July 19, 2020


Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Appealing? (David Ludden Ph.D.,  Jul 13, 2020, Psychology Today)

Prior research has found that people are motivated to believe in conspiracy theories for three reasons. First, they make believers feel good about themselves and the groups they belong to. Second, they help believers find meaning in a confusing world. And third, they lead believers to feel safe and in control. [...]

The researchers note that some people bolster their social identity with the conspiracy theories they ascribe to, as in the case of neo-Nazis and belief in a Jewish conspiracy.

However, others are drawn to conspiracy theories as a way of asserting their own uniqueness in a "conformist" society. For instance, people who believe the Earth is flat or that the government is controlled by lizard people from outer space don't derive any sort of social identity from their beliefs. Rather, they see themselves as special because they're privy to knowledge that non-believers don't have or are unwilling to accept.

To understand how these two motivations--social identity and uniqueness--work, Van Bavel and colleagues turned their attention next to the characteristics of conspiracy theories, specifically their content and their qualities. In this theory, the content consists of the unique narrative elements of the conspiracy theory--the government is run by lizard people, Jews are conspiring to dominate the world economy, scientists fabricate data on climate change to garner more research funds, and so on. The content is what differentiates one conspiracy theory from another.

However, the researchers also propose that all conspiracy theories have a set of qualities in common. These are the structural properties that make a particular belief a conspiracy theory. For instance, all conspiracy theories point to a specific group that is conspiring to deceive or do harm to society--the government, the Jews, pharmaceutical companies, lizard people, and so on. But conspiracy theories also point out a separate group of people--the believers--who know about the conspiracy and are actively trying to expose it.

Van Bavel and colleagues argue that the content and qualities of conspiracy theories provide separate motivations for believers. In particular, the content of specific conspiracy theories provides social identity motives for those believing in them. Neo-Nazis define themselves, at least in part, by their opposition to a supposed Jewish conspiracy. At the same time, they may dismiss out of hand other conspiracy theories, such as the flat Earth or the moon landing hoax, that are irrelevant to their social identity.

In contrast, those who seek to set themselves apart from "conformist" society are drawn by the uniqueness motives that the qualities of conspiracy theories provide. The actual content of these conspiracy theories is less important than is the "inside knowledge" that the believer has obtained. Thus, people with uniqueness motives will tend to believe in multiple, perhaps even contradictory, conspiracy theories--9/11 was an inside job, the moon landing was a hoax, lizard people from outer space control the government, and by the way, the Earth is actually flat.

Isn't it less that they make believers feel like they're in control than they explain away their feeling that they have none and someone else must be responsible for what they've made (rather, not made) of their lives?

Posted by at July 19, 2020 8:05 PM