The great Columbia conspiracy: Why Trump and others seem to contradict themselves on Obama’s past


Photo credit: Matt A. Johnson (flickr)

So, I suppose we should talk about Donald Trump at some point. Trump might just be the most famous conspiracy-monger in the world at the moment. He’s flirted with, if not outright endorsed, a wide variety of conspiracy theories, ranging from run-of-the-mill birtherism to old-school Clinton Death List claims to the new hotness that is the vaccine-autism connection.


A few people have noticed that Trump seems to buy into an odd combination of theories about Obama’s time at Columbia University. Officially, Obama attended Columbia from 1981 to 1983 as a transfer student from Occidental College in California; after graduating he went on to study law at Harvard. Since 2008, people (mostly on the right) have raised doubts about Obama’s time at Columbia – they’ve speculated that he was admitted as a foreign student, proving he wasn’t born in America; that he had awful grades and only got through university because of affirmative action policies; that he was turned into a Marxist Manchurian candidate by the constant barrage of radical leftist teaching; or even that he never attended Columbia at all. The official story is a carefully constructed lie, meant to cover up the sinister truth. Continue reading

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Are You Serious?

62255339I’ve posted here before about why measuring belief in conspiracy theories can be tricky. Recently I was invited to visit University of Cambridge’s Conspiracy and Democracy project and the issue of measuring belief came up again, particularly the question of what it means when somebody indicates on a survey that they “believe” (or don’t “believe”) a conspiracist claim. I wrote a blog post for the Conspiracy and Democracy project about the idea, which I’m reposting in full below. You can also watch the full public talk I gave at Cambridge at the bottom of this post.

Psychologists love to measure things, and psychologists who study conspiracy theories are no exception. To understand where conspiracy theories come from, we need to be able to measure the extent to which people believe them. But measuring things is often trickier than it first appears. Continue reading

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Intention Seekers: The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories About MS804


I wrote a post over at Psychology Today on the psychology behind conspiracy theories about airline disasters like the disappearance of MH370, and more recently, MS804. Part of the appeal, according to a handful of recent studies, may be how conspiracy theories resonate with our brain’s intentionality bias.

When ambiguous events happen, we automatically assume that they were intended, rather than accidental. The bias is easy to spot in kids. When young children see somebody sneeze of fall over, they think that the person must have meant to sneeze or fall over. As we grow older, of course, we realize that people don’t always intend to do everything they do, and we can override our automatic judgment of intent. But the bias stays with us. One study found that having people drink a few shots of alcohol made them more likely to interpret ambiguous events as intentional—which might explain why so many fights start in bars when somebody interprets an innocent comment as an aggressive affront.

To read more about how this helps us understand conspiracy theories, click over to Psychology Today.

Posted in Biases & heuristics, Intentionality bias, World events | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Stress and belief in conspiracy theories

A recent a piece of research published by Viren Swami and colleagues has uncovered a link between feeling stressed and belief in conspiracy theories.


Swami and colleagues gathered responses from over 400 people, where the responders completed various measures, such as indicating their perceived stress (over the last month), stressful life events (over last 6 months) and belief in conspiracy theories.  They found that more stressful life events and greater perceived stress predicted belief in conspiracy theories.

There are a couple of reasons proposed why this may be the case.  For example, when people experience stress (say a stressful life event), they may start thinking in a particular way such as seeing patterns when they do not exist, which may lead on to prompting a conspiratorial mind set.  Once this worldview has begun to develop therefore, belief in conspiracy theories are more easily reinforced.

Alternatively, the researchers suggest stress may not be the central driving force, but rather, the findings may be caused by a threat to a sense of control.  When an event happens; the death of JFK as an example, this causes people to feel a sense powerlessness, thus people may seek out conspiracy theories as a way to reinstall a sense of control.  The next step in the research is to examine the complex relationships between stress, control and belief in conspiracy theories in order to tease apart the mechanisms.


Investigating the associations between beliefs in conspiracy theories and factors such as stress is an important avenue of research. From my own work, we have highlighted the potential negative consequences of belief in, and exposure to, conspiracy theories.  It is therefore paramount that we strive to learn more about the psychology of conspiracy theories.

Of course conspiracy theories may offer several benefits.  They can be a way to gain a sense of control as suggested and can be said to promote transparency within authorities.  Conspiracy theories can also reduce the likelihood of people voting, taking action against climate change, and having a fictional child vaccinated.  In some of my most recent work, conspiracy theories can be used as a way to express negativity, alongside changing how we perceive other social groups.

As highlighted by Swami and colleagues therefore, examining belief in conspiracy theories remains an urgent issue for researchers and policy-makers.


Posted in Personality, Social psychology, What's the harm, World events | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

On “crazy” conspiracy theories


I wrote an op ed, published today on, on the topic of dismissing conspiracy theories (and theorists) as “crazy.” Pithy insults like crazy, delusional, irrational, wacky have become a common refrain, at least among click-baiting headline-writers and over-zealous pundits. But, as I explain in my article, these pseudo-psychological labels are misguided.

Here’s an excerpt:

Some pundits took the start of the new year as an excuse to aggregate, and denigrate, recent conspiracy theories. Alternet published “The 5 Craziest Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories of 2015” (subtitle: “The indefatigable right-wing loony factory pumped out some doozies this year.”). Bustle collected “The Most Bizarre Conspiracy Theories of 2015” and National Memo offered “This Year in Crazy: 2015 Belonged to the Wingnuts.” The Guardian’s film critic, Peter Bradshaw, wished for fewer “smug” conspiracy theories in 2016. “Nowadays,” he lamented, “there is always a malign pseudo-sophisticate dunce who can be relied upon to appear out of the online thicket, darkly insisting on a ‘provocateur’ conspiracy behind everything.”

When major news breaks, it doesn’t take long for people to come up with conspiracy theories, and it doesn’t take much longer for other people to call the conspiracy theorists wacky, delusional and other unkind adjectives. Confirmation bias kicks in; both sides double down on the inflammatory rhetoric.

Who’s “smugger,” really — to borrow Bradshaw’s word — the theorists or the anti-theorists? The antis should not be so quick to assert their superiority.

Click here to read the article on

Posted in Biases & heuristics, Pop culture, Proportionality bias, Suspicious Minds | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

How the Illuminati conquered hip hop (allegedly)


I wrote an article for The Daily Beast exploring the origins of the rumors that Jay Z, Kanye West, and many of their colleagues are pawns of the Illuminati. Here’s an excerpt…

“Illuminati want my mind, soul, and my body / Secret society trying to keep they eye on me,” rapped Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, in a 1995 remix of LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya.” The same year, “Cell Therapy” by Goodie Mob painted a bleak picture of what society will look like under the coming New World Order, invoking conspiracy tropes like martial law, concentration camps, and black helicopters: “Time is getting shorter / If we don’t get prepared, people, it’s gonna be a slaughter.” Also released in 1995, “We Can’t Win” by AZ begins with a monologue explaining how society is really structured: “This world is ruled and controlled by societies that exist within societies, that exist within societies, you understand? These secret societies is maneuvering within society to control society. That’s why society is outta control. Thirty-third and one third, I heard, the Illuminated ones.”

Over the next year or so, Ras Kass, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Dr. Dre all mentioned the Illuminati or the New World Order. Canibus went even further down the rabbit hole with his 1998 single “Channel Zero,” which begins by claiming the government is covering up visits by super-intelligent aliens, and explains that Roswell, cattle mutilations, and even astronomer Carl Sagan were part of the plot.

Click here to read the whole article on The Daily Beast.

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Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories

My book, Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, is out now! You can buy it now from all the usual places, in hardback and for Kindle and other e-readers. ( / / Barnes & Noble / Waterstones) Continue reading

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Vice Motherboard article on conspiracy psychology

A recent article by journalist Molly Osberg gives an excellent overview of the psychology of conspiracy theories, including a few quotes from me, among other researchers.

“There’s not that much of a difference, really, between conspiracy theorists and the rest of us,” says Rob Brotherton, whose exhaustive book on the subject of conspiracy theory psychology, Suspicious Minds, is out next month.

According to the author, who holds a PhD from the University of London and currently teaches at Barnard, the qualities that make people believe the truth is out there “are things we all suffer from … They’re biases that are built into our brains,” whether they affect how we remember meeting our partners or whether we think Osama bin Laden is really dead.

Click here to read the full article on Vice Motherboard.

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How to stop Donald Trump peddling vaccine conspiracy theories

To nobody’s surprise, Donald Trump, the billionaire front-runner for the US Republican party’s nomination for presidential candidate, has continued to spread his views on the dangers of vaccination. Trump is no stranger to controversy, least of all when it comes to airing his much-debunked ideas that vaccines cause autism. He has long insisted that his anecdotal evidence proves that autism is rife and is being directly caused by vaccinations, specifically but not exclusively by the MMR vaccine.

Trump again decided to express his opinion last night on CNN’s televised debate, which went largely unchallenged by one of his other nominee contenders, Dr. Ben Carson. They both seemed unaware that rather than there being an autism epidemic, there is a growing risk instead of a measles epidemic.

A popular theme emerges when we examine this type of conspiracy theory – that of conflated political concern. We take a genuine and understandable worry about the size of government and its potential role and interference into citizens’ lives, but then we inflate this into something that becomes inaccurate in the face of science. Vaccinations are an incredibly important part of a child’s development, but does or should a parent’s right to choose what is best for their child override that? Unfortunately the nuances of that genuine debate are overshadowed by bad science and the idea that the government or ‘Big Pharma’ are somehow poisoning children for their own selfish ends.

The majority of Americans believe vaccines to be safe, regardless of political belief, but the opinion is clearly split between those who feel vaccines should be mandatory and those that feel there should be some form of parental choice.

Dan Jolley and Karen Douglas demonstrated in an excellent study in 2014 that exposing people to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories made them less likely to vaccinate compared to controls. Their findings helped demonstrate how conspiracy beliefs can have serious real-world consequences, and can have a role in shaping health-related behaviours. Interestingly, the effect of the conspiracy theory could be explained in part by participants’ existing perception of the dangers of vaccines, alongside their feelings of powerlessness, disillusionment and mistrust in authorities.

So what can we do about it? 

A very recent study published earlier this year may give us some answers. Zachary Horne and colleagues from the psychology departments at the University of Illinois and University of California found that the best way to positively impact people’s attitudes to vaccination was not to try and counter existing anti-vaccination theories.

Instead, they found that by highlighting factual information about the dangers of communicable diseases, such as measles, had a significant effect on attitudes surrounding vaccination. Participants were shown short passages written by a mother whose child had contract measles, alongside pictures of children with measles, mumps and rubella, stressing the importance of vaccinations. By making people understand the consequences of failing to vaccinate they found the change in attitudes to be far greater than any form of correction of the bad science about the dangers of vaccinations.

Could showing images of ill children counteract anti-vaccination belief?

Worldwide, there are 400 deaths a day from measles, but because the successful vaccination programmes of first world countries have more or less eradicated this terrible disease, we are in danger of forgetting just how serious it is. So, perhaps an admirable Twitter campaign could instead remind Trump and others of the dangers of not vaccinating children, rather than the debunked science behind their theory? This research opens up a promising new avenue for delivering parents accurate information but also reinforcing the importance of vaccination.

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Buffering conspiracy theories with feelings of control

The psychology of conspiracy theories is an ever-growing field. I have Google Scholar Alerts set up to let me know of new research and the alerts have been particularly active recently.

It is great to see the field flourishing with activity. We are learning more about who endorses conspiracy theories, and why, whilst also examining their societal consequences. Some of the recent research has been published by colleagues of this blog – such as Rob’s paper on people who are prone to boredom being more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and Mike’s paper showing that labelling an idea a “conspiracy theory” does not make people less likely to believe it.

Another paper recently has also sparked my attention. The paper has been published by van Prooijen and Acker in Applied Cognitive Psychology that further examined the question of why people endorse conspiracy theories. Simply across two studies, they found that if people feel they do not have control over a situation (both in an experimental and a real-life control scenario), they indicated belief in conspiracy theories to a greater extent.

control paper

My own line of research is investigating the social psychological consequences of conspiracy theories (example post here) and how we can address these consequences. I therefore found their research particularly relevant. Specifically in Study 1, participants were exposed to three conditions: primed with either high or low control, or a baseline condition that was unrelated to control. The prime involved the participants writing down times when they felt in control (high) vs. times when they did not feel in control (low).   In the baseline, participant recalled what they had for dinner last night.

As already mentioned, they found that low control is associated with higher belief in conspiracy theories. They also found however, that those in the high control condition reported reduced belief in conspiracy theories when compared to those in the baseline condition. Affirming a sense of control can buffer people against conspiracy theories.

Their study therefore offers a potential avenue to intervention. The implication of the research, as highlighted in the paper, is clear: When society is facing a control threat, it is important for political leaders to instil a sense of trust. van Prooijen and Acker suggest one way to do this is for leaders to be transparent about motivations for important decisions, as this has been associated with feelings of control.

Research examining tools to address the potential consequences of conspiracy theories is important. Exploring these tools is only in its infancy however, but the findings from this paper are promising. Watch this space.

Posted in Reviews, What's the harm | Tagged , | 6 Comments