Why Do Some People Become Conspiracy Theory Cranks as They Age?
October 28, 2015 1:02 PM   Subscribe

I know conspiracy theories aren't limited to the elderly, but a recent visit of my 70-year-old father got me wondering. He's always been a bit Fox-newsy and right wing, but recently he's started to espouse views that (a) make no sense, and (b) are definitely in tin-foil hat territory. Why does this happen to otherwise rational people? He has no history of mental illness and shows no signs of dementia.

Example: At dinner one evening at a restaurant, we somehow got on the subject of sleep apnea (my brother in law suffers from it). My dad casually mentioned that it's a "scam, cooked up by doctors, funded by the government to prop up Obamacare." WTF? He also casually alluded to 9/11 being an inside job, an opinion I've actually heard him make fun of for years.

My dad was a white collar executive prior to retirement, runs his own non-profit and does all his own fundraising, lots of public speaking, etc. In other words, he's not some recluse surfing conspiracy websites all day.

His conspiracies of choice generally tend to be anti-left-wing, but they often make no sense at all when deconstructed (i.e., the people supposedly behind it -- usually Obama and his crew -- would actually stand to *lose* if the conspiracy were true). Nevertheless, he will stand firm come reason or high water.

I don't argue with conspiracy theorists because any piece of evidence you marshal is just further proof of how detailed and diabolical the conspiracy is. But I do wonder where this comes from -- I've talked to a number of my friends in my age cohort (late 30s, early 40s), and apparently this is not all that uncommon with some of their parents, though the flavor of conspiracy tends to vary.

Is anyone aware of any publications/articles that deal with why otherwise rational people begin to cling to conspiracy theories as they age? I would be especially interested if anyone has any insight into why this seems to happen to a greater degree with the elderly (although I'll admit to possible confirmation bias on this).
posted by GorgeousPorridge to Human Relations (44 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Eponysterically, I will say that The Paranoid Style in American Politics is a worthwhile read on the topic generally.

In his Blueprint for Armageddon Part I podcast, Dan Carlin talks at some length about the notion that some random person who was previously a nobody - Gavrilio Princip, Lee Harvey Oswald, whom have you, can do something that so wildly throws things off kilter. Consequently, he argues (I'm kind of paraphrasing from memory here) conspiracy theories are comforting in that they take some of the scary randomness out of things.

To your question - maybe this becomes a more appealing proposition as one ages.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:09 PM on October 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

This is my opinion and not based on any research: I think that a lot of elderly people see the world around them changing, see their role in it fading, can't keep up with all the trends (and don't want to, and why should they?), and, whether voluntarily or not, stop working. In other words they become more "involutional" (turning inward). And their own bodies are turning against them. All of this loss of control can get you down, and the world can start to seem scarier. And when you get scared, you often start to look for the Enemy "out there" -- something or someone(s) to point to as the source of the problem.


Just turned 65 and thinking a lot about this stuff
posted by DMelanogaster at 1:13 PM on October 28, 2015 [139 favorites]

I can't find any papers directly on point, but I've been following Brendan Nyhan's studies on the effects of misinformation in politics. Here's a syllabus for his class on Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories to mine for information.
posted by politikitty at 1:14 PM on October 28, 2015

It's been a while since I read Why People Believe Weird Things, but one takeaway was: It's easier to believe in things that aren't science than to try to study and understand what's really true. (Paraphrased, and probably about superstition in particular, but you get the idea.)
posted by sageleaf at 1:16 PM on October 28, 2015 [7 favorites]

I think the pace of the modern world is accelerating, and disenfranchising people as they age, faster than it has ever done before. I think fringe opinions like these are a backlash reaction, or a fear reaction as DMelanogaster describes.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:19 PM on October 28, 2015 [9 favorites]

Two words: Talk Radio.
posted by y2karl at 1:21 PM on October 28, 2015 [15 favorites]

I think even absent dementia, there is a certain slowing of our thought processes as we age. I'd postulate it might be related to why the elderly are more susceptible to scams.
posted by chainsofreedom at 1:24 PM on October 28, 2015 [10 favorites]

Its probably many things, but one facet might be that there's a fairly well established phenomenon (i'm pretty sure? It was presented as a well established phenomenon when I was in college...) where the more you're exposed to something in media (or in your job!), the more you think it happens in real life regardless of statistical backing. A few studies, which I am totally remembering, and could be mis-remembering, focused specifically around violent crime rates and child abduction instances. Folks who watch more TV reported by a fairly correlative degree that there's more violent crime and child abduction cases than there really are.

The thought is, that folks in retirement age have more time to consume more media (namely TV), and that colors their perception of what's really going on in reality. So, my parents who watch every flavor of CSI and Law & Order, think that the world is a more dangerous place than statistically it is. My wife, who works in mental health, has to work very hard to check herself that everyone isn't deeply ill in the brain.
posted by furnace.heart at 1:31 PM on October 28, 2015 [8 favorites]

i'd go with DMelangonaster and DarlingBri to a certain extent, but i think you can put a more positive spin on things.

the older you get, the more experience you have. which means that: (1) you tend to have more confidence in your own judgement and care less about what other people think; and (2) you start to realise that quite often things you thought true are actually bullshit (largely because things are more complicated than you thought when you were younger)

those are both good things. unfortunately they don't combine well with the world changing quicker than you realise. the end result is that sometimes you misinterpret things that are new, dismissing them instead of putting in the time to understand them.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:33 PM on October 28, 2015 [12 favorites]

Something I've noticed is people becoming way more cautious and conservative as they age, seeing people turn from reasonably okay with the unknown to completely unable to tolerate it.
posted by bleep at 1:34 PM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Conspiracies are typically built on coincidental and anecdotal information, which is conveniently the way we gather memories and experience the world. Perhaps 70 years is a sweet spot for those so inclined to see enough weird shit that lines up that they start finding conspiracies more plausible.

Although I will say that most the conspiracy nuts I know are under 40.
posted by French Fry at 1:37 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I really think the place to look, research-wise, is organic causes. The brain changes as we age and the conspiracy thing seems so tightly bound with increasing credulity (vulnerability to scams), increasing feelings of fear in previously familiar situations, etc...
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:40 PM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I read something a while back, and if I had the slightest idea how to find it I'd link it, that referenced some study that showed people get poorer at recognizing B.S. as they age. That's why older people are often the target of financial scams and so on. It's not just losing their marbles or dementia. It's actually harder for them to tell when they're being lied to.
posted by downtohisturtles at 1:40 PM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I agree with DMelanogaster above, but also this reminds me of a friend whose father initially showed no signs of dementia but became a crank, or at least a bigger crank than ever. It turned out the outward anger was the first sign of dementia.
posted by readery at 1:42 PM on October 28, 2015 [7 favorites]

I don't know, but I wanted to add a point of anecdata. I've seen this in my age cohort; folks who seemed pretty grounded in high school/college who are now preaching all manner of conspiracy theories. I'm 47, so we aren't even talking 60 year olds or those likely suffering from dementia. It's frightening and confusing to me.
posted by thebrokedown at 1:43 PM on October 28, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's actually harder for them to tell they are being lied to.

Or it is, in part, a result of accumulative distrust from being lied to all too often over too many years plus an ever growing desire for a simple answer to life's complications.
posted by y2karl at 1:50 PM on October 28, 2015 [8 favorites]

My dad (same age group at the time) started to talk in mildly paranoid and previously unheard-of ways about things and people when his knees began giving him trouble and he started feeling vulnerable in public. It's often as simple as that: a consequence of feeling vulnerable mentally and/or physically.
posted by Namlit at 2:00 PM on October 28, 2015 [15 favorites]

Powerlessness and cynicism. (ie a former optimist)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:01 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Brain Aging: Models, Methods, and Mechanisms [Google Books] has a lot of info on how the brain changes as we age, including:
-working memory declines - leading to a greater reliance on "expert" opinion (combine this with how "news" has changed over the past 50 years, and you get people treating Fox News hosts as "impartial experts")
-episodic memory declines - loss of memory for details or source
-overall decline in the volume and function of the prefrontal cortex (executive function)
-how the individual's brain compensates for these declines is not uniform (so not all people will experience the same outward effects of these declines)

The prefrontal cortex may be important for feeling doubt and the anterior insula important for determining untrustworthiness - activity in both regions tends to decline with age.

A 2006 study suggests that "older adults exhibit higher levels of false memories than younger adults do and that older adults' subjective experience of memory (in the form of confidence judgments) is less well attuned to their actual level of accuracy." and "More recent work has suggested that false memories can sometimes result because misleading information is so potent that older adults skip any further attempt to retrieve and mistakenly accept the misinformation as veridical. That is, older adults may be so “captured” by misleading information that they forgo engaging in recollection."
posted by melissasaurus at 2:03 PM on October 28, 2015 [23 favorites]

My dad didn't start espousing wacky beliefs until he figured out how to surf the internet. Since then, it's been chemtrails and Illuminati. Also, he's retired, has few hobbies and is pretty bored as a result. There's probably an elaborate psychosocial trend at work here that we won't truly understand until there are more longitudinal studies on aging with regards to technology.
posted by theraflu at 2:05 PM on October 28, 2015

I agree with a lot of what's said here. Being sheltered from life and only having a few voices to tell you what's going on in the world makes one susceptible to any number of beliefs. (I'm a middle-aged person, but I've spent various periods in self-seclusion, and boy have I felt that way. Especially when in a fit of depression/rebellion I listened to Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura -- just two recent voices in a long history of demagogues exploiting the isolated, the scared, the lonely and/or unhappy).

And for someone who has been in the world for a long time (for a human), and for whom time must be going faster and faster -- there's an awful lot to know/not know. There's way more media to consume, from way more sources and media, and now -- well it feels like more than ever-- you have to be very vigilant to discern the logical from the made-up.

Conspiracy theories are soothing in a way because they provide us with certainty, a neat story, as others have suggested. But they also take advantage and amplify the fear of someone who already feels disconnected.
posted by theefixedstars at 2:05 PM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

This essay doesn't offer all that much in the way of explanation (beyond overexposure to Fox News), but may be interesting to read: I lost my dad to Fox News.
posted by lunasol at 2:26 PM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

My father has really gotten into conspiracies, new age stuff and UFOs. Everything is a conspiracy to him. I think it's Michael Shermer that states that are brains are pattern recognition machines and that evolutionary it's better to suffer false positive reaction to things such as when you think you hear a lion hunting you. IF you are wrong you lose very little but if you don't suspect a lion and he is there, your hunting and gathering trip is over quick.

I also read somewhere else is that belief in conspiracies has to do with a sense of powerlessness.
posted by 4Lnqvv at 2:34 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

A recent documentary on this subject is The Brainwashing of My Dad. I saw the film at the Traverse City Film Festival, but a glance at the website reveals that it is actually a "work in progress", so it may not be easy to watch at this point. Anyway, regardless of release status, it was an interesting film.
posted by number9dream at 2:35 PM on October 28, 2015

I am not sure of this sort of thing is typical of people as they age, but I know it certainly is not true for me, now 86. If there is any conspiracy theories I sniff at, it remains those that our govt might be covering up for some of the black box stuff they do, that is, operations kept from public awareness because of the belief that such matters need to be concealed and/or are illegal. Example: how many thought the govt monitored our phones, the net, etc till Snowden made this public? But for the run of the mill conspiracy theories I have found that no matter what rational minds say to expose such things, it does not work. Why? Conspiracy believers like to assume that they have no control over what is taking place but that there are those "out there" who run the show. This for them then explains all the horrendous things that take place with seemingly no rational or acceptable explanation.
posted by Postroad at 3:09 PM on October 28, 2015 [21 favorites]

My dad is "of age" and has spent a lot of his life at war with everyone around him for one reason or another. Now that he's retired and has had more time to settle into himself my family and I are realizing that a) he's kind of a dick and b) he's never really come to terms with how a lot of the bad stuff that's happened to him over the course of a lifetime was self-induced because of it.

Rather than look inward and go, man, I gotta make up for a lifetime of sometimes being a real asshole, he's building a protective wall around him that puts the blame elsewhere. That wall consists of racism that he claims is liberal truth and a whole lot of other really weird judgmental stuff that is frankly really exhausting to deal with. Like, he claims he's not racist and that in fact he's probably the least racist person I know (his words) but he spent an hour the other day telling me that blacks in America are to blame for all their problems and that white people like him shouldn't have to bear the burden of fixing anything because it's not really their fault. Sigh.

At his heart he's a good guy, but for whatever reason he cannot come to grips with taking responsibility for his part in the bad sections of his life, and thus... Conspiracies. Everywhere. Nothing is his fault. To admit something might be would possibly kill him (not even kidding). He just wants to be at peace with himself and he's going about it in the worst way possible.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:24 PM on October 28, 2015 [9 favorites]

Oh.. One other thought. My dad is super intelligent, and in diving into certain conspiracy theories/bizarre behaviors he feels he's aligning himself with other people who are of equal intelligence because "they see things as they really are, too". He feels isolated and useless and unheard, except in the echo chamber that is conspiracy land.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:31 PM on October 28, 2015 [9 favorites]

It's not the conspiracies, per se, but that the hallmark of a conspiracy theory victim is the lack of critical thinking skills.

In other words, for an elderly person to start exhibiting a lack of critical thinking skills, this can simply be a sign of dementia.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:38 PM on October 28, 2015

Well one thing I've noticed as I've gotten older is that I've read a whole lot more news articles about "experiments" and things the U.S. government has/ is doing
that I absolutely would not have believed could have been true when I was younger. Like it's now been admitted and has been confirmed that the military experimented with LSD and speed on soldiers without their permission or knowledge. Or that the Bay Area was sprayed with chemicals without anyone's knowledge. Would you have believed 15 years ago that the U.S. Government was collecting everyone's data without a warrant? Or that Obama has a "kill list" of enemy terrorist combatants that get assassinated without trial? So as I've gotten older and been exposed to more mainstream news articles that are not "crank" publications, I've just gotten a lot more cynical. You can google any of those news articles. They are all absolutely unbelievable.
posted by gt2 at 5:01 PM on October 28, 2015 [7 favorites]

Not to mention spending billions on a war and having our own soldiers die in a war and killing thousands of civilians where there really were no weapons of mass destruction. It's almost naive to think there are no conspiracies. (Not to say that everything is a conspiracy)
posted by gt2 at 5:06 PM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

As gt2 pointed out, there have been some outrageous violations of citizens' rights by the military and government, and of course they are often going to cover this up because they know people won't particularly like being experimented on like Guinea pigs. This isn't just a recent thing, either. I remember how much difficulty I had wrapping my mind around the Tuskegee experiments.

So, yeah, one possibility for why older people might be more open to conspiracy theories is because they've seen a lot of abuses of power over the course of their lifetime, and it makes each subsequent bad act more and more plausible.

I think people should avoid using derogative terms like "nuts" and "tinfoil hat". For one thing, that really Otherizes someone close to you for no good reason. It can't do anything good for your relationship to take the stance that he is not worth listening to and couldn't possibly be right about anything. It's possible to disagree but with respect and while leaving room for the possibility that you're wrong.

Because really, one day you may be proven wrong and some of the theories you're now scoffing at will be recognized widely as having been true.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 5:15 PM on October 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

My hypothesis is that this is more common as people age because usually when people age they spend less time out and about in society, and have much more time on their hands to stare at the TV or internet and absorb a bunch of crap with no one else around to snap them back to reality. My MIL becomes prone to believing conspiracy theories when she spends too much time alone, spending her days watching tv and browsing the internet. Once she's in regular contact with other people for long periods of time it goes away.
posted by joan_holloway at 5:22 PM on October 28, 2015

I think some of this stuff is a natural outcome of a conservative outlook and the changes that society has undergone since people in their 70s and 80s were young.

The sleep apnea thing is a great example. This is a health issue we just didn't know about 70 years ago, or if we did, it wasn't something that made sense to worry much about in the face of other more significant health issues. Now, someone who is naturally more liberal or culturally open might think, "Wow, the wonders of science, discovering new things that cause people bad health outcomes and finding ways to make people's lives better!" But someone with a more closed-off outlook might naturally think, "This was never a problem in my day, obviously there must be a reason people are talking about it now. And because the world is going to hell in a handbasket, obviously that reason must be a bad one, not a good one."

Someone who is 80 in 2015 was born in 1935. In living memory, they've seen the Great Depression, WW2, the postwar economic boom, the Civil Rights and Women's movements, divorce and all kinds of other alternative family arrangements becoming normal ("living in sin", open adoptions, shared custody, marital rape becoming illegal, IVF, acceptance of interracial relationships, etc etc etc etc etc), and a very quick transition to a world where gay marriage is legal and the President is biracial. It makes a degree of sense to me that this would be baffling to someone who is conservative-minded, and that it might send someone who is like this scrambling for an explanation rather than viewing this much social flux as just a thing that happens. And thus, conspiracy theories.
posted by Sara C. at 5:26 PM on October 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

I don't think you can really underestimate the effect of right wing media, especially talk radio and Fox, on your Dad. It's anecdotal, but just listening to right-wing talk radio a few hours a day while commuting turned my father from a mild manner centrist into a right-wing crank. When you have zero competing sources of information (he doesn't subscribe to the local paper 'cause bias! and he doesn't watch tv) and you reinforce the information you are getting through broadcast media on the internet (which is -very- easy to do), of course you're going to believe that what you're hearing and reading are the Truth. It's been a scary and sad experience watching my Dad change from a person interested in other people's points of view to someone who cannot tolerate an opinion that differs from that espoused by Rush and WSJ/rw blogs.

The Brainwashing of My Dad, linked above by number9dream is really worth a watch, since it explores the power of rw media in good detail.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:43 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Obviously, what sorts of conspiracies people believed in were varied, but as the authors wrote, they “permeate all parts of American society and cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational states.”

Being well informed actually makes it more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. People aware of the Tuskagee syphilis experiment are more likely to believe the US govenrment invented AIDS. Conspiracy theories are about pattern recognition, so people with less time to ruminate on politics are less likely to have the energy to see a conspiracy theory.

Wanting to see the world in good vs evil makes you more likely to believe a conspiracy theory. So wanting to see right wing media as the bad guys feeds into that magical thinking.
posted by politikitty at 6:41 PM on October 28, 2015

I think SaraC has a very valid point; if you're 80 you've seen enormous changes in both societal norms and the very structure of our lives. The digital revolution is not as life-changing as the introduction of electricity was, but the nature of "being connected" has changed so much, so quickly. Speaking as a 72 year old, it can make a person dizzy.

It's also true, as mysterious_stranger points out, that many things that were unthinkable have turned out to be true, especially in terms of actions by our government.

But I take exception to the sneering note of some of the other posts: those old people just won't listen to scientific evidence. Here my age does come into it. The ground around me is littered with Scientific Evidence, 100% guaranteed, oops-no-guess-not. From my youth when doctors encouraged smoking to calm the nerves and lose weight, to "estrogen is essential it will keep you young and vital -- oh sorry, it also causes cancer." The majority are health related but certainly not all.

And sometimes older people don't believe any particular conspiracy theory, they just wonder. Here's one: Two towers didn't go down on 9/11, three went down. In the minutes of the proceedings of the Government's 9/11 hearing, there is a short paragraph saying that it's not clear why Building 7 was not struck, but went down and pancaked on its own footprint. They suggest there should be further engineering investigations to identify the weaknesses in the construction design. Are people investigating that? I have no idea. I have no theories. I just wonder. But if I bring this up in conversation, I am immediately dismissed as a nut job, another confused old person. I do get confused, it's true. But I think if you are Absolutely Sure about all your ideas, you might try a little scepticism. Or not. I'm sure you'll have some surprises in store down the road.
posted by kestralwing at 7:30 PM on October 28, 2015 [12 favorites]

It's ageism to think that the older a person is the more likely it is for them to believe in conspiracy theories. I'm a few months away from turning 70, with older siblings and friends who are my age or older. None of us are followers of the conspiracy theories. We're the skeptics and debunkers of that claptrap. Most of us delight in new technology and discoveries. I think that the sources of entertainment and information one chooses are more likely the promulgators and perpetuators of conspiracy theories. It was people younger than me who asked me about the FEMA camps. I responded with derisive laughter and proceeded to do my best to explain why that is such a foolish conspiracy theory. I was also asked about 'chem trails'. I did my most patient best to get the followers of that stupidity to consider taking a dose of reality. I'm just one of many elder folks who are rational, thoughtful and fairly well based in science and logic.
posted by X4ster at 8:26 PM on October 28, 2015 [9 favorites]

My dad was a proud avowed COMMUNIST, even during the Cold War years of the 70's and 80's. He was hardcore, man.

Two weeks before he died of brain cancer, the radiation taking care of any short term memory the tumors may have spared, suddenly Israel became a sympathetic state. Like, out of the blue in the bathtub he started shouting about the holocaust and wouldn't you want to arm yourselves too?

It was a complete 180 and I'm still convinced it wasn't so much organic as a response to the lack of agency he was suddenly experiencing. Plus, you know, impending death. He was scared, but wasn't sure why, so he was rolling over some identification materials in his head, and he ran across something he could suddenly "realize" and "understand".
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 10:59 PM on October 28, 2015

I agree with gt2 and mysterious stranger that its often a reaction to seeing major abuses by those in power. The Jimmy Saville stuff really rocked me. Its completely clear that the establishment is capable of huge cover ups of terrible things and it makes you start questioning a lot of things that must be happening behind the scenes.
posted by catspajammies at 11:14 PM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

An anecdote to counter the assumption that this is necessarily related to age--I teach English 101 and a few semesters ago I was shocked to realize how many of my students entertained at least some belief in a conspiracy theory (so MANY of my freshmen thought the moon landing was faked!).
posted by mmmbacon at 8:51 AM on October 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well, as a counter point I have noticed that a lot of men in their 30s and 40s get into conspiracy theories. In the last several guys I've dated and some other people I know (NYC), men from 31 to 46 have said things like, "Didn't you ever think about..." and then it's illuminati, 9/11 truth, aliens, etc. I've just come to expect that most men I meet have some pet conspiracy theory.

Meanwhile my father is in his mid 70s and has gotten more liberal as he's gotten older.
posted by zutalors! at 12:31 PM on October 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been fascinated by the topic of cranks in academia for for a while and I think I have a decent model for understanding part of where at least that section of crankery comes from, frustrated privilege that might generalize. They seem to be almost exclusively white men from relatively economically privileged backgrounds, a demographic that Western society is constantly reminding from a young age is smart, talented, knows things, and HAS THINGS TO TEACH US. Lacking the drive or humility to actually learn enough to have things worth teaching, they invent things that only appear to be worth teaching in order to fulfill that drive that was expected of them from birth without needing to do the hard work they either are not capable of or simply do not want to do. It is the dark flip side to the debilitating impostor syndrome that many real academics have, where the main difference seems to be the intellectual honesty to recognize and fight it as well as the talent and drive to do so. The practice of academic crankery represents a reversal of something fundamental to the honest practice of science, where it is all about finding ways to feel smart - smarter than everyone else - whereas as good scientists are constantly finding new ways to feel stupid - pushing themselves to the edge of knowledge where they know nothing and no one can help them. Much like how Charlie Sheen represented his actions to a judge while defending himself from prostitution charges during sentencing, "Sir, I did not pay that woman to sleep with me, I paid her to go home afterwards," as an academic you don't so much get paid to be smart but instead get paid to be willing to feel stupid, constantly. It is exhausting, regularly humiliating, but ultimately supremely liberating in a way that is both difficult to explain and trivial to spot in others who do not grok it in one of the seemingly infinite ways to usefully do so.

Academic cranks are, for the most part, people who are not capable of honestly producing meaningful ideas that are simultaneously new and valuable, and yet feel a desperate compulsion to feel smart like they imagine academics to be. I suspect that this generalizes significantly to other conspiracy theorists only, in addition to feeling smarter than politicians and the media or whatever, they also get to feel more in control and secure in how the world makes sense in the light of the theories. If academic crankery is something that also fascinates you too I would recommend watching this,

Pathological Physics: Tales from "The Box" (previously) You will also need to forgive the ideosyncratic theories of videography and sound capture on display, but it is totally worth it.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:37 AM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

My hypothesis is that this is more common as people age because usually when people age they spend less time out and about in society, and have much more time on their hands to stare at the TV or internet and absorb a bunch of crap with no one else around to snap them back to reality.

Seconding that that correlation makes a lot of sense. The most susceptible I have ever been to this kind of paranoia was as a young adult, severely depressed in a very isolating job. I had almost nothing to do all day except read blogs that, as the U.S. political situation became increasingly polarized, were gradually sliding into sheer lunacy. (Probably all a show for the sake of page clicks, too.) But I was too caught in a depression fog to apply any critical thinking to them, and just thought my god, all of that stuff the cranks and the conspiracy nuts talked about is really happening. At some point in this period I started dating someone, though, and it took literally a single "wtf, quit reading that alarmist crap, it's as bad as Fox" comment to shake me out of my conviction that, for example, the Republicans were going to institute martial law.

Of course, my initial instinct was to double down because how dare someone suggest I was being an idiot and a sucker! But hey it was just this one idea, and this person cared about me, so I was able to get over myself. If I had stayed isolated much longer though, or built up a more substantial chunk of my worldview and identity through the crank lens, I don't know that the paranoia would have been as easy to shake off.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:39 AM on October 30, 2015

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