JFK assassination and the psychology of conspiracy theories

This Friday, November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. It is an ominous day in American history, yet one that has grown into a morbid obsession for many. The city of Dallas has taken steps to see that a dignified ceremony will take place and that many of those who have grown to doubt the findings from the Warren Commission Report will remain out of earshot. Those people who are better known as conspiracy theorists' were out in force on Thursday lead by their fearless leader Alex Jones, who is just the latest in a long line of skeptics who have questioned the Warren Commission's Report ever since it came out in 1964 concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the murder of John F. Kennedy.

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These findings were immediately meet with doubt and that doubt has grown ever since. Today, the mention of the JFK assassination has become synonymous with conspiracy theory. Perhaps more so then that of 9/11, the moon landing, or even the Illuminati. Many conspiracy theorist make the argument that Kennedy's legacy of what he accomplished and could not yet accomplished is tied to all those events.

Which is what brings us to the psychology of the conspiracy theorist. Why do certain events illicit such a strong response from skeptics and others don't?

As far as JFK's death; the randomness of his murder and the direction the country had taken after his death leave many to feel a certain cognitive dissonance.

As unbelievable as it is to buy into the theory that there was a lone assassin, it may be equally as disturbing to think that only one random person could change the course of history, for no other reason other than acting only in their self interests. That may be the guiding force behind the pschycology of conspiracy theorist. In the absence of accepting that we live in a random chaotic universe, many of those who subscribe to certain conspiracy theories seek to fill in the blanks with their own line of reasoning.

The physiological component of the human brain that controls conspiratorial behavior is the anterior cingulate cortex, located behind the frontal cortex. This region plays a part in the mechanism that controls cognition, reward, decision making, and impulse control. This is related to the psychology of conspiracy theorist because human decision making has evolved to reason linearly: circumstances + Risk(outcome) = positive (reward) negative (punishment/consequence). Therefore when confronted with chaos it is human nature to form a pattern or what is better known as coming to a 'logical conclusion'.

The result being what Micheal Shermer (publisher of Skeptic Magazine) calls…

Patternicty: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.

- two types of findings:

Type A. False Positive - hear wind, think it's tiger in bush, guess wrong = low cost

Type B. False Negative - think wind moving bush and not tiger, guess wrong = high cost

Again, how is this related to conspiracy theories? Well, human beings have an innate desire to feel comfortable in their environment. It has even been shown that the average human mind feels the most relaxed and pleased when they are standing on an elevated plane with the horizon a specific distance away and wildlife visible but about two thirds of the distance from where they are standing. The reason being that wildlife within eyeshot conveys a feeling of abundance, but any closer would signal danger. Of course this is a ghost of our hunter gatherer ancestors, whereas today we live in a more complex world, so it stands to reason that an analogous circumstance would create the same feeling of uneasiness. This uneasiness may be where the conspiracy mentality thrives, because as stated earlier, it may be more satisfying for certain people to reason out a larger more ominous plot that to live in a world of random uncertainty. Or to put it in more technical terms it's more optimal to fall for a false positive than a false negative.

So where does the Kennedy Assassination stand in terms of patternicity and its signal to noise ratio?

Journalist Jefferson Morley, has explained the effect of the Kennedy Assassination as 'a kind of a national Rorschach test of the American Political psyche." Which is consistent with Shermer's psychological explanation that humans are known to fill in the blanks with their learned assumptions.

Actually to be more accurate the assassination and the events that followed whether by design or simply a string of random incidents could only tweak even the most grounded person into experiencing symptoms akin to a paranoid psychosis.

Those events are as followed:

The arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman: Oswald's reputation fit so perfectly as the lone assassin: (ex marine with a sharpshooters' eye, whose dodgy past and shifty demeanor was only overshadowed by his reputation as a communist sympathizer and the time he spent in the Solviet Union) that the initial reaction of 'it makes perfect sense', could only naturally be followed by doubt after his declaration as the 'patsy', the questionable circumstances of his own death.

His death; which came two days after Kennedy's, was so conspicuous that if it was a movie it would almost be a carelessly written script. To this day the question remains how could Dallas police let someone walk into the police station and murder the man who was to go on trial for a presidential assassination.

Which brings us to Jack Ruby, who may have been the perfect foil to the pasty. Not only was Jack Ruby's reason for killing Oswald overly reactive and childish (he said he wanted to 'Save Mrs. Kennedy the discomfiture of coming back to trial.") but the nightclub owner had a questionable history with the mob, and a reputation as a reactionary guy who longed for acceptance.

To add to the speculation Jack Ruby died in 1967 before his second trial. Jack Ruby was becoming increasingly vocal about being part of a larger conspiracy to silence Oswald. However those who knew him said that no one in their right mind would ever allow Ruby to be part of a conspiracy. Although he had mob ties, the nightclub owner was notorious for running his mouth.

The magic bullet theory, while serving on the Warren Commission, senator Arlen Spector is credited to come up with the theory that it was one single bullet shot from Oswald's gun that went through Kennedy and then struck Governor John Connolly, all without suffering physical damage. The path and damage (or lack of ) that this bullet has taken has been one of the biggest sticking points for skeptics, of the Warren Report.

There may never be a conclusive finding that dispels the conspiracy from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but as Jefferson Morley said it will remain the quintessential Rorschach Test for the American psyche.

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