New research has examined in unprecedented detail the public's beliefs over the disappearance of famous aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, 70 years ago. This remains one of the most notorious flight disappearances. Speculation over what happened to their missing plane has spawned a small industry in books and theories.
Psychologists investigating pubic beliefs about what truly happened to Amelia Earhart have now found that conjecture over similar events, is associated with your intelligence, and even how agreeable your personality is.
Amelia Earhart, was an aviation pioneer, the ﬁrst woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross; setting numerous aviation records. In 1937 Earhart attempted to fly around the world with second navigator Fred Noonan. On July 2, Earhart and Noonan departed from Lae, New Guinea, destined for Howland Island in the central Paciﬁc Ocean. But radio transmission with them was lost, and, despite an unprecedented search, no physical evidence of Earhart, Noonan, or their aircraft was found.
Explanations for the disappearance range from those generally accepted by researchers and historians (that they ran out of fuel and crashed at sea, or landed on an uninhabited island), to unsupported claims (that Earhart and Noonan were in fact spying on the Japanese in the Paciﬁc), to the bizarre (that they landed safely and assumed new identities or were abducted by aliens).
Viren Swami and Adrian Furnham investigated the beliefs, over what really happened to Amelia Earhart's missing plane, of 433 women and 481 men from London.
The study entitled 'Examining Conspiracist Beliefs About the Disappearance of Amelia Earhart', found that only 32% of participants in fact selected the most plausible explanation, as ranked by experts with knowledge about Earhart or aviation history. This theory is that their aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed at sea, not far from Howland Island.
The research published in 'The Journal of General Psychology', found just under 13% of the public shun this most accepted view, and believe instead that the pair survived the flight, returned to the United States, and assumed new identities (a theory deemed relatively implausible by historians), while 4.5% believed that Earhart and Noonan were abducted by aliens.
Almost 10% of the public believe Earhart and Noonan intentionally downed their aircraft near Japanese occupied territory, so that the US Navy could spy on the Japanese during the subsequent rescue mission, and were safely picked up by the Navy.
When official or mainstream accounts struggle to account for a significant event, so-called 'conspiracy theories' offer alternative explanations.
Conspiracy theories might offer a voice for the powerless or disadvantaged, particularly during crises when mainstream accounts have become erroneous or unreliable - a chink in the armour of the oppressors.
On the other hand, 'conspiracy theories' may serve to bolster self-esteem - 'I'm cleverer than the official man on TV because I can work out what's really going on'. The ability to express an arresting alternative account might impress an audience, and gain attention as well as respect socially.
But do such alternative theories about what really happened merely reveal the believer to be paranoid?
This study suggests it is personality and other psychological traits that are associated with conspiracist ideas.
Perhaps the more mistrustful believe in a vast, insidious, effective international conspiratorial network, perpetrating fiendish acts. Evidence that believing in conspiracy theories simply means more paranoia, rather than deeper insight, comes from studies which find those who subscribe to conspiracy theories, are more likely to start believing plots that are definitely fictional. These are conspiracy theories that have been made-up for the purposes of conducting psychology experiments on them, but do not in fact exist outside the laboratory.
Previous psychological research has found that being attracted to conspiracy type theories, for example, over what really happened when a plane goes missing, might be associated with greater alienation from those around you, more distrust in authority, elevated political cynicism, a deeper sense of powerlessness and lower self-esteem.
The new study, from authors based at University College London and the University of Westminster, on what people consider really happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, found that believing in less plausible, or less accepted, theories was associated with your personality being more 'disagreeable', which means your character could be more suspicious and antagonistic.
The study also found that that trust in less reputable explanations for the disappearance of the plane was associated with faith in other conspiracies, and possibly with lower intelligence.
It has been suggested that the more simplified explanations of complex phenomena offered by conspiracy theories, are more readily accepted by those with lower intellectual ability.
Perhaps the most sobering finding of the Amelia Earhart study is that only 32% of participants selected the most plausible explanation for her missing plane, as ranked by Earhart or aviation experts.
This minority might indicate a significant, and even growing gap, between official or expert accounts of mysterious or unexplained phenomena, and what the public believe.
One should be cautioned against drawing links between the Amelia Earhart example and the missing Malaysian Airlines Jet, as they are very different types of event.
But Governments are concerned about the spread of rumours, when official explanations struggle to convince. This can cause panic, undermining public confidence in leaders and social order. 'Someone's suppressing the truth' begins to grow as a conviction explaining this type of enigma.
So significant puzzles that gain world attention, even after the mystery is resolved, could have wider repercussions.
Perhaps missing planes and similar incidents are evidence that the authorized versions of reality need to be scrutinised a lot more closely, than we would otherwise routinely feel comfortable, given how much we rely on official reassurance over what is safe, and what isn't.
It's only if we are prepared to confront this discomfort, that we might discover, the truth is not always as it is presented.