Attribution in Conspiracy Theory


Key to understanding how conspiracy theories are formed and perpetuated, aside from cultural biases and preexisting prejudices, is the concept of attribution.

Attribution is a social psychological term related to the process by which individuals explain the causes of events or the behavior of others. The tendency to form a narrative, even when there may be none apparent, is well documented and thoroughly ingrained in the human condition.



In the first half of the 1940s, Fritz Heider, credited as the first attribution theorist, and Mary-Ann Simmel did a series of experiments using a video that serves as a wonderful example of the human tendency to impose narrative on an event. As you watch this video, ask yourself what narrative you may be creating.



Who was the protagonist? The Antagonist? Questions such as these seem ludicrous, yet, if you watched the video you know exactly who (or, more accurately, which of the moving shapes) you believe is aggressor, innocent, hero. One thing; though attribution is almost guaranteed (some will have a different experience) the narrative can change from person to person.

A person who believes that some shadowy organization is behind all the major global trends is, quite obviously, adopting a narrative of attribution. They attribute all mass shootings, political unrest, and even natural disasters to a secret ‘shadow government’ who want to keep all humanity fearful, dissonant, and dependent.


Fundamental Attribution Error.

Discussion of attribution is almost always followed, rightly so, by the subject of the fundamental attribution error.

When a person considers the behavior of others, they generally over emphasize (put greater onus upon) the personality or disposition of the other, rather than the situation that person finds themselves in. The converse being true: when asked to describe why they did or said something, people generally focus on the situation rather than claiming that they ‘are’ a certain way that ‘made’ them take said action.

Yes, I oversimplified the above. Yes, there are entire textbooks that can get into much greater detail about actor/observer difference, defensive attribution hypothesis, etc. but for sake of brevity, fundamental attribution error is something everyone should know about. This applies to us all.

It is worth mentioning that everyone’s actions should be considered a blend of dispositional, personal, and environmental factors: so-called ‘conspiracy theorists’ included. Conspiracy theorists may take occasion to suggest an earthquake or hurricane was created by the Illuminati, but be fair, the rest of us call it an ‘act of God’.


Attribution of Conspiracy and Government.

Attributions of malice or malevolence to acts of Government are not going to disappear, and I don’t intend to sound like an evangelist for positive governance. When people talk about Government (unless they are in Government, and even sometimes when they are), the attributions (accusations) fly.

Something not a lot of conspiracy theorists realize is that most everyone distrusts the Government; not because it is run by a nefarious cabal of elites, but because it is run by people.There really isn’t that much difference in attribution when it comes to Government nowadays. Whether you believe the world is run by an elite Illuminati, or by people who are, to put it bluntly, transparently self-serving and constitutionally incapable of maintaining anything resembling the conspiracies regularly attributed to them.


See Also: Heider and Simmel’s 1944 paper,  An experimental study of apparent behavior.

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