23 May, 2024


Conspiracy Stories Are All Over; But Why Are They So Popular & Readily Accepted?

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Man, the Wise or Man, the Unwise?

Professor Chandima Gomes, a Sri Lanka born scientist now attached to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a recent tele-interview, theorised why Homo sapiens, Man the Wise, is so quick to believe in and accept stories that are obviously absurd, ill-founded and flawed.

The theme of his interview was whether science and religion were compatible with each other and the State should be freed from religion. But to set the background for presenting his thesis, he treated his viewers with a fine analysis of human psychological build-up that affects behaviour. Gomes began his presentation by drawing a distinction between understanding and judgment. Understanding that differs from person to person is dependent on two factors: one’s accumulated knowledge and his analytical skills.

Accumulated knowledge is simply a store of experiences recorded within a person and retrievable at will. Thus, to use it, one should have experiences gathered and stored within the system in the first place and is able to tap it whenever it is needed. Analytical skill is the ability of a person to break a whole thing into small parts and examine them separately, their nature, how they behave and what impact they would have on the whole thing being studied and so on.

Psychological inertia: Fear of change and love for status quo

According to Gomes, one may understand something, but it does not necessarily mean that he is able to make a sound judgment about it. That is because in-between understanding and judging there is a barrier that blocks the conversion of understanding to judgment. Gomes called it ‘psychological or mental inertia’, the mental feeling of fearing change and loving the status quo. This comes from another mental state called ‘mental stress’, an affliction from which Homo sapiens has been suffering throughout history.

In early history when humans were living on trees, a simple sound may have caused stress in him. It causes fear forcing him to stay put where he is (loving the status quo) or run away for safety (accepting the feared change). Anthropologists say that this latter reaction is disliked and therefore to avoid it, people get into social groups. In the social groups, people have ‘hates and loves’. When one loves another, he ignores even the biggest flaw in him. But in the opposite, when one hates another, he looks for even the most trivial weakness in him and amplifies it. Gomes did not say it, but this is fertile ground for conspiracy stories.

A conspiracy story can be either offensive or promotional.

Offensive conspiracy stories

In the case of offensive conspiracy stories, an absurd story is created to amplify the hate and all those followers in the hate group are eagerly wating for the appearance of the story. A recent example in this regard is the conspiracy theory created by President Donald Trump to justify his objection to counting postal votes. He said that those votes should not be counted because in transit, they were intercepted by Russia and China and the votes were changed in favour of his rival Joe Biden. This is an absurd story but many Americans who hate both Russia and China have accepted it in the blink of an eye, as demonstrated by them appearing before TV cameras.

A claimed foreign hand in prison riots in Mahara

A similar conspiracy story was created when there was a riot in the remand prison at Mahara in Sri Lanka a week ago. A leading government politician hinted at a foreign hand in the riots without naming the foreign hand. It was a better conspiracy story because anyone who hates the government of a foreign country could place that country in the picture and live in suspense forever savouring the story. Thus, the creators of conspiracy stories are also ‘masters of human psychological bases’.

Promotional conspiracy stories: Myths, legends and miracles

Conspiracy stories are also created to promote someone or some group which one loves. They are actually not conspiracies against them, but miracles created, or stories concocted for promoting their cause. They are known as myths or legends when they talk about an event in an earlier period. The story of a giant of deep blue complexion called Neela Maha Yodhaya in the service of King Gajaba of ancient Lanka using a massive iron club to cut through the waters of the ocean to create a path for troops to move from Lanka to India is such popular legend taught to Sri Lankan students at schools.

Even when they reach adulthood, the early memory of this giant is fresh in their mind and readily retrieved to praise the glory of their ancestors. When these stories are created to depict a contemporary situation, they are presented in the form of miracles. Those miracles, however much they are unrealistic or abnormal, are readily believed by people whose mind is cushioned to accept them. For them, the miracle is the reality.

The miracle of cobra-relics springing up in Kelani River

Such a miraculous story was created by someone with a purpose a year ago. He made the announcement that he was gifted with 14 pieces of cobra-relic by a cobra-messenger of the legendary Cobra-King Mani Akkhitha suddenly appearing from the waters of River Kelani, a place close to historic Kelani Temple.

These relics as well as the cobra-messenger were on display at the Temple in Kelaniya for devotees to worship. Men and women of all walks of life queued up from early morning battling sun and rain to have a glimpse of the relics that had been sent to them by the Cobra-King Mani Akkhitha. All of them clad in pure white to demonstrate the purity of their mission, including young men and women who are otherwise dressed in denims, were seen worshipping both miracles – relics as well as the cobra-messenger in a plastic bottle – displaying utmost devotion and respect by placing folded hands close to hearts and instantly assuming awe-stricken faces.

Mani Akkhitha, tribal leader turned to a cobra

For them, legendary King Mani Akkhitha was a cobra and the present Kelaniya was his seat of administration. But according to archaeologist Raj Somadewa, as asserted in his popular radio program ‘NethFM Unlimited History’, what is known as Kalyana in history was a place in present Ruhuna State and the legendary King Mani Akkhitha was not a cobra but a leader of a tribal group known as Nagas.

The popular belief in this miraculous story is a demonstration that evidence-based science can be beaten by emotion-driven psychological states guided by mental inertia, as claimed by Chandima Gomes.

Kautilya: Use magic, occult and fake miracles to deceive the gullible

This type of miraculous stories has been used throughout history by those with vested interests. Even in ancient India, 200 years after the Buddha, Kautilya, economist cum statesman, in his treatise on economics, The Arthashastra, advised the king to engage an agent to deceive gullible people. “An agent shall pretend to be a Naga (cobra) or Varuna (god of water) by painting himself white and showing himself emerging from water by means of a secret entry and exit through a tunnel or underground chamber on the bank. Other agents shall then persuade the enemy of the supposed divinity of the Naga who will grant him whatever he wants, provided he spends a week etc.,” says Kautilya.

This is another piece of advice by Kautilya to king: “A rumour (should be spread) that on full or new moon nights, rakshasas (demons) were eating men alive in the cremation ground or a holy place shall first be propagated. Then, an agent in the guise of a rakshasa shall demand a human sacrifice. Any passer-by, brave or otherwise, shall be killed with an iron club and the death be blamed on the rakshasas.” To make it more effective, Kautilya says that “secret agents, omen readers, and astrologers shall spread the news of devilish manifestations”.

There were ways of frightening people too as recommended by Kautilya: “People can also be terrorised by contriving animal blood to pour out of images of gods held in reverence. Agents shall interpret this as foretelling defeat as a result of which rivers of blood will flow in the city.”

Kautilya: Use of fake miracles to extract money from people

Kautilya had also recommended several ways to deceive gullible people and collect money for the king’s treasury. They include: “building overnight, as if it happened by miracle, a temple or a sanctuary and promote the holding of fairs and festivals in honour of the miraculous deity; exploiting an unnatural happening, such as an unseasonal flower or fruit, by making it into a divine phenomenon; using secret agents to frighten people into making offerings to drive away an evil spirit; playing tricks on people by showing a cobra apparently with many heads, or a stone cobra coming alive; and selling remedies against evil occult manifestations”.

Terrorise people who question fake miracles

But there can be some people who may question the truth of these deceitful acts of a king. Kautilya had a solution for them too: “If people are not taken in so easily, they should be frightened into doing so. Secret agents should give unbelievers an anaesthetic in water and blame their condition on a curse of gods; or a condemned man shall be killed by poison and his death blamed on divine retribution.” This shows to what extent an interested party will go to realise his own personal goals. For them, gullible people are simply yielding hands for their conspiracy stories.

Human cognition and myths

These mythological stories passed down from generation to generation have a purpose, according to Oxford educated historian Yual Noah Harari. In his 2011 book titled ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’, Harari says that mythological stories had helped early humans to develop language and later ones to create art and literature. This is a part and parcel of cognitive revolution which humans underwent by acquiring ability to learn, perceive, memorise, and think. That was also the departing point in the evolution of humans compared to other species.

“Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language,” says Harari.

Worshipping the past is a way to avert fear of change

These myths do not really exist. Yet, millions of people believe them because it is in their own interest to do so. When they suffer from mental inertia, as asserted by Gomes, the way out is to believe in a story relating to past just to forget about having to change in the present. But the world is changing, and people feel those changes. Then, how could they attain salvation? Just by savouring conspiracy stories. Therefore, there is a demand for conspiracy stories. If there is a demand, there should be supply of conspiracy stories too.

The supply is done by those smart people, intent on taking advantage of the gullibility of their victims. The list of such smart people who conspire to create conspiracy stories for their own personal gain is long: politicians, clergymen, civil society leaders, marketers, union leaders, and simple housewives and so on. They create a conspiracy story and throw it into the society at large. Immediately, it is grabbed, absorbed, savoured, amplified, and repeated. This has been the trend throughout the history of Homo sapiens.

Convincing people of absurd stories

Harari says telling effective stories is not easy: “The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: How does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods or nations or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees, and lions.”

Thus, conspiracy stories are about things that do not really exist. But for millions of people, they are true just like the lines on their palms. This false belief has been the main reason for the spread of conspiracy stories throughout the globe.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Sri Lanka Sinhala Buddhist politicians thrive in Conspiracy theories.

    The economy is in dire straits
    China is knocking on the door demanding more andm more 99 year lease of Sri Lanka’s assets
    COVID is spreading like a wild fire

    Rajapakses love conspiracy theories

    The Rajapakse answer
    is LPL to divert the attention
    prison riots to divert the attention
    Muslim burial to create a non existing issue and divert attention

  • 4

    It s the nature of human beings to get caught easily by a simple tricks being played on them. Republicans in Georgia state support yet Trump lawsuit on steal of votes,. So about srilanka, we dont even talk.Prof Kovur already analysed it in slanka a few decades ago even ones with uni education, end of the day would behave to the same manner as the stupid people would do. So cultural forces rooted in slanken culture are much more powerful than any other scientific evidence. This is the reason why that great weekly program telecasted by SLRC ended up in vain. As unhealed rape victims would love to face such rapes majority of our people would nt change their attitudes on getting caught by easy tricks on and on 😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎

    • 1

      Mr. eLM (eternal Loose Motion),
      You have stopped worshipping cement columns I suppose……?

  • 5

    What is the average IQ of Sri Lanka ?

    How does our IQ compare with other countries ?

    Per capita, have we produced scientists, writers( Nobel prize etc) economists, athletes etc who are global quality ?

    In New Zealand which has only about 4 million people there are several Nobel prize winners. NZ wins a few gold medals at Olympics regularly. Their Rugby team has dominated for more than 50 years.

    It is the same with Singapore, Japan, Korea, China , there are world class personal performances and it is a regular thing. A low IQ and non-performance will find happiness in myths and conspiracy theories. They don’t realize that even a proper conspiracy needs high intelligence, and certain qualities including faithfulness ( to the plot) .

    Look at the average Sri Lankan .

    Does you see a massive performer ?

    • 2

      Not the IQ levels but people’s myths guide them to ruins today. Regardless of them being uni educated, most of them line up to throw MUTTI into rivers, if they would have been asked to do so. I ll bet you, most would eat starting cow dung and anything else, if that would be made the public perception of the island nation. Peoples dont care much about their own conscience. I really dont know why.. may well be Mahanwansa led buddhgama misleads the nation. That CHeerawaradhariya from Abhayaramaya, pleaded not to hold the torch to politicians, but in the following week itself, he was seen tying the ” pirithnoole” around the penis of Mahinda Rajaapakshe … This is how SO CALLED BUDDHIST clergy make their contriubtions in ruining the society.

      What is the average IQ of Sri Lanka ? 60 or less

      How does our IQ compare with other countries ?

      Srilanken media overestimate their people only going by the tricks being applied by vicious politicians. For example, number 2 country to have managed COVID 19 is not reported anywhere but that was the number one headline among srilankens within the country. Untruths and blatant lies lead this nation for the benefits of political goons. This was also the case under Good governance because they failed to take control the media mafia being handled by Rjapakshe supporters.

    • 2

      deepthi silva

      sri lanka produced one of most admired liberation movement in the world with land , sea and naval power. thanks to Sri Lanka Sinhala Buddhist racism .

      can any other country match Sri Lanka Sinhala Buddhist racism .
      so Sri Lanka have a double whammy.

      on the other hand Sri Lankan expatriates all over the world are contributing to medical research, information technology, business , politics, all over the world

      Look at the state of the country now!
      utter disaster!
      after 70 years of independence
      after 10 years since the end of the civil war
      where is the country heading?
      has the country learnt any lessons
      they are teaching racism in Sinhala south schools
      watch the parliamentary proceedings…that is the reflection of the country

  • 5

    Srilankan politics run with conspiracy theories and racism cards. People of SL are sensitive by nature (all communities in general) and especially in religious and cultural space. Politicians are correctly exploiting these sensitive zones for their benefit and sustainability.

    They used tamils community, now muslims, tomorrow it may be catholics and christians, later it can expand to caste levels.

    Whats so worrying and unfortunate is that 80% of our community are blind followers of whats their preferred politician says. When this will change? Unless this pattern changes, we are going to continue as a developing country as a whole.

    and Importantly when you see some injustice and keeping quiet means that you are supporting it.

  • 1

    Mr. W.A. Wijewardena
    Why only Neela?
    What about the ten generals of King Kavantissa and the legends associated with Bulatha Yodha? For your information, there are inscriptions to prove that giants worked for kings.
    In the case of Kelaniya, an inscription found at Diyagama (Kalutara District) in the 5th century mentions a city called Kaliniya which belongs to the ancient Kingdom of Kalyani.
    There is also an inscription confirming that Kalani Ceitya has been renovated by King Nissanka Malla.
    It is said that 500 Buddhist monks lived in the Kalyani Temple during the reign of King Gamini Abhaya.
    In the 1st century, Rohana-Desa had a city called “Kalayana-Kannika or Karnika”. The king who ruled the country at that time was Kutakanna Tissa. He was also known as Kalakanni Tissa. Apparently he had built a Stupa there in his own name. In my opinion, the word “Kalayana-Kannika” in the Rohana-Desa may be “Kalakanni” (King’s name) and not Kelaniya.

  • 1

    I think Prof. Gomes hit nail right on the head when he implied (in my understanding) that the political & religious parties have a problem if the mindset of the masses improves with learning.

    I remember at school in junior classes, we were taught a mix of myths & folklore in history & Buddhism classes. Whether the Jathaka stories were true or how Buddha visited SL several times, floating through air, taught as facts, becomes fiction at a later age to many, yet, there are others, even professionals among the believers who are unable to separate facts from fiction.


    • 1

      Raj-Uk, :
      Sociologists and psychologists should work together in order to get them back to the track.
      No physical roads and building constructions would help the progress of the country but investments on improvement of the awareness of the people. This university experts come forward and discuss louder than they are doing now. Otheriwise, even the last assets of the country would be damaged by Medamula Rascals. There is no law and order under current men. They say something mornings and at dusk, they behave as nothing was said by them.
      Mahara Prison Killings are premeditated acts fo some thugs of the govt. Very same manner, Medamulana caves would be attacked is my wish. I really dont support anyone that stand by RAJAPKASHES:

  • 1


    If I am not mistaken, there was some talk about the Dept. of Aviation looking for evidence of Ravana’s airplane. More recently, the Minister of Health has been throwing pots of holy water into rivers & a priest in a helicopter sprinkling holy water over the country but most bizarrely , the Minister offering to sacrifice herself (to the divine spirits?) by jumping into the sea to save the country from the epidemic, which is not just a source of merriment but, in fact, indicates the level of rational thinking & mindset of our politicians in the 21st century. Its time the education system in SL is reformed & myths & folklore eliminated from the syllabus. The country needs rational, educated politicians & citizens, not gullible people basking in our glorious past. Thank you Mr Wijewardena.

  • 0

    Sir, thank you so much. Your previous series taught me to enhance my economic and financial knowledge. This time you have made a valuable addition to my rational thinking. Wish you long live!

  • 1

    Does anybody know in South American jungles, or in Tundra desert or in Congo wilderness a race living believing in a sexy, erotica story that Muslims traders are spreading a Beheith on women’s underwear and when Sinhala women are wearing it, they become in-fertile. No easy solution to save the Sinhala Women, even by washing and wearing, from this, because Muslim traders sell underwear extra-ordinarily cheap to Sinhala women (….. sad!). The solution is setting fire for Fashionbug like famous stores. Is there any South Asian Modaya, other than in Wild Life Sanctuary, eating their cultural food, doesn’t know that beson power create lumps in curries? They went and broke the restaurant and entered into the neighborhood and set fire to the houses until Aanduwa’s lab certified it.

    “There is a Beheith introduced by a quack named Dhamikka, for Covid-19. Like the monkey minister climbed to coconut tree, Bavithra Naachi gave a pose to media drinking that. So the crowd encircled the quack’s home demanding to buy the Beheith. Police went to control the crowd, but could not so stopped the distribution. Police person said all have to follow the health department regulation because of Endemic. “ This is something I understood as happened in Kegalle, by reading Colombo Media.
    Can somebody, capable, separate here:
    Conspiracy theory,
    Malevolent Journalism,
    Traitor work against Appe Rate,
    Anti-Sinhala Buddhism,
    Tamils seeking foreign involvement

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