Born With the Desire to Know the Unknown

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 5, 2006

America is awash in secrets and conspiracies.

Moviegoers are agog over the 2,000-year-old conspiracy theory in "The Da Vinci Code," which suggests that Jesus may not have died celibate. In a conspiracy exactly one order of magnitude smaller, Brad Meltzer's new novel, "The Book of Fate," tells about a "shocking historical coverup" of a 200-year-old conspiracy in Washington.

Happily married men have eight secrets, according to a book featured in The Washington Post's Health section in January; there are seven secrets to perfect barbecue ribs, according to Tribune Media Services last month; and six secrets of organized moms, according to Parenting magazine last year.

There is something odd about so many secrets being bandied about in the one place that would seem antithetical to secrets -- the mass media -- but let us set aside that quibble and ask what explains this avalanche of conspiracies and secrets.

The hunger for secrets is apparently rooted in our psychological and sociological DNA, which may explain the extraordinary success of Dan Brown's story about "the greatest conspiracy of the past 2,000 years."

Psychologists have found that secrets are one of the most reliable ways to draw attention and focus memory -- something that blockbuster authors and publishers of Cosmo covers clearly understand.

The effort in shielding information from others is often the first step toward recurring obsessions about the secret: Ask people not to think about white bears while they talk into a tape recorder, for instance, and they will make a reference to white bears about once a minute, said Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner.

In another experiment exploring the allure of secret relationships, Wegner found that if four strangers sat around a table playing a card game, couples asked to play footsie with each other under the table were more likely to find each other attractive when the other couple did not know what was going on, compared with when they did. And volunteers asked to follow a person around in secret were more likely to find the person attractive compared with volunteers asked to openly keep tabs on someone.

Could this be why the millions of taxpayer dollars that Congress openly spends on pork each year elicit yawns, although secrets purportedly hidden in paintings by someone with the odd name of da Vinci grab everyone by the lapels?

"If you really wanted to popularize the kinds of wild shenanigans that Congress does, it might be good to find a coverup of them," said Wegner, apologetically. "If people do something completely blatantly, it sounds like it doesn't hurt anyone."

The United States appears to be especially fertile ground for conspiracy theories, said Chip Berlet, who studies such theories at Political Research Associates, a think tank in Somerville, Mass. Notions that common people are being kept in the dark about important secrets by a small group of elites are shared by partisans on the left and right.

"The U.S. is more prone to conspiracy theories" than other countries, Berlet argued. From the Salem witch trials to tales about the Freemasons, from theories about the Kennedy assassination to the popularity of "The X-Files," America has had a long love affair with conspiracy theories.

In part that may be because such theories have a populist, even democratic, tinge to them -- they claim to let everyday folks in on the secrets of the powerful. But Berlet and other scholars said these theories usually do a disservice to the people they purport to side with.

"Conspiracy theories explain disturbing events or social phenomena in terms of the actions of specific, powerful individuals," said sociologist Theodore Sasson at Middlebury College in Vermont. By providing simple explanations of distressing events -- the conspiracy theory in the Arab world, for example, that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were planned by the Israeli Mossad -- they deflect responsibility or keep people from acknowledging that tragic events sometimes happen inexplicably.

And for all their populist flavor, conspiracy theories usually end up attributing more power to elites than they actually have, said William Domhoff, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who studies power and social change.

Because nothing ever happens by accident in the world of conspiracy theories, believers wind up assuming that the hidden hand of the puppeteer is everywhere. When every event is assumed to be caused by powerful manipulators, people end up feeling "there is nothing we can do about it," Domhoff said. "They attribute too much understanding to these people, too much cleverness."

But like the Wizard of Oz, the seemingly all-powerful often turn out to be not that powerful. A sad fact of history, Domhoff added, is that those in power are regularly "incompetent and shortsighted."

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