“America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy,” John Updike once said, and it was with this in mind that I took in an old debate between journalist Johnathan Kay and conspiracy theorist Webster Tarpley on the 9/11 attacks.
I’m not particularly interested in the substance of conspiracy theories really, beyond a rock-solid conviction that Han shot first. However, this conversation went in a particularly interesting direction, examining in some depth why people are drawn to and choose to believe in conspiracy theories.
Johnathan Kay came to the question when he began researching conspiracy theories in general. He started by asking people what they believed and found himself overwhelmed with stories. Really long stories. So he shifted his question and began asking people when they started believing in their favored conspiracy theory.
This was a significant paradigm shift.
Instead of an infinite number of individual narratives, Kay was now hearing one tale. People were sharing the moment that they lost faith in the government, in media, in traditional social structures.
This was a pivotal point for people: from the moment they began to believe whatever they chose to believe (that 9/11 was an inside job, that JFK was killed by the mob, etc) they no longer perceived themselves as a member of the society they once belonged to. They’d joined another group entirely; the society of people who ‘knew’ the true facts about any given society—and by extension, according to Kay, a larger society of individuals defined by their skepticism, unable or unwilling to trust without independent verification.
Webster Tarpley was right there with his own thoughts on the subject. “Why are hegemonic institutions no longer hegemonic?” he asked. His answers include the fact that many people are experiencing a significant decline in their standard of living at the same time that these behemoth cultural institutions are being discredited directly as a result of their own behavior.
When you have documented systemic failures, it’s not hard to understand people’s reluctance to believe.
People Want to Belong
We’ve seen the same thing ourselves.
The loss of faith in institutions changes people’s self-perception, whether they’re consciously aware of this or not. We’re all hard-wired to belong to a group; it’s a fundamental biological driver that’s part of every human’s experience.
When we no longer believe as our peers believe, we no longer fit into the group in quite the same way as we used to.
This creates an internal tension that we can not abide by. It’s too uncomfortable psychologically and emotionally. To remedy this tension, we gravitate toward other groups where we feel that we can belong—especially those groups that overtly, openly welcome us and value our participation.
Kay and Tarpley see this manifesting through participation in the conspiracy theory culture, which is valid but only accounts for a relatively small segment of the population. More pervasive and prevalent is the public’s tendency to elevate other organizations, namely commercial brands, into that position.
It’s important to note that it has been bad behavior and the failure to perform as expected on the part of these larger cultural organizations that have created this paradigm.
As business leaders, we must be aware of the many nuanced levels of customer expectations and understand, in depth, what our customers are turning to us for.
It’s more than our products or services or even the experience we provide. Customers want—customers need—something to believe in. They need a group to belong to. Companies that provide that well are rewarded with fanatical customer loyalty.
It’s as simple as that. No conspiracy theory required!