“A sucker is born every minute” is an expression that has entered our vernacular not without good cause. It is often attributed to the famous 19th century American showman, P. T. Barnum, although there is little evidence that he said it. Nevertheless, the expression survives to this day, apparently because of its truth value.

Here in Hong Kong, as elsewhere, one would think that over the past couple of centuries, with much-improved education and literacy, that our belief system would have advanced to the stage where the expression would have diminished in value somewhat. But as we’ve seen over the events of the last few months, strange beliefs, including conspiracy theories, still manage to hold sway. For example, there is a belief among a good number of the yellow brigade that a certain number of people died in Prince Edward MTR Station on August 31.

"October 31" Prince Edward MTR shrine protest
A person lays white funeral flowers outside an exit of Prince Edward MTR station on October 31. Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

The rationale, if it can be termed such, behind their belief about the “deaths” is related to a supposed mix up in the numbers of injured people in the station when police revised the initial figure of ten to seven. Even recently, several months after the event, candles have been lit and flowers laid at the station memorialising the “deceased.” Clearly, whether you are blue or yellow, believing that deaths occurred at the station is irrational given that parents, relatives and friends of the supposed victims have not raised any concerns.

It is not as if conspiracy theorists are confined to the local population. Other well-known conspiracy theories include the birther theory involving the former president of the United States Barack Obama, which, none other than incumbent President Donald Trump espoused during Obama’s term in office, claiming Obama was ineligible to serve as president because he was born outside the US. Yet other famous conspiracy theories have been connected to the September 11 terror attacks (they were perpetrated by the American government) and the Apollo moon landings (they were staged).

This raises the question of why such conspiracy theories appear and continue to be believed by sizable numbers of a given population despite the apparent irrationality.

One explanation asserts that those with far right-wing political leanings have a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, and this would be the case for the birther theorists. However, this is clearly untrue. In the case of our local station-death theorists, they appear to be anti-establishment, which would put them on the left.

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A more plausible explanation comes from experts on the psychology of conspiracy theories. According to these experts, one thing that is common among conspiracy theorists is the need to feel some agency – that they have some power to change a certain controversial issue or situation. Believers in conspiracies also tend to be alienated from society. This fits well locally with the yellow, disenfranchised youth who continue to promote the station-death theory. Under this way of thinking, the local conspiracy theorists’ continued promotion of the idea that deaths occurred at the station gives them a sense of power over the establishment. Thus, when society is polarised as it now is in Hong Kong, there is more likelihood for conspiracy theories to arise.

Then there is the well-known cognitive weakness called “confirmation bias” that all of us are subject to. Evidence that supports our worldview tends to pass through our believability filter much more easily than evidence that goes against it. As ridiculous as the station-deaths theory seems for most of us, for those who are so motivated by anti-establishment views, the deaths seem to make sense. When counter-evidence is presented to them, it is either ignored, dismissed or disdained. And because everyone hates being told they are wrong, believers of the conspiracy theory simply double down on their beliefs as emotional factors begin to outweigh logical ones.

prince edward mtr station
Crowds demand the MTRC release CCTV footage of August 31. Photo: inmediahk.net.

There are also group dynamics to consider. Belief in certain ideas, no matter how crazy, tend to draw fellow believers together and help to bind the group. Our present-day religions have been enormously successful in binding groups of people together despite some of their preposterous claims about their founders who lived millennia ago. In a similar fashion, conspiracy theorists actually want to believe their theories in order to be loyal members of their group.

Clearly, at least to a certain extent, our brains are wired to be vulnerable to conspiracy theories so we should not be too critical of those who ascribe to them. Rather, our education system needs to transparently acknowledge this human weakness and develop educational strategies to help our youth overcome their cognitive biases. In doing so, the expression, “a sucker is born every minute,” may finally be laid to rest.

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.