Cognitive Psychology

Conspiracy Theories 301: The Very Real Damage Followers and Conspirators Do

Earlier in the week Neal Katyal was on MSNBC’s 11th Hour with Brian Williams and he concluded, none other than Neal Katyal, y’all, concluded that Trump tried to pull off a coup and steal the 2020 election, so it must be true, right? No, this isn’t some mind ninja trick about how we believe our experts unequivocally like conspiracy theorists believe theirs. This is to make the point that Trump tried to organize a real conspiracy to steal the election. He did half of it right in front of us out in the open inviting state legislators from “friendly” states to the White House to pressure them into stealing the election for him. He did part of it behind the curtain, calling Georgia Sec of State Raffensberger to pressure him to steal the election for him. And, he couldn’t steal the election. True, true, everything Trump touches turns to shit. He is the man with the feculent touch after all, but he had a tone of resources and people working with him, and he couldn’t do it.

This post will conclude Ye Olde Blogge’s three-part series on conspiracy theories:

  • Conspiracy Theories 101 looked at what made a conspiracy theory a conspiracy, their component parts, and the appeal they had for our psyches.
  • Conspiracy Theories 201 looked at the cognitive tendencies that drive conspiratorial thinking.
  • Conspiracy Theories 301 looks at the personality traits that drive conspiracy theorists and the harms they cause. It is people acting on their conspiratorial beliefs that makes them dangerous.

Seriously, pulling this conspiracy shit off is hard work, much more work than Trump ever put into anything. David Grimes produced a mathematical formula to estimate the amount of time that a conspiracy would remain secret based on the number of people involved. For a conspiracy to remain secret for one hundred years, it could involve no more than 125 people. For 400,000 people, about three years and change. Rule of thumb, the vaster the conspiracy, the more likely that someone will blab.

There are two conditions under which people may act upon these beliefs: group norms and antisocial personalities. Conspiracy theories appeal to both. First, conspiracy theories give us group identity. We belong to a group, so they start to form a community. And, second, the theorists are likely to have some very antisocial tendencies and possess at least one of the dark tetrad traits — psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, or sadism. If you think about it, it makes sense.

The Group of Conspiracy Theories

We’ve covered how joining a conspiracy theory gives you group identity, an in-group, which makes all non-believes an out-group. One of the chief outcomes of group identity is enhanced self-esteem. Many people who join conspiracy theories are “not normal.” They do not conform to the normative behaviors and beliefs of most people in their culture. They are often isolates and outcasts. To some degree this hurts their self esteem and joining a conspiracy theory with like minded individuals is just what the witch doctor ordered. But, that is only half of the story.

Most people are not full-on conspiracy theorists. They are conspiracy theorist adjacent. Just because you watch Tuckums and believe that the Dems are importing the Blacks and Browns and Muslims so they can have millions of votes and replace all the good Christian white people with evil atheist, Muslim, and “Catholic” Black and Brown people, doesn’t make you a conspiracy theorist. Not in the sense that you are formulating new ideas or looking for clues to support a belief or writing about it even on forums.

Just because you want to save the children from the Dem-led sex trafficking blood-drinking Satanic pedophiles, doesn’t make you a conspiracy theorist, at least, not in the sense that you are an active member of a group that talks about this stuff. You are a consumer of the theory. You hear it, are horrified by it, and mostly believe it, but your life goes on. Lucky for us, though, there ain’t many of these folks walking among us. Honestly. There aren’t. The CNN effect — seeing it on the news makes you think it happens more often than it really does — leads us to believe that QAnon believers are taking over the country.

Surveys of Americans show that 45% of us think there was a conspiracy behind the JFK assassination. Beyond that, no one knows. We just think there had to be something partly because we’ve heard since it happened that there had to be something other than Ted Cruz’s dad chatting up Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans that one time. That’s proportionality bias — big outcomes need to have big causes.

But, what happens when all of these casual believers and semi-doubters see people acting on these beliefs by, I dunno, storming the Capitol or sending Jews off to Concentration Camps. Well, you go along with it. You might not have been on the frontline smashing windows, bear spraying police officers, or smearing the walls with feces, but you might’ve followed the crowd into the building. Okay, you may have smeared the wall with feces if you thought everyone was doing it. Those snap group norms can form in, well a snap, and we’re very likely to go along with them even if we don’t like them and they make us a little uncomfortable.

Even if you weren’t part of the conspiracy theory adjacent crowd, if suddenly your Black and Brown neighbors were attacked and driven from the neighborhood, you might not rally to their defense if you had the sense that the racist attitudes were widespread and could mean real harm might come to you or family. You might not be at the cross burning, but you might sit in your living room with the curtains drawn and the Netflix volume turned up to eleven.

Most of the harm caused by conspiracy theories is through the behaviors of the conspiracy theory adjacent and the passive consumers causing the social norms to change enough to accept harm caused to others like open racism, police brutality, rioting, or electing politicians who tolerate and promote these behaviors.

If our social norms change enough, though non-believers of conspiracy can become caught up in them. They can act on them if they perceive that this is the new normal of their community. If everybody is throwing rocks at the Black family down the street, you might could find yourself throwing rocks, too, because we will join in on group behavior just to preserve our standing in the group. It’s normal. It’s what we evolved to do.

The only defense against it is to know how likely it is to happen and consciously resist that conforming tug that is coming from limbic system and unconscious.

The Antisocial Personality of Conspiracy Theories

The people who are far more likely to act on conspiracy theories are those with antisocial personalities, people who have one or more of the dark tetrad traits, narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, or sadism. There is a growing body of evidence that conspiracy theories attract people with antisocial personality traits, especially narcissism and Machiavellianism. Anni Sternesko and friends have been researching the uniqueness needs of conspiracy theorists as well as their identity needs.

Uniqueness needs break down into narcissism and contrarianism. People who are narcissistic believe that they are superior, and, consequently, substantially different from those around them. This needn’t be as pronounced as it was the Ol’ Pussy Grabber, think more Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton. Contraianness, on the other hand, is far more about just opposing whatever the majority wants or some other person wants. Kyrsten Sinema and Marjorie Maddog Greene come to mind as the two highest profile contrarians on our political landscape.

You can see how conspiracy theories appeal to both. Conspiracies set the narcissist apart and makes them special, and they go against conventional wisdom and explanations for events, which appeals to the contrarian. They are not mutually exclusive, either. Trump is the best example of a contrarian narcissist and Ron Johnson a narcissistic contrarian. God help us.

Both can be expressed in group form, too. Collective narcissism is well known, I don’t think there is a “scientific” name for collective contrarianism. We call it grievance politics or the politics of no.

In a recent study, Sternesko found that collective narcissism was one of the traits that drove #COVID19 conspiracy theory participants. Collective narcissism is the irrational need for the group that an individual identifies with to be admired, praised, and revered. Whether it is expressed as Christian nationalism as it is done by the evangelical crowd or racial nationalism as expressed by white supremacists or just the nationalistic jingoism expressed by the “We’re number one,” and the American exceptionalism crowd, people who participate in and believe in conspiracy theories tend to display this narcissistic belief in the superiority of their group, which gets called collective narcissism. If the members of the group feel disrespected or wronged, then, like the narcissist, they will feel compelled to lash out, even violently. Sound familiar? Can you say MAGA Nation? I thought you could.

The Harms of Conspiracy Theories

The harms caused by the big three conspiracy theories of our time (QAnon, the Big Lie, and #COVID19) are numerous and series, some of the reaching existential proportions. We’re familiar with the QAnon threat, which usually manifests in the form of individual acts of violence like the fellow who shot up Comet Ping Pong Pizza, the father that murdered his two young children, and, of course, the storming of the Capitol building has been linked to QAnon. However, QAnon is not the threat that it seems like it is. It isn’t as widely believed or even heard of. It does appeal to the narcissists and contrarians, though.

The #COVID19 conspiracy theories and disinformation are far more dangerous because they’ve killed far more people with one study estimating that 5,000 unnecessary deaths were caused in Texas and Florida by a lack of vaccinations. Gov Abbott of Texas is isolating in the governor’s mansion and getting monoclonal antibody treatments after getting a breakthrough case of #COVID19, all the while, he’s banned mask mandates and discourage vaccinations and Texans are being infected and dying in record numbers. It is so bad that they’ve ordered federal mortuary trucks because they cannot keep up with the corpses.

Harms caused on this scale can only be attributed to psychopathic tendencies by Abbott and DeSantis who show very little concern for their populations. In general, #COVID19 deniers must be sadistic to be complacent in causing this much very real very obvious harm to so many.

Perhaps the most harm has come from the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from the Ol’ Pussy Grabber. Not only did it lead to the storming of the Capitol which killed five people. Recently released information shows just how close Trump came to succeeding in his coup attempt. Believing that our democracy is under direct threat can and will drive people to individual and more organized acts of violence. To knowingly propagate this type of disinformation is Machiavellian at the very least but could also be driven by narcissism and psychopathy. It is an utterly destructive path to be following and leading the conspiracy adjacent down.

While most conspiracy theories had been harmless mostly because the adherents were so few and could not communicate easily with other. Add the Interwebs and social media and suddenly these ideas are spreading like wildfire, choking us with their smoke, and burning it all down.

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20 replies »

  1. The combination of uniqueness and belonging is an addictive one. I think it can even partly explain things like fans who stick with a chronically losing sports team (I grew up in Chicago, so I think of Cubs fans.) year after year – “We are all together in our uniqueness that makes us special.” And the more that non-members of the group don’t understand or even ridicule the belief, the more fiercely it is defended.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      I think you’re right. It’s the same phenomenon driving the behavior and beliefs. It might even make a more accessible population to study to learn more about it… only if I were a younger man.


      Liked by 1 person

      • I suspect that sports fans would be more accessible than conspiracy followers. A lot of that fierce fandom is centered around either Home Town or Alma Mater identity rather than political membership. And, people love talking about “their team”, its roster, history, management, stadium — everything.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!

          Even though Five Thirty Eight claims that it isn’t true, I’m confident that MAGA Nation is either avoiding the pollsters if they call or giving false responses. There is such a strong antisocial bend to MAGA Nation that they just can’t participate in anything remotely smacking of mainstream. I can’t get over how the script has flipped and it is the very conservative, or what passes for conservative nowadays, who are the non-conforming antisocial rebels instead of the tune in, turn on, and drop out hippies of yesteryear and their modern equivalent in the Bernie Bros, antifa, and whatever else the kids are calling themselves these days or, at least, joined them.

          Surveying and studying sports fans could reveal a lot about how group membership and social identity interact and how they influence reactions when groups are distressed and being attacked. I’m sure someone has studied these folks already.

          One thing interesting to note is that many people with antisocial personality traits have committed crimes in the past. Actual crimes and not routine legal violations like speeding and taking a stapler from work. Antisocial really means doing harm to others and society through non-normative behavior. The motivation for doing the harm for antisocial types is either just not caring (psychopathy and narcissism) making harm a side effect or deliberate (Machiavellianism, ends justify the means, or sadism where harm is the goal).


          Liked by 1 person

          • Although Five Thirty Eight does seem to be pretty good at getting around subject resistance, the MAGA crowd’s distrust of mainstream media and pollsters is especially intense and they frequently refuse to be interviewed by reporters.

            Other groups with a non-conformist rebel sort of identity outside of politics include skateboarders, surfers, punk rockers, and more. One of the common factors that many of these identities share is that they begin in adolescence and young adulthood, the phase of life most characterized by rebellion and iconoclasm. That leads me to speculate that much of the anti-social identification in older people may represent a difficulty in maturation. I think of the tone of many who refuse to wear masks – “You can’t make me!”, which echoes an earlier developmental phase known as The Terrible Twos.

            Thinking of Machiavellianism (without the nuances Machiavelli brought to his subject), one of the most basic definitions of “power” is the ability to do harm, cause pain without consequence to oneself.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Bob!

              When I was writing about life course persistent antisocial behavior, researchers noted that there were two types. Both types offended as adolescents, but some stopped offending as young adults and went on to live productive lives, the other continued offending throughout their lives. It suggests a developmental stage of the brain not being achieved, perhaps. Perhaps they really are stuck in the terrible twos.

              Also, these antisocial personalities also have deep mistrust of institutions, especially the government which makes them prime targets for disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories. But, it doesn’t explain why they will take horse dewormer instead of the vaccine. This one, I just don’t get at all.


              Liked by 1 person

              • A developmental model of personality disorders holds that anti-socials get the message very early that the world is unsafe (abuse and neglect) and so adopt the “grab it while you can” and “do unto others before they get a chance to do unto you” and “trust no one” position. i.e., that they are made, not born. The truth is almost certainly more complicated on the Nature v. Nurture front. As you’ve noted, the difference between the life long offenders and the ones who grow out of offending (or, at least getting caught) is probably in executive functioning.

                As for the horse dewormer, it is just the latest in a series of touted cures and preventatives that range from useless to dangerous since this thing started. These people are determined to try anything other than what the schemers of the Deep State or Illuminati or whom ever say they should do. They hear of the new thing that works like a charm and go for it. (Actually, it does work exactly like a charm, i.e. NOT). The fact that they have near zero understanding of the nature of viruses and other infectious agents and the immune system also helps. It’s all magic to them.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Howdy Bob!

                  The origins of personality disorders, especially antisocial personalities, is an interesting one. There are so many factors that are involved. I’m sure you know the story of James Fallon, the neuroscientist who discovered how to diagnose psychopathy using PET scans and accidently realized he was a psychopath. I’ll include a link to one of the news stories below. He looked at his DNA and realized he had all of the genes for low empathy and aggression that went along with it. Yet, he had never behaved in any way as a psychopath would. However, he counts seven murderers, including Lizzie Borden, the famed axe murderess, in his ancestry. He also describes himself as an asshole who won’t let his grandchildren win games and does things that piss people off.

                  Apparently, an especially loving childhood can prevent a genetically inclined psychopath from going full psychopath. But, since psychopathy has a strong genetic foundation, most are born to psychopaths who treat their children like psychopaths would and produce other more aggressive, violent psychopaths.

                  He doesn’t address the role of executive functioning, but does talk about his conscious decisions to limit his behavior and his attraction to manipulation and “power.” It’s interesting that some psychopaths manage their aggression so that it is more socially acceptable than others. It is also interesting that our society is developing into one that accepts more openly psychopathic behaviors.


                  Liked by 1 person

                  • It seems that the more tools we develop to study how the brain works, the more complicated it looks, and the personality disorders are an enduring puzzle. One of the features that complicates it is neural plasticity, learning at the level of neural structure. It strikes me that one of the features of ant-social and psychopathic personalities is a deep and pervasive sense of betrayal that looks a lot like a form of PTSD. So, it makes sense that a childhood experience of adults proving themselves trust worthy would tend to moderate the condition.

                    I’m tempted to try to make a list of the influences in our society that reward psychopathy and even demand psychopathic behavior of people not otherwise so inclined. It would be a long and intertwined list, going back to long before the appearance of the Great Orange Role Model amplifying any vague feelings of betrayal in a whole demographic group.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      I would love to see such a list. It would indeed be long. It goes to show, though, that to all of the features of our personalities and interactions evolved to serve a purpose. There are moments when being guiltless and empathyless were valuable assets, but when it starts making day-to-day life difficult or hurt others, it steps over the line to pathology.

                      Neuroplasticity is one of my favorite areas of biopsych when I was teaching it. Memory is essentially brain plasticity, which, of course it is. There’s evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy has neuroplastic effects on the brains of people who are being treated for depression. I can imagine that any one in a stressful environment, but especially a child who will prune unused circuits at some point, would be over using those panic and danger circuits and strengthening the role they would play in day-to-day behavior.


                      Liked by 1 person

                    • There is some evidence of excessive pruning in the development of schizophrenia, and definite evidence of an inflammatory process associated with psychotic episodes. Also interesting in regard to neuro plasticity is the success reported in treating major depression with hallucinogens, notably psilocybin and ketamine, and reports of good results using LSD with alcoholics and heroin addicts in the 1950s. Notably, much of the current therapeutic approach involves both the drugs and some version of CBT.

                      Liked by 1 person

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