Humans tend to understand events through stories, and stories are easiest to follow when there is a single line of causes. It is easy to follow a story of the form “A caused B, which caused C, which caused D.” It is much harder to follow a story of the form “A caused B, and meanwhile C caused D, and D kept E from happening, and when B happened without E also happening, F was the result.” For this reason, we are likely to favor stories with a single line of causes—a “monocausal explanation”—over a story that requires keeping track of separate lines of causation. (We might see monocausal explanations as one version of the available heuristic bias.)
Sometimes, of course, a monocausal explanation is perfectly in order, and there is no need to overcomplicate things. But very often we push for a monocausal explanation when the truth is more complicated. We can see this in many popular history books which push for a monocausal explanation of why “the West” conquered the rest of the world, rather than the other way around. World history over the centuries of course includes many thousands of separate events, forces, pressures, and shifts, but recounting them all makes for an extremely complicated story. It is much nicer to be able to tell a single comprehensive story.
We can see the human inclination toward monocausal explanations at work in conspiracy theories. So, for example, if someone wanted to understand what is happening in our economy, they would have to study the behavior of markets, the supply of labor, effects of consumer demand, the roles of tariffs and regulations, and so on. It is safe to say there is not a single person who can master all of these separate causal economic influences in detail, and anyone who tried to offer even a vague general picture would be telling a very complicated story with many separate lines of causality, a story that would be very hard to follow. It is far more satisfying to simply believe in a secret group of people who control everything for their own economic interest, “a ruling global elite.” With such a simple theory we can explain every economic development as being caused by a single entity. No need to do all of that research! And when we see groups of powerful people assemble for meetings of organizations like the World Trade Organization, our suspicions will be confirmed. They must be the ruling global elite. (Of course, this is not to say that the WTO is not enormously influential, but not even the WTO can control everything.)
In this example, a more plausible view is that our economy is an exceedingly complicated system with many agents and many causes. It is true that rich people have more advantages (that is what “rich” means), and certainly, they play pivotal roles in making big investments and enacting certain policies, and organizations like the WTO promote their interests. Poor people do not have nearly as much power, and they usually suffer as a result of those investments and policies. Many rightful criticisms can be made of many features of the overall system, and economists and public policy experts are busily raising these criticisms in mounds of articles and books. But none of these truths imply that there is a single, organized group of people “behind it all.” In fact, the very complexity of the overall system suggests that there could not possibly be a single group “behind it all.” How on earth could anyone manage “it all”? Nevertheless, all of that being said, it surely is tempting to believe there must be a single group “behind it all.” For then we have an easy story to tell, an easy story to understand, and someone to blame.
Conspiracy theories—and especially conspiracy theories of economics—also often trade upon “cui bono” inferences. “Cui bono?” is Latin for the question, “Who benefits?” Many events, of course, are to the benefit of certain people or institutions or at least are seen as beneficial to them. If we are likely to believe in monocausal explanations, then when we see some group benefit as the result of some action or change, we might well infer that the action or change was caused by that group. So, for example, spending on the military increased as a result of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and the spending brought considerable benefit to military contractors. So, were military contractors behind 9/11? The state of Israel was established as a result of the horrors perpetrated on Jewish people by the Nazis in World War II and establishing a homeland for the Jews was a great benefit for them. So, did the Jews fake the Holocaust, in order to get a homeland? These are cui bono inferences, and they are more easily made when monocausal explanations are also believed—in other words, when there is a single group of people “behind it all” who will benefit from the events.
While raising a cui bono question is often important and can help to sort out questions of motivations of certain actors in a situation, the mere fact that someone benefits from a change never itself implies that they intentionally brought about the change. It might be true that, very often, humans act to benefit themselves, but it does not follow from this that whenever humans benefit it is the result of their own strategic actions. Sometimes events benefit a group, but that group is not responsible for those events. And in the cases of 9/11 and the Holocaust, none of the people who benefitted by subsequent results would say that the benefits were worth the cost.