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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Categories: Cognitive Psychology