Cognitive Psychology

Conspiracy Theory 201: Keeping the Wheels on the Bus Going Round and Round


Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory? Didn’t we all have a good laugh when Trump accused Ted “Cancun” Cruz’s father of having assassinated President Kennedy? Good times, amirite? If we only knew what was to come, we might’ve enjoyed it more. Those were, afterall, the halcyon days of Trump’s America, weren’t they? Days when we were all innocent and the #Resistence seemed like all fun and games and we could wear pussy hats and post memes all day long. Now, everything is fascism, insurrection, white supremacy.

We are, literally, in the fight for our democracy as we watch the GQP radicalize their base and prepare them to commit very real violence against our government and our citizens. Suddenly, those wacky conspiracy theories are just a little less wack as they are used to transform up MAGA Nation to become a terrorist group.

In Conspiracy Theories 101, we looked at what made a conspiracy theory a conspiracy theory and why people would be drawn to them. In Conspiracy Theories 301, we’ll look at which of the popular conspiracy theories are actually dangerous and which are benign… or at least, I think that’s what we’ll be doing. Hell, I never even know what I’m going to say until I’ve said it, so I don’t know how I could really predict what I’ll post, but it will be something like that. So that leaves us to visit a fan favorite in Conspiracy Theories 201, how do you maintain a good strong belief in bullshit?

We’ve discovered several useful sources of information that we’re using in all of these posts: (1) An episode of David McRaney’s podcast, You Are Not So Smart; (2) the research of Joseph Uscinski (also interviewed in the podcast, but also using his Guardian article from last year on QAnon); and (3) the research of Anni Sternisko including her interview on the podcast, her paper on collective narcissism predicting belief in and dissemination of conspiracy theories and the dark tetrad personality traits and conspiracy theories.

The Deep Roots of Conspiracy Theories

People who are vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking have many similarities. I want to be absolutely clear, we are all vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking because it is rooted in cognitive tendencies that we all share, but some of us are more susceptible than others. They are so similar that our expert, Joseph Uscinski, has developed a short three-question test to determine how prone someone is to conspiratorial thinking. Just for fun, let’s all take it and discuss our answers in the comments!

The Conspiratorial Thinking Test

Answer each using a seven-point scale with seven being a lot and one being none, and four being neither nor, okay?

  1. Much of our lives is being run by plots hatched in secret places.
  2. Even though we live in a democracy, only a few people run things anyway.
  3. The people who really run the country are not known to the voters. 

Most of us score right smack dab in the middle because, dagnabbit, while most of us might have a sneaking suspicion that all of these are very true — they’re really not true — we know they’re not because they couldn’t be, right? If these things were true, that’d be crazy, right?

What is the quality that the people who score in the five to seven range on all of those questions share? I would call it tendency to paranoia, but Uscinski and Sternisko talk about worriers and those prone to anxiety. You know the ruminating, brooding, conjecturing types.

Your attitudes drive your anxieties and fears. The things that you fear and worry about will help you focus on or become interested in a particular conspiracy theory. The important thing here is the tendency to anxious worrying. Anxiety is the tail that is wagging the conspiratorial dog.

It is this aspect of their personality that sneaking suspicion that something isn’t quite right that drives not only the thinking but the stubborn adherence to the conspiracy theory.

The Personality Traits of Conspiracy Theories

We know that personality traits tend to cluster as in sets of traits tend to correlate and produce similar behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. People who are prone to conspiratorial thinking tend to share a particular set of personality traits according to Uncisniski’s research.

According to him, there are two big personality-type predictors of conspiratorial thinking. First is the dark tetrad personality traits — narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. Of the four dark tetrad personality traits, Machiavellianism and narcissism seem to be the most predominate. And second is a deep-seated antipathy towards government and other institutions. Conspiracy theorists tend to be anti-social. Who knew? More on this in 301, though.

The Social Identity of Conspiracy Theories

The Interwebs seems to have accelerated the speed at which communities develop around conspiracy theories and ideas. It makes it easier to find each other, interact, and exchange ideas. It once was your family had its favorite drunk uncle that would make Thanksgiving dinner uncomfortable with his conjecture about what was wrong with the world or a small town would have its kook with his many far fetched theories about what the government was really up to, but now, we have entire messaging boards and pages dedicated to conspiracy theories where these folks can meet and provide the social support necessary to keep them going.

This social support is key. Without social support, interacting with other true believers, people’s conviction just falls away.

Once they meet up and form a group, that group membership starts to form a fundamental part of their identity. If they are narcissistic at all, then it appeals to their need to feel unique, special. They can look upon the vast hoard of non-believers and bask in the glory of knowing that they have the real truth. It becomes us versus them and they adopt the norms and characteristics of their conspiratorial group.

The Conspiratorial Logic Loops of Conspiracy Theories

The wheels on the bus go round and round and so does the reasoning in conspiracy theories. A conspiratorial logic loop is a form of circular reasoning that suggests that any evidence against the conspiracy theory is put there by the nefarious group promoting the conspiracy to throw the conspiracy theorists off the track. So, any and all evidence that you may present disproving the conspiracy can be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Worse, though is that any missing evidence, and piece that is needed to clearly connect two dots together is just evidence that has yet to be found. They are sure that it’s out there. They just have to keep looking.

When taken together, the evidence against the conspiracy and the missing evidence for the conspiracy, is used to dismiss any inconsistency in the reasoning of the conspiracy. Everything will be explained once all the evidence is found.

The Collective Sense Making of Conspiracy Theories

Imagine, if you will, that the world has fundamentally changed. Something crazy has happened, like, I donna know, a Black man was elected president or a novel deadly respiratory virus has created a worldwide pandemic. Everyone is uncertain. No one knows what will happen next. We’re all trying to figure out what we should do and how it will affect us. What do we do?

We evolved to be social creatures living in small groups. The group has to be cohesive to function and survive, so we have to agree on how we interpret the world. When the world changes, we turn to each other and discuss it. We exchange ideas. We look for information. This process is called called collective sense making.

At this juncture, the search for information and the ways that we interpret it is crucial because we are very vulnerable to believing misinformation and disinformation at this point. We know that once we’ve seen something, it takes on the veneer of truthiness, so any misinformation or disinformation that is slipped into the mix at this point has real strong staying power.

Conspiracy theorists are trying to collectively make sense of whatever the bugaboo is that keeps them up at night ruminating, brooding, and conjecturing. They have formed a group to resolve a mystery. They trust each other and accept what they are saying as true.

In their collective search for information, they have formed a group, taken on a group identity, and, now, they are being driven by the nagging feeling of just one more. If there were just one more piece of evidence, then it would all make sense.

And that brings us to the dopamine of conspiracy theories. It engages the liking and wanting systems. It’s like working a giant nebulous jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces being lost.

The Dopamine of Conspiracy Theories

I don’t believe in coincidences, said the big tough rogue cop. He just KNEW that something was amiss, and he would stop at nothing to get to the truth! It is that niggling suspicion that these two things cannot occur without them being connected that drives him forward. They just can’t be a coincidence, there is some force out there having caused them to occur together.

If two things occur together, then they must be connected. It’s the foundation of human existence. This belief is what makes it possible for us to perceive patterns real and imagined. It is so fundamental that it is hardwired into our brains. We are hardwired to see patterns.

It is also the foundation of classical conditioning (Pavlov’s drooling dogs), which demonstrates that any two random events can be inextricably linked together. Classical conditioning “proves” that coincidence do occur, two random acts can occur at the same time and take on the veneer of causal connection. Unrelated events occur together all of the time. In fact, they occur frequently. And, anyone who doesn’t believe that coincidences are possible is an idiot. Seriously.

There you have it. That’s what makes conspiracy theory so resilient. First, it appeals to your worst fears and anxieties. If you’ve narcissistic or Machiavellian personality traits, it’s really got you. Then, it forms part of your group identity, so now you have social support to sustain your belief. And, third, it invokes your liking and wanting system to addict you to “proving” the theory. You use all of the cognitive Tom fuckery that humankind evolved to sustain itself. Cognitive dissonance will twist your reasoning into a Gordian knot of a tangled Charlotte’s web to make sure you continue believing.

This is one of the best summations of multiple psychological tendencies that explains one of our most intractable problems Ye Olde Blogge has ever posted. If you appreciate it, let us know by doing one or more of the following:

  • Leave a comment! Check out the comment section. There’s a lively discussion happening down there. You’ll find out who is vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking — yours truly for example!
  • Like this post! Perhaps the simplest of all of the signs of life is liking a post. Never leave a blog post without liking it. I think its one of the Ten Commandments or something. It’s just right down there. So, easy. So, tempting.
  • Rate this post! Have a more nuanced view? Think liking isn’t enough? Give us a five-star rating! It is that good. Right up at the top of the post below the title!
  • Share on social media! Not only do personality traits cluster, the things friends like cluster. If you liked it, people you know on social media will, too. Share it with them. The buttons are right down there.
  • Join our email list! That’s where the real love comes from. You’ll never miss a post, and you definitely don’t want to miss Conspiracy Theories 301! Put your email address in the blank below.

Image Attribution

Keep Smiling by Lawrence Whittemore is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

28 replies »

  1. So all these anti gov’t conspiratorial enthusiasts against gov’t should return their social security,/Medicare stipends, drive only on state/local highways, and burn those masks in COVID denial. By the way, conspiracists tell me I’m super magnetic because I got the COVID shots.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy James!

      Any inconsistency in the behaviors and logic of the conspiracy theories is to be completely ignored. Logic and consistency are for the hoards of us on the outside of the theories.

      As long as it is aluminum keys and you’ve pre-treated your skin with Kayro syrup, you’re as magnetic as you wanna be… until the Kayro dries out as that unfortunate woman “testifying” before a state legislative committee found out.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Like

  2. Here’s a thought: Reading a lot of Sci-Fi, historical fiction, fantasy, and alternative history fiction might help one not buy into conspiracy theories so easily, because it is practice in dealing with “What Ifs” labeled as fiction so you don’t have to believe them to enjoy them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      I think so. The more abstract you’re able to think, the less vulnerable you. are to these flights of fancy. Also, the more widely read you are, in general, the more likely you are to have come across contradictory information and can appreciate the gray areas of the world.

      Having been professionally trained, I know to look for two sources of information and to examine the source for its reliability and signs of bias. One of the interesting things that came out of the research is that conspiracy theorists are doing their research, they’re just believing “experts” who are getting it wrong. They really aren’t doing anything much different than the rest of us other than not questioning their experts and not being appreciative of the contradictory information… that’s in 301.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 1 person

      • One of the differences, perhaps a key one, is a person’s tolerance or comfort with complexity. One of the places it is showing up currently is the panic about the idea of transsexualism. Many just can’t wrap their brains around the idea that such a thing is possible, let alone acceptable. The cognitive problem extends to painful cognitive dissonance with the notion that someone with whom you disagree about one thing can be right about something else.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’re exactly right. At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote about this ambiguity tolerance:
          Ambiguity tolerance is the quality of a personality to accept a large amount of uncertainty in information and social situations. Tolerance of ambiguity has been correlated with a whole slew of desirable — at least from my point-of-view — qualities: increased creativity, decreased risk aversion, improved psychological resilience, open accepting lifestyles, acceptance of diversity. Wow, when you read that list, it sounds like a good liberal, doesn’t it?

          It is funny how all of these cognitive tendencies mix together: cognitive dissonance and the halo effect makes it impossible to acknowledge that a hero did something wrong or an opponent did something right.

          Jack

          Liked by 1 person

          • Also, if someone had a very low tolerance for ambiguity and complexity, they cannot possibly understand ecology, climate change, what an MRNA vaccine does, or that, as Gregory Bateson wrote, “Science never proves anything.” it is always about the best fit we now have for a model of how (not, why, that is philosophy and theology) something works that fits the evidence available.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Bob!

              It is that last part — science doesn’t prove, it is just the best interpretation of the evidence that we have at hand — that drives most people mad. We all know our world is complex and beyond the understanding of any one of us on our own. When we encounter something novel, we look to our those around us to help us understand it. If those around us start to tell us that whatever it is is an illusion and is harmless, we’ll go with that. The willingness of the GQP political class to lie to people even as they lay dying — a favorite Faulkner novel, “As I Lay Dying” — is the thing that keeps this all going. Even people with low ambiguity tolerance will tolerate the ambiguities of science if the people they like are also doing so. That is the part that galls.

              Huzzah!
              Jack

              Liked by 1 person

              • I was just thinking about the IPCC report. It comes down to this: If, by 2030 the project of getting off fossil fuels and hugely reorganizing the national and world economy has not become a large snowball rolling down a long and steep hill, we are fucked beyond imagination. And, thinking scientifically on the evidence to date regarding climate change and the current pandemic (It is not the last.), I see only one real obstacle in the path of that snowball, the American Republican Party and that willingness to lie to its constituents about what is real.

                Liked by 1 person

  3. On the test: #1 – a skeptical 3 – Secrets held by too many people are hard to keep secret.
    #2 – 4 – Those few who may appear to be running things are always watching the polling results and other mass indicators, like Consumer Confidence results and such.
    #3 – 4 – That depends on how much the voters are paying attention. Anybody who doesn’t know about the Kochs and other super rich donating piles of dark money to politicians has been living under a rock.

    This is an article that fits well here: https://www.salon.com/2021/08/12/malignant-normality-the-psychological-theory-that-explains-naked-emperors-narcissists-and-nazis/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      Someone created a mathematical formula to determine how long a “secret” would last before someone blabbed depending on how vast the conspiracy was. The vaster the conspiracy, the shorter the time it would be held. The time frames are generally weeks. Something like the voting fraud conspiracy to steal the election would be down to days. What they’re proposing just involves too many people.

      Trump’s experience in trying to organize a conspiracy to steal an election also demonstrates just how difficult it is to organize a conspiracy to do something nefarious. Someone once said, coincidences take a lot of planning. Stealing an election requires a lot of items to fall just right. One of them has to be a bullshit legal argument that can hold just enough water, just long enough for a court to accept it.

      We know all this to be true because we are watching the GQP doing the planning and placement of the piece needed to steal an election right now.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 1 person

      • The recount project in AZ, and similar efforts in other places, illustrates the principle that if you just keep looking long enough you will find the proof you need. I think of that and remember the motto of The X Files, “The Truth is out there.”

        Once you define any electoral victory by your opposition as proof of fraud, it only remains to work that definition into law.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The presumption is that we are the good guys and the things that we perceive as true are true and the goals we define as right are right. It’s the whole ends justify the means reasoning. When you truly believe that your opponents are evil and are out to destroy you instead of the loyal opposition, then you have to destroy the other side to preserve yourself. It makes anything other than single party minority rule completely unworkable and impossible.

          Jack

          Liked by 1 person

          • Exactly, not only unworkable, but inconceivable. We have a clear example now happening in Afghanistan. To the Taliban, anybody who is not them is an unbeliever (and fair game), a heretic, or (worst of all) an apostate, and they have never had any goal but complete victory. Our great error had been in ever seeing them as potentially “normal” political actors. They were never going to play that game.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Bob!

              And, they knew they could out wait us. All they ever had to do was play for time, and we’d eventually leave. The GQP looks at the Taliban, and, while they see an enemy of our way of life, they also see a model of governance that they envy and want to emulate.

              Another good example of where the GQP will lead us is Lebanon. Right now, there is a hospital begging for fuel to continue running its generators. They will run out on Monday, and then everything shuts down. The message on Twitter was, if you have fuel, please contact me, I can pay you top black market prices in US currency reminiscent of the message last winter out of India about oxygen.

              Huzzah!
              Jack

              Liked by 1 person

              • The Afghans knew that Alexander was only passing through and recruiting troops to conquer India. They knew Genghis and Kublai only cared about their caravans and messengers and keeping the Silk Road open. They knew that the Persian and Mogul rulers would shift their spheres of control back and forth across them and eventually fall in some way. They knew the British would leave eventually. They knew the Soviets would some day give up and go home. They were right on all counts. Why would they ever think we were any different? That is especially true when we were saying we were not in the business of “Nation Building”, i.e. actually reforming the kleptocracy into a trustworthy and functional national state. The question I ponder in frustrated sadness is: What ever possessed our leaders and supposed experts (both parties and career pros at State and DOD) to think the Taliban could have any actual interest in a “political settlement”, in “power sharing”, in peace without complete victory? Is there any item in the list we love so well of cognitive dysfunctions they didn’t hit?

                As for Lebanon and the Taliban and the GOP, this article would lead one to consider them all, probably correctly, symptoms of what it predicts: https://www.vice.com/en/article/z3xw3x/new-research-vindicates-1972-mit-prediction-that-society-will-collapse-soon

                Liked by 1 person

      • All of which reminds me of this:

        “Combinations of wickedness would overwhelm the world, by the advantage which licentious principles afford, did not those who have long practised perfidy grow faithless to each other.”
        Samuel Johnson

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!

          Old Sam Johnson. I haven’t thought of him for decades. Yes, those perfidious characters don’t work well with anyone. That’s the problem with the dark tetrad.

          Huzzah!
          Jack

          Liked by 1 person

            • Good point. They barely tolerate each other now, don’t they? I guess if one ever wields any real power ever again, they’ll have the other stood against a wall and shot at some point. You know, in the tradition.

              Jack

              Liked by 1 person

                • And, none of Mao’s general’s survived after the Long March, either. There was in entertaining series on Netflix on becoming an authoritarian ruler. The constant purging of rival leaders certainly constrains that kind of strong-armed rule. It creates a brain drain.

                  Huzzah!
                  Jack

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • And that brain drain tends to leave the leader with flunkies and yes-men who know better than to deliver bad news, leading to festering problems that don’t get handled. The Soviet initial response to Chernobyl is a good example.

                    Liked by 1 person

  4. Howdy y’all!

    Well, I did take the Conspiratorial Thinking Test and if I were answering honestly, I woulda answered like this:
    #1 Much of our lives is being run by plots hatched in secret places. — 3, yeah, sure maybe… but probably not.
    #2 Even though we live in a democracy, only a few people run things anyway. — 6, I think that there are a lot of deals being made at the expense of the average person.
    #3 The people who really run the country are not known to the voters. — 4, Okay, do the Koch Bros and other super rich people really pull the strings? I don’t think so, but I think they work hard to influence those who are voted into office.

    I am one of those people who is a brooding ruminator and if I’m not careful I can find myself going back over things again and again. I halfway do believe that the billions that the Koch Bros and others have can buy a lot of influence over a lot of politicians and that they want to see a lot more of the public sector in private hands like national parkland, schools, and other things as well as most small and medium sized businesses owned by corporations. Is there a vast conspiracy trying to make it happen or do people with similar personality traits, with similar interests, similar goals, all end up doing things similarly? Do you believe in coincidences? I guess, I do, and that more than likely, that explains a lot of what we’re seeing.

    How did you answer these questions and what do you think is really happening behind the scenes of our government?

    Huzzah!
    Jack

    Liked by 1 person

Howdy Y'all! Come on in, pardner! Join this here conversation! I would love to hear from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.