Jul 13 2010
Maybe it was at a party, a family event, or even at work, but you have probably encountered before a person whom we would call a conspiracy theorist. Were you cornered as they became more and more animated, discussing how the shadow world government is slowly preparing for world domination using chemtrails and vaccines? Perhaps you became progressively sheepish as every logical question was met with an even more absurd bit of circular reasoning, accompanied by accusations of being naive, until physical escape was your only option.
This, of course, is an extreme example while conspiracy thinking occurs on a spectrum – we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside of us to some degree. Understanding conspiracy thinking in its subtle and extreme forms seems like an important topic of psychological investigation, and yet there is a paucity of good scientific research. Perhaps this is due to the stigma of conspiracies – academics don’t want to get the stench of conspiracy theories on them.
But there is some interesting research, and recently psychologists Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles reviewed this research in their article The Truth is Out There. This is a keeper – one for the skeptical files, if for nothing else than that they provide a handy list of references on conspiracy research.
They discuss that early papers on conspiracy theories focused on characterizing the theories themselves, rather than the people who hold them. They reference Hofstadter’s 1966 “seminal” paper on conspiracy theories in which he provided the following definition:
(Belief in a) “vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.”
That sums it up nicely. But the more interesting work came later when researchers began to explore the psychology of the people who hold conspiracy theories. It seems that in this area ideas followed a typical historical pattern – in that at first conspiracy thinking was seen as a form of psychopathology involving paranoid delusional ideation. More recently conspiracy thinking is seen as fulfilling certain universal psychological needs perhaps triggered by situational factors.
In my view both approaches are correct – there appears to be a spectrum of inherent predisposition to conspiracy thinking. At the same time there is a universal appeal to conspiracy theories and situations in which they are more likely to occur, even among the more rational. For example, the authors write:
To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought they may gain more widespread acceptance in instances when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities (Miller, 2002). A conspiracy theory, in this sense, helps explain those ambiguities and ‘provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty’ (Zarefsky, 1984, p.72). Or as Young and colleagues (1990, p.104) have put it, ‘[T]he human desire for explanations of all natural phenomena – a drive that spurs inquiry on many levels – aids the conspiracist in the quest for public acceptance.’
Conspiracy thinking is rooted in a desire for control and understanding, triggered by a lack of control and information, or ambiguous and unsatisfying information about big events. The authors emphasize that the public often has a lack of access to adequate information to explain historical events (a situational factor). This can be coupled with what has been called a “crippled epistemology” – a tendency to utilize circular reasoning, confirmation bias, and poor logic coupled with this lack of information. The result is a popular conspiracy theory that makes sense (even if a perverse sense) of events.
One tidbit I found interesting was the offer of the fundamental attribution error as a partial explanation for conspiracy thinking. This is the notion that people tend to assume or overemphasize internal factors (inherent character) as an explanation for the behavior of others, rather than situational or external factors. If we see someone trip while walking down the sidewalk we think they are clumsy, rather than that there was a crack in the sidewalk. We, of course, exempt ourselves from this assumption are are happy to attribute our missteps to unavoidable external factors.
Conspiracy theorists take this attribution error to the extreme, and will often attribute the behavior of others to internal goals (the conspiracy) rather than benign situational factors.
One factor that was not mentioned in the article was the related notion of agency detection – the human tendency to see agency in objects and events. We tend to see a hidden agent where there is none. With respect to conspiracy theories this results from seeing an invisible hand behind otherwise disconnected events. This also relates to the desire for control, understanding, and privileged knowledge.
If you have any interest in conspiracy theories the entire article is worth a read. And as I said, the list of references alone is worth keeping this one in the files.
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