In the 1950s, a group of psychologists led by Leon Festinger sought to better understand what happens when people are faced with conflicting thoughts and information. To study this, they infiltrated a doomsday cult that believed the world would soon be ending on an exact date and that the cult members would be rescued by an alien spaceship. The psychologists wondered what would happen when the cult members’ belief that the world would end conflicted with the evidence that the world was still here, spinning peacefully around the sun. Would the cult members concede that maybe they were wrong about the whole end-of-the-world-with-aliens thing? The night they expected the world to end, the cult spent the night praying together. When morning came and nothing happened, most of the cult members’ beliefs were strengthened rather than shaken. Instead of believing the world was never in danger, they believed they had prayed so hard they saved the world from destruction through their faith. Why?
In Festinger’s (1956) book When Prophecy Fails about his experience infiltrating the cult, he postulated that when people have conflicting thoughts (called cognitive dissonance), this is uncomfortable, and they seek to resolve the conflict by adjusting one thought, or by ignoring the thoughts. If they have already committed themselves to one thought by investing their time, public statements, and money to it, they are unlikely to abandon it when conflicting evidence arises. Cult members had given up jobs, families, and wealth to follow their beliefs about aliens and the end of the world, making it painful and very difficult to go back on these views. The nature of cognitive dissonance is still debated by researchers, but it is certainly true that once people have committed themselves to certain beliefs, evidence to the contrary may not convince them otherwise. According to Festinger, when people have not made commitments that are difficult to undo, or when they do not have friends who also share the refuted beliefs, they are more likely to be persuaded by evidence.
We can observe this kind of process happening with the conspiracy theorists who believe Barack Obama was born outside the United States. In April of 2011, two large-scale polls revealed that only 1/3 of self-identified Republicans said they believe Obama was born in America. The “birthers” have claimed the president is foreign-born and that they need evidence to be convinced otherwise. At first, the Obama released his official birth certificate (the “short-form” certificate), but the birthers believed this was somehow fraudulent. When announcements of Obama’s birth were found in Hawaiian newspapers from 1961, birthers claimed these were faked in the 1960s as an elaborate ploy. When Obama released the long-form birth certificate this month, conspiracy theorists were quick to decry it as a forgery, though with divergent explanations. For those who have not made strong commitments about the President’s birth, the new long-form certificate may be more persuasive. For those who have irrevocably committed themselves to the belief that the president was not born in America, no amount of evidence will convince them. Each piece of new evidence, no matter how genuine, will be viewed as further “proof” of the conspiracy.
Of course, like in most situations, the conspiracy theories about Obama are not a clean demonstration of one particular theory or effect. The conspiracy theories lift up the curtain on an entire circus of intertwined social psychological phenomena. Although Obama’s role as President suggests he is the leader of the American people, many Americans perceive his leadership as illegitimate in part because Obama does not conform to their perceptions of what the national ingroup “should” be, perhaps because of his ideological beliefs, political party, intellectual grounding, and/or race. Likewise, many liberals perceived President Bush to be an illegitimate leader for similar reasons. With both Obama and Bush, the official leader of the country seemed fundamentally different from what the ingroup “should” be to some segments of the nation, leading to perceived illegitimacy.
In support of this, the beliefs about why Obama is supposedly ineligible for the presidency are ever-shifting and mutating. Prominent birthers have claimed Obama is actually Kenyan, British, Indonesian, or some other nationality, providing a multitude of often mutually exclusive claims. These nationalities are very different from each other in geography and culture. This represents a kind of large-scale outgroup homogeneity bias. For opponents of Obama that see him as “Other” (that is, fundamentally opposed to their perceived ingroup) the nature of that Otherness is almost inconsequential. This can lead to nonsensical claims that Obama is surely Kenyan or Indonesian; atheist or radical Muslim; fascist or communist – anything but a member of the ingroup. As people commit and invest more and more in these claims, it will be increasingly harder for conspiracy theorists to walk back from these beliefs, no matter how absurd the beliefs appear to be. For those who have only flirted with conspiracy theories, it will be much easier to accept the birth certificate as valid.
With the recent death of Osama bin Laden, expect to see the same trend in conspiracy theorists. The “true believers,” who may believe bin Laden was already long dead or is still alive, will claim to need evidence, but any evidence given will be unlikely to dissuade them from beliefs into which they have psychologically invested themselves. Interestingly, for those who do believe Obama killed bin Laden and were only marginally committed to birtherism, bin Laden’s death may dissuade them of their birther beliefs, as bin Laden’s death will bolster Obama’s perceived legitimacy as their national leader.
Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.