May 22, 2011

The Psychology of Conspiracy Theorists

Conspiracy Theories are Narratives on Steroids

President Obama's Birth Certificate Doesn't Quell Conspiracy Theory that He Isn't an American Citizen

Conspiracy theories are narratives on steroids. In a story, the plot moves forward when one thing causes the next.  In a conspiracy theory, cause is an outsized malignant force that knows everything and controls all events. Nothing happens randomly, all events are tied to the larger purpose of an always mysterious, always malefic agent.  The amplification of current events into objects of global scrutiny also amplifies conspiracy theories, making them powerful agents in shifting public opinion. Thus with the so-called Birthers framing of President Obama as a foreigner, despite the overt presentation of facts proving that the president was born in the American state, Hawaii.

Conspiracy theorists stubbornly resist the facts at hand, finding reasons other than those given for why events unfold the way they do.  Many Pakistanis appear to doubt that Osama bin Laden died as reported in mainstream news.  According to a Gallup poll, “nearly half (49%) thought that the whole incident was actually staged for some reason or other.  Only 26% thought the al-Qaeda chief was really killed on the night in question.”  That’s a lot of people who think that the story circulated in mainstream media is crackpot, at best.  And this week,  57% of respondents to a French poll believe that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is the victim of a conspiratorial plot by political rivals, rather than the victimizer of a hotel housemaid, as has been reported.

For anyone in the business of using narrative strategically,  to accelerate or impact particular interpretations of events, conspiracy theories are a troubling obstacle. For a long time, it’s been thought that the antidote to conspiracy is truthful information.  Political theorists have posited that conspiracy theories flower in special abundance in authoritarian regimes, where information access is limited or obfuscated.  Dictators have the habit of creating collective cognitive dissonance by doing all of their work behind closed doors, forcing subjects to live in a world that would not make sense but for the extra causal punch packed by conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Theories and Anomie

But not all conspiracies stem from an absence of information, and they flourish everywhere. This suggests that there are certain psychological conditions that promote conspiracy making.  They may be induced by the political environment, but aren’t necessarily.  Anomia–a sense of alienation from a group or society–was highly correlated with conspiracy thinking in Rutgers Professor Ted Goertzel’s 1990 survey of Americans about their belief in a range of conspiracy theories.

The strong correlation with the scale of Anomia indicates that belief in conspiracies is associated with the feelings of alienation and disaffection from the system. Volkan (1985) suggests that during periods of insecurity and discontent people often feel a need for a tangible enemy on which to externalize their angry feelings. Conspiracy theories may help in this process by providing a tangible enemy to blame for problems which otherwise seem too abstract and impersonal. Conspiracy theories also provide ready answers for unanswered questions and help to resolve contradictions between known “facts” and an individual’s belief system.

Journalist Jonathan Kay makes a similar point about the role of disaffection in his just released book, Among the Truthers. Kay, in a Rolling Stone interview, put it this way:

I found that virtually all conspiracy theorists over a certain age, like, 55 or 60, whether they were birthers or truthers or whatever, are often also J.F.K. conspiracy theorists.  Often you’ll find that there was a period in their life when they lost faith in public institutions, in the mass media, in the government, in the judiciary. What happens is that once someone embraces one conspiracy theory, it shapes their entire view of the world. Conspiracism is a sort of creed; it’s the idea that there is a secret power in the world that can’t be changed by elections, that it has evil motivations and that it’s trying to destroy our way of life. They come to see the world as presented by the mainstream media and other institutions as sort of a counterfeit hoax. And their minds start digging behind everything, and they stop trusting anything. Which is actually very sad, because in a lot of cases it consumes their whole lives.

Conspiracy Antidotes

This psychological framework refutes earlier views, prevalent in political theory, that conspiracy theories are solely the product of a lack of information, or the deliberate blurring of clear facts that occurs in authoritarian systems (among others, on occasion). You can have plenty of information at hand, and still construct a conspiratorial view, and the supply of new information will not matter to a mind rigidly ensconced in a distrust of public institutions.
Distrust itself that must be treated, beginning with the following three steps

  1. Begin with the understanding that, among groups, distrust is inherited and can outlast the circumstances that gave rise to it.  It takes a very long time for historical wounds to heal. An individual woman, or African-American or Jew, may have opportunities as any historically privileged person—and yet not quite be convinced that they do.
  2. To the degree that powerful individual experiences bleed into our views of public institutions, we could focus on education that builds trustworthy –not only trusting–individual citizens. People who know how to act responsibly, and who have been treated responsibly by others may be predisposed to be more trusting of their public institutions.
  3. Third, but hardly least, public institutions, media and figures must earn our trust, act responsibly and demonstrate the transparency of their statements and behaviors.



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