Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Conspiracy Theories

I've been wanting to write about one of the underlying problems of our whole damned time for a while: belief in conspiracy theories. From QAnon to weird beliefs about COVID vaccines and masks and 5G, we've got all sorts of new ones lately, not to mention the backlog we've lived with for years about the moon landing or whatever. (And that's not even mentioning Stop the Steal, which isn't so much a conspiracy theory as an intentionally created lie by Republicans, knowing it would appeal to their conspiracy-theory-loving base in multiple ways.)

Slate had a piece a couple days ago called Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories: They're Not Stupid, which put me back on this track. I thought it was one of the better explainers I've seen of the phenomenon.

First, it sets the stage: we live in an era that's ripe for this kind of thing because this truly is a time of "fear, anxiety, mistrust, uncertainty, and feelings of powerlessness." Huge technological change, income and wealth inequality, demographic change, the pandemic, recession, police violence and white supremacy — it's a whole lot, and all at once. "For those who feel that everything is spinning out of control, a narrative that explains their feelings and encloses them within a safe community of believers comes as a soothing relief."

Who does this relief appeal to the most, though? That's where it gets interesting to me. I already know that it's not about intelligence because I've seen intelligent people believe in conspiracies, though statistically, people with low levels of education are more likely to believe. For instance, survey answers on the question, Was the coronavirus intentionally planned? show that people with a high school education or less = about 50%, some college = 38%, college = 24%, graduate degree = 15%. But none of those numbers are even close to zero. Conservatives are more susceptible than liberals, but again, it's a tendency, not a certainty, and both ends of the political spectrum are the most susceptible.

So what is it, then?

A cocktail of personality traits. Those who believe these theories typically show high levels of anxiety independent of external sources of stress, a high need for control over environment, and a high need for subjective certainty and, conversely, a low tolerance for ambiguity. They tend to have negative attitudes to authority, to feel alienated from the political system, and to see the modern world as unintelligible. Conspiracy theory believers are often suspicious and untrusting, and see others as plotting against them. They struggle with anger, resentment, and other hostile feelings as well as with fear. They have lower self-esteem than nonbelievers and have a need for external validation to maintain their self-esteem. They may have a strong desire to feel unique and special, and an exaggerated need to be in an exclusive in-group. Belief in conspiracy theories often also goes along with belief in paranormal phenomena, skepticism of scientific knowledge, and weaknesses in analytic thinking. Proneness to belief in conspiracy theories is also associated with religiosity, especially with people for whom a religious worldview is especially important. These traits are hardly universal among or exclusive to conspiracy theorists, but they help create a vulnerability to belief.

As a self-critical person, I can't help but analyze myself to look for all of those traits. If I were to make that into a check list, I would mark high levels of anxiety and need for control of environment, negative attitudes to authority, and lower self-esteem (impostor syndrome? yes!). I'm a bit alienated from the political system but not highly so. But what I don't have is the other items I bolded or the ones I didn't even bother to bold. I have a high tolerance for ambiguity, I love the modern world most of the time, I'm much too trusting, I don't think I'm particularly special, I have no belief in the paranormal or religion, and a pretty high regard for science.

The article goes on to talk about how conspiracy theories, after fitting some of these traits in people, also must fill their psychological needs, which leads to motivated reasoning and other errors of thinking that protect a person's self-image. A bunch of (probably familiar) psych terms get thrown into the article at this point (confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, projection). 

It ends with a podcast (and transcript) called How to Rescue Someone from a Conspiracy Theory, which looks like it could be useful.

You may have seen this text graphic that was being shared widely on social media since January 6. When I was just letting myself question whether it's possible I'm the one who's wrong, I found this to be a bracing answer:

Nazis. Always wrong. Making sure you're on the opposite side is a good reality test.


For more on conspiracy theories and how they work...

A filmmaker named Kirby Ferguson started out with something called Everything Is a Remix, then moved on to his fascination with the why of conspiracy theories in our culture. His short video, called Constantly Wrong is 47 minutes and worth it! His full length video is called This Is Not a Conspiracy Theory (3 hours, 22 minutes. I haven't watched it myself yet, but I plan to.


Michael Leddy said...

Assuming that the social-media clip references events of early January, that's "my" member of Congress in there, Mary Miller, with “Hitler got one thing right.” Ugh.

Michael Leddy said...

Oh, wait, I was being too cautious. Of course it’s all this January. I overlooked the guy with the horns.