Consider these propositions: climate change is a hoax, vaccines are dangerous and the Deep State is not only a thing, but hobbling Trump’s efforts to make America great again.
Big conspiracies almost never exist. Small scale ones do, broadly defined at law as two or more people (together) doing an act or thing in furtherance of crime. Actually, one can get into deeper legal hot water faster with friends than alone.
But are overarching, complicated cabals with many players and moving parts influencing world events? Nah. Belief in them is widespread, however, and discloses various personal traits. For many, the X-Files is more documentary than TV fantasy. Such people comprise up to a third of Americans in the case of the climate change “hoax,” for example. This is important: irrational beliefs, be they religious or conspiracy based, can do fantastic harm.
Countering them can be frustratingly ineffective. Research has shown that fighting bad facts with good facts can just entrench the original falsehoods, a type of confirmation bias known as the backfire effect. Conspiracy theorists dig even in deeper asserting that people who try to debunk conspiracy theories may, themselves, be party to the conspiracy. It’s a no win situation like the old “When did you stop beating your wife?” question.
Conspiracy theories don’t grow everywhere equally, they thrive in low information environments like countries lacking a free press and free speech. Iranian society is known for its embrace of them and throughout the Arab world, where free speech is at a premium, all sorts of Zionist blaming nonsense is taken as truth. In some cases, like Saudi Arabia, along with old timey anti-Semitism, a supernova of the genre, Zionist conspiracy theories are even taught in schools. For further reading, a full and fascinating multi-decade catalog of the many bizarre political beliefs in the Islamosphere’s media is compiled by memri.org.
If we look under hood of individuals prone to conspiracist ideation we find some interesting quirks. A meta-analysis by academics Douglas and Sutton informs us that believers tend towards lower educational attainment and lower analytic thinking. Our conspiracy minded president refers to them as “the poorly educated” – whom he loves, apparently. (Interestingly, belief in conspiracies is also high in narcissists). Such deficiencies lead to a childlike tendency to perceive agency and intentionality where it does not exist. We are a pattern seeking species but with conspiracy nuts the dial is turned to overheat.
Religiosity is higher in conspiracy theory believers, hardly a surprise. Once one accepts virgin birth, talking snakes, 72 virgins or miracles there’s really nothing on the crazy table that’s off limits. Additionally, the theories travel in groups with those believing in one conspiracy theory tending to believe others, as well as psychic or paranormal phenomena: UFOs anyone? Belief also appears to be stronger when events are especially large in scale or significant and leave people dissatisfied with mundane, small-scale explanations.
Demographically members of groups who have objectively low status via ethnicity or income are more amenable to conspiracies. Also, research suggests that conspiracy belief is stronger when people experience distress as a result of feeling uncertainty.
Large conspiracy explanations can be comforting as they provide a missing link to explain injustice, usually ascribed to the malevolence of bad actors. More satisfyingly, they define the world in black and white: conspirators vs. victims. They are conducive to in group/out group thinking with the out group (unbelievers) denigrated as “sheeple” for not seeing the truth. The theories may promise to make people feel safer as a form of cheater detection in which dangerous and untrustworthy individuals are recognized and the threat they pose is reduced or neutralized.
Finally there’s virtue signaling, a fancy psycho-neologism for showing off, implying “I’m the guy with the answers, I know stuff. I look behind the lies and find truth when the sheeple can’t.” Don’t underestimate that motivation, we all like to show off our knowledge but conspiracy theorists take it one step further by asserting access to somehow secret or inaccessible facts.
Though the psychological literature is slim, perhaps another motivation is that being in a minority of opinion believers get a charge out of their defiantly contrarian posture and the social disharmony it creates. There is actually a weird cachet to the fanaticism of standing one’s ground even in the face of real evidence and sane explanations. Perhaps it is this psychiatric tick which is motivates Roseanne Barr?
Unfortunately, for all the effort, push back from society and an energy sapping cognitive dissonance, conspiracy theories are more appealing than satisfying. They provide a phony world view without solutions. It’s a reaction to powerlessness that disempowers its believers due to nobody taking them seriously. The above studies have also shown that it makes people less inclined to take actions that, in the long run, might boost their autonomy and control via voting and party politics.
Externally, the theories are damaging and an assault on rational, reality based decision making. Experiments show that exposure to conspiracy theories decreases trust in governmental institutions, even if the conspiracy theories are unrelated to those institutions.
Even without a president who actively promotes them, a terrifying reality itself, it is trust in our institutions, not our leaders or their theories, which makes American democracy great. People do die from vaccine-preventable diseases. Environmentally, the climate change hoax theory permits denial of a real, science based threat of catastrophe. Abroad, how is Middle East peace possible with one side being taught crazy and evil myths about the other in schools?
Of some relief, Douglas & Sutton believe education can beat down the crazy in conspiracy nuts. For the general good and a respect for fact based decision making our individual contribution surely has to be to challenge them. And not forward their theories in any context.