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?
- Much of our lives is being run by plots hatched in secret places.
- Even though we live in a democracy, only a few people run things anyway.
- 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:
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