Conspiracy Theories, Part 3

[ This is post #3 in the series, “Finding reality in a post truth world.” ]

In Part 1, I looked at some of the more prominent conspiracy theories and their prevalence. In Part 2, I examined the “building blocks” of conspiracy theories, the logical fallacies that, when put together, form the foundation of most conspiracy theories. In this, Part 3, I’ll look at some of the psychological and political traits that may make certain people more susceptible to conspiracy theories.

The above diagram is not meant to be a comprehensive summary of every psychological and political factor that constitutes a “building block”. These are simply some of the most commonly noted attributes in scientific and historical studies.

One very important note of caution: the temptation is to look for the “magic bullet” that describes why one person embraces a conspiracy theory while another does not. This conveniently ignores the entire point of examining the components of conspiracy theory adherence: logical fallacies that we all suffer from – right or left, extrovert or introvert, man or woman. The real lesson here is that when you mix logical fallacies with psychological traits and historical and political factors, you have a potent mix of variables that may, emphasize may, coagulate into a conspiracy theory. In short, there is no magic formula that definitively describes why person “A” is a conspiracist while person “B” shakes their head. Indeed, it’s quite common for the same individual to embrace a conspiracy theory during one phase of their life, only to reject it later on.

There has been a ton of speculation on the psychology of conspiracy theorists, much of it oriented toward a very political definition. I don’t find much of this credible. As a progressive liberal, it would be very convenient if all conspiracy theorists were Republicans, or even better, Trumpers, but that’s just not the case. There are conspiracy theorists on the left as well as the right. They weave their theories around different things, but they share a common approach.

That’s one reason why I particularly like this article, “Looking under the tinfoil hat: Clarifying the personological and psychopathological correlates of conspiracy beliefs.” [Special thanks to Rebecca Egipto, who provided this link in comments on Part 1] This is a fairly complex study, in that it examines a wide variety of personality traits and their correlation to adherence to conspiracy theories. I’m not a psychologist, so I would urge readers to read this study for themselves. But here are some of the main conclusions.

  • The overall correlation between conspiracy theories (CT) and personality is somewhat murky, primarily because “such beliefs are (a) inherently psychopathological, and therefore, fall outside of the normal‐range personality domain or, alternatively, (b) are ‘too normal’ and apply almost equally to everyone, thereby rendering investigations of individual difference correlates essentially moot.” The study from Bowes, et al, looks at correlations between individual traits and CT.
  • There are many studies that correlate CT with personality disorders, particularly paranoia, narcissism, and psycopathy.
  • The correlations between all these traits examined are relatively small. There is no “smoking gun.” The authors write, “In conclusion, our findings paint a multifaceted, albeit still hazy, portrait of the modal conspiracy‐prone individual. A mixture of narcissism and undue intellectual certainty, on the one hand, conjoined with poor impulse control, angst, interpersonal alienation, and reduced inquisitiveness, on the other hand, may provide a personological recipe for a tendency to impetuously latch on to spurious but confidently held causal narratives that account for one’s distress and resentment. . . At the same time, given the relatively modest or weak effect sizes we have reported, the picture we offer here is best regarded as a fuzzy sketch, ideally one to be fleshed out in future research.”

One could almost say that the psychological effects aren’t really building blocks at all, since that term indicates a degree of required inclusion that may not at all be warranted. In short, just because you’re a narcissist, that doesn’t mean you subscribe to CT. Conversely, because you believe in CT, that doesn’t mean you’re a psychopath. Non-experts like me should be extremely cautious when drawing conclusions about the connections between psychological makeup and CT.

Yes, there is no doubt psychology plays an important role in CT, but what is unknown is the predictability of psychological traits in assessing one’s susceptibility to CT. What exacerbates this difficulty is that we all experience many psychological traits to some extent. For example, most of us are anxious about the state of the country today. Our anxiety is on a continuum. For some, the result is profound depression. For others, it is a resolution to meditate once a day.

Add to that the fact that anxiety, for example, isn’t the only psychological trait we manifest. We all experience aggression, anger, humiliation, etc., and all on a continuum. We don’t have anything definitive to indicate that a certain combination of levels of multiple traits leads to CT. That means that popular articles that start with headlines like “Why is _____ a conspiracy theorist? Because he’s a narcissist!” are clickbait at best, garbage at worst.

What about historical and political factors? Here again, it’s tempting to resort to convenient answers, e.g., “Conspiracies are unique to the modern age,” or “Conspiracy theories only happen during times of crisis.” As to the first, that would require defining the “modern age” as the period of human history which began when ruling classes dominated society, i.e. certainly back to the days of Rome, and probably long before that. As to the second idea, that would mean describing virtually every time period for the past 2,000 years as a time of “crisis.”

An excellent article on this subject is “Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations,” by Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen M. Douglas. As was the case in the first section on psychological traits, I urge readers to read the study for themselves, as I am not a professional historian. Their primary conclusions are as follows:

  • Since “crisis” is a subjective word, “crisis situations” are ubiquitous. What is one person’s normal chain of events is another’s historical disruption. However, to the extent that a majority of society regards an event or a period of history as uniquely disruptive, that event or period is more commonly the basis of CT’s.
  • A CT is a convenient way for people to make sense of an event or period they don’t fundamentally understand. For example, the turn of the century in 1900 was a period of enormous technological advancement, which caused wide spread insecurity. One could probably say the same thing about today, when scientific advancements like CRISPR, AI, and quantum mechanics leave the average lay person scratching their head. A CT is often a quick way to make sense of it, and much easier than diving into the scientific literature to see what’s really going on.
  • Satisfaction with and belief in democracy, expertise, and institutions has been declining, and that has fueled CT’s.
  • CT thinking is not a “western” phenomenon. People all over the world participate.
  • CT is fueled by “consequence-cause matching.” For example, if a president is shot and survives (Reagan), there are far fewer CT’s generated than if one is assassinated (Kennedy).
  • While CT’s are a response to anxiety and feelings of lack of control because of historical events/periods, they don’t alleviate anxiety. In fact, they typically exacerbate the problem. This leads to belief in multiple CT’s. This helps explain why anti-vaxxers are now coalescing with QAnon conspirators.

There is one thing that is different about today, perhaps not in content so much as in scale: the effect on unmoderated information networks. When ruling elites first began dominating society, they controlled information. They had “gatekeepers” that regulated and curated the news. One of the great fears of the dominating elites when the printing press was first invented was the unregulated spread of information. The initial response was to control this with outright oppression, but as printing became a common endeavor, new kinds of gatekeepers evolved: editors, institutions, etc.

Currently, the Internet has almost no gatekeepers. Social media companies have only very reluctantly performed this role, and generally only when social pressure made it impossible for them to continue avoiding it. Thus Facebook became a platform for QAnon, people advocating genocide, anti-vaxxers, and thousands of other quacks and desperate people.

The initial theory was that total open social media would “bring people together.” Most people were lulled to sleep by Mark Zuckerberg’s assurance that his platform would make the world a better place. In fact, social media with no moderation created a brand new problem of scale. CT’s are now free to gain adherents worldwide, and instead of dissipating, they grow out of control to the point of threatening social order.

If I look at all three categories of CT building blocks, I come to the following conclusions:

  1. CT adherents can’t be dismissed as “nuts” or “whack jobs.” They can’t be pigeon-holed as “crazy Trumpers.” Their belief in a CT is a product of multiple traits and conditions.
  2. People fall into the CT rabbit hole because they are trying to make sense of a world that seemingly has passed them by, humiliated them, or caused them great personal distress.
  3. The “building blocks” of CT are common to all of us without exception, although to varying degrees.
  4. The starting point of combatting CT’s is the willingness to examine our modes of thought, our very consciousness, so that we can better understand when we’re in danger of succumbing to either a CT, or its logical component, a cognitive fallacy.

The last point raises the next question. If homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, why do we still manifest this obviously destructive trait? Wouldn’t evolution eliminate this? Or do cognitive fallacies have an evolutionary purpose?

The discussion of this will involve the relation of our brain to “objective reality.” Does our brain provide us with a complete understanding of reality, or does it provide us with just enough to propagate our species?

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