing the motivation game played successfully under challenging circumstances.

What is most interesting about this well-worn plotline, however, is that it precisely matches the template of the best-known conspiracy theories, specifically including 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination. In both cases, a shocking homicide is initially assumed to be the doing of a “vagrant,” until a closer examination of the facts turns up an alternative suspect. It gradually becomes apparent that this other suspect had a great deal to gain by the crime, that normal security measures had been deliberately weakened in a way that gave the accused killer access to the target, and that there was even a well-concealed prior relationship between the “patsy” and the real plotter.

The conspiracy theories thus shape up precisely like the theory in our hypothetical detective story — with the main difference being that in the real-life situation there is no chance to prove what might otherwise seem like a far-fetched set of suppositions by surprising a dinner-table confession out of the suspect.

Of course, this is not to say that all conspiracy theories must be baseless fantasies simply because they follow the same plotlines as drawing-room murder mysteries. Human beings, after all, have evolved to think along those lines precisely because it does often help us arrive at correct conclusion.

If we look more closely at the guidelines we tend to follow in playing the motivation game, we find that we’re likely to reject a simple and coherent scenario only if we’re offered additional evidence that tends to undercut it. For example, in the drawing-room murder mystery outlined above, the conclusion would have been very different if it had been specified that the apparent vagrant was actually an umployed and destitute worker whose life had been ruined when he was fired by the wealthy victim.

Being able to identify a plausible motivation for the suspect counts for a lot, which is why we’re reluctant to accept faceless killers with no apparent connection to the victim. We become rightfully suspicious, for example, when an O.J. Simpson insists that his ex-wife was slain by unknown assailants — especially if we have witnesses who can testify that Simpson was known to be both violent and jealous.

When it comes to assassins and terrorists, however, history shows that they may be motivated by grievances against their targets even if they have never met them. That makes it seem more plausible that a political killing might be undertaken by outsiders with a grudge. At the very least, we are left with two possible scenarios — the angry outsider or the devious insider — neither of which is clearly preferable to the other.

At that point — when we honestly cannot decide which explanation better covers the known facts — more personal factors may start to affect our decision. For example, our choice may come down to whether we are inclined to believe that the maintenance of social order is most at risk from lawless and desperate vagrants — or whether we suspect that wealthy and self-indulgent scions of privilege offer a far greater threat.

Everybody harbors prejudices of one kind and another. We all know this, and common assumptions about the covert motivations of whole classes of people can even be worked into the motivation game itself — as when O.J. Simpson’s attorneys sought to arouse a suspicion among black jurors that their client had been framed by a racist policeman.

But even if we recognize and acknowledge our biases, it doesn’t open any clearer path to the truth. It merely makes it more important for us to show humility about our conclusions.

Once we have reached that point, instead of our scenarios serving as a window that provides an unobstructed view of the world, they have become a mirror-maze, where we wander endlessly in the multiplex reflections of our own personal beliefs and assumptions.

And that is where the most contentious of the conspiracy theories leave us stranded in the end. They can, perhaps, tell us a great deal about ourselves — but they reveal very little about what really happened.


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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