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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Conspiracy Theories

In an excellent article on the origin of conspiracy theories in The Psychologist (July 2010) Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles have detailed the sociological and psychological determinants of conspiracy theories.  There are an astounding number of conspiracy theories that abound today; and for just about every current event, there are many who believe that some dark cabal is behind it. 

The truth’, the TV show The X-Files told us, ‘is out there’. Millions of people worldwide seem to agree, disbelieving official accounts of important social and political events. In the United States, for example, scholars have noted a steady increase in the number of poll respondents who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in killing John F. Kennedy.  In the wake of 9/11, commentators highlighted the proliferation of conspiracy theories about the event, with polls suggesting that more than a quarter of respondents believe the US government knew in advance, participated in, or took no action to stop the attacks.

So why do people go off the logical rails and look for answers in the realm of fantasy? Some of the earliest work on the subject in the 60s was by Hofstadter who suggested psychopathology:

The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.

Later researchers turned to what they felt were more compelling social factors.  How, they argued, could psychopathology be the principal cause of conspiracy theories when there were so many of them?

A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.

However, simply being powerless – most people are unable to influence events or decisions on anything but an individual or family basis – is not enough:

To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought they may gain more widespread acceptance when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities. A conspiracy theory helps explain those ambiguities and provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty. Or that the human desire for explanations of all natural phenomena aids the conspiracist in the quest for public acceptance.

A more simple, practical explanation, is lack of information:

Those who believe in conspiracy theories may be responding rationally and logically to what little information they receive, even if that information appears absurd in relation to wider, publicly available knowledge.

However, just as the psychopathology argument was challenged because of the widespread phenomenon of conspiracy theories – i.e. that many people could not be so deluded because of faulty brain wiring or chemistry – this ‘rational-irrational’ argument can similarly be dismissed.  Most of us have only a fraction of the information required to make fully informed decisions, but we do not automatically veer towards the irrational.  A more persuasive argument is that “conspiracy theories afford adherents a means of maintaining self-esteem, coping with persecution, reasserting individualism, or expressing negative feelings”; and an even more persuasive one suggests that “conspiracy theories emerged because of ‘an irrational need to explain big and important events with proportionately big and important causes’”

In other words, 9/11 is simply too big an even and too world-altering to be explained only by citing the various social-economic, religious, and political factors that led up to it.  There simply had to be radical, supra-global causes to explain it.  When combined with the theory of powerlessness – the total insignificance of the individual in this Armageddon-like event – plus Hofstadter’s psychopathology (extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism), this makes total sense.

The authors add one more important element – that people react on the basis of ‘dispositional’ factors – i.e. internal factors that have nothing to do with objective reality:

Conspiracy theorists are more likely to blame Hofstadter’s  ‘preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network’ even when adequate situational explanations are available. This may be especially true when people are outraged or distressed and seek to justify their emotional state by claiming intentionality of actions even in the absence of evidence.

In very simple terms, many people are already disposed, for various reasons, to mistrust ‘the facts’ and have already internalized a belief that something is or is not true.  Those people who believe that 9/11 was an insidious plot by Bush, the CIA, or the Israelis are unlikely to change their belief on the basis of ‘situational factors’ – historical antecedents and the forensic evidence.

Few people who hold conspiracy theories will communicate their convictions calmly but do so with venomous anger and hostility.

Some scholars have suggested that the emotional content of many conspiracy theories plays an important role in their dissemination and acceptance. Conspiracy theories create intense emotions that help spread similar beliefs [my italics] while also providing a justification for affective states produced by some traumatic event.

The authors suggest that one conspiracy often feeds others:

A ‘monological belief system’ allows conspiracy theorists to easily assimilate explanations for new phenomena that would otherwise be difficult to understand or would threaten their existing beliefs. Those, for example, who more strongly endorsed 9/11 conspiracy theories were also more likely to believe in other, seemingly unrelated conspiracy theories.

This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of conspiracy theories – once you have adopted one theory on the basis of internalized feelings, selective ‘evidence’, and socio-pathological needs, you easily adopt others. 

Worse, conspiracy theories go viral instantaneously; and ‘the more you see a reference to something, the truer it is’.  In other words, if 100 websites and 1000 bloggers comment on the fact that John McCain is a Manchurian Candidate, brainwashed by the Communists during his days at the Hanoi Hilton, then it must be true. 

Rational arguments to counter conspiracy theories will not work.  Compared to the passionate, emotional, life-altering convictions held by conspiracy theorists, dispassionate, documented arguments pass unnoticed. Fortunately for now rationality is still the norm…For now.

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