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The psychology of conspiracy theory

Far right populist parties’ tend to make frequent reference to ‘others’ or an ’out-group’ – usually in terms of either not belonging to ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’.  Most often, this is accompanied by a ‘fear of the other’, a xenophobic perspective on the socio-political environment.  This contributes to the creation of ‘us versus them’ social divisions. A variety of tools and tactics are used to increase these schisms, or cleavages, in society. 

One rather understudied and underestimated tool for this is the creation or the use of conspiracy theories. In Counterpoint, Political Capital and partner’s joint project  we are studying these processes and trying to find ways of assessing their impact. A necessary first step is open up the important question: How do conspiracy theories work at an individual level? In other words, how do they appeal to people? In this article, Steven Van Hauwert suggests that cognitive shortcuts play an import role.

The role of cognitive shortcuts

By Steven Van Hauwaert

 As human beings, we try to explain and analyse events or situations that can have a possible emotional effect on us.  In today’s world, perfect rationality (i.e. full information) is impossible, and neither can necessarily rely on academic or scientific information all the time.  Very often it is even difficult to describe the possible causal mechanisms that lie at the origins of such emotional effects.  Therefore, when something proves difficult to explain, people often resort to more speculative (and extreme) explanations in order to find closure and to provide their cognitions with a plausible justification.  In other words, it is in people’s nature to search for answers to the ‘why’ question, especially when it concerns the ‘ego’.

 A conspiracy theory has the ability to provide enough rationale for a ‘comprehensive’ explanation, or at least a perceived ‘comprehensive’ explanation.  The key concept that makes this possible is the ‘attribution of responsibility’.  A conspiracy theory attributes responsibility for a certain occurrence or a sequence of occurrences to an external group. For instance, ‘the CIA’, ‘the Jews’ or the ‘Freemasons’. This creates a feeling of exclusion or insignificance on the part of those who looking to rationalise their emotional response to the occurrence.  Chiming with some versions of populist politics, a conspiracy theory thus creates an in-group (in this case the ‘hostile cabal’) and an out-group (in this case the ‘us or I’), which in turn reinforces the cognitive interpretation of the occurrence and turns it into a confirmation bias.

 A conspiracy theory attributes responsibility for a certain occurrence or a sequence of occurrences to an external group.

 Cognitive psychology tells us that both the conscious and the unconscious psyche have a great impact on people’s perceptions and how they solve problems.  It is the psyche, more specifically, how we cognitively perceive society, which is used to explain occurrences. When an explanation is provided, or a theory is proposed, one of the principal questions we seek to answer is who benefits from the event or situation that disengages our emotional response (e.g. an assassination, a cover-up, a scandal, etc.).  Under the assumptions that full information is impossible and that cognitive shortcuts are often biased or normative, the creation of a conspiracy theory as a somewhat ‘rational’ explanation is often not far away.

Literature on the subject generally agrees that the majority of conspiracy theories are not correct (or are presently unfounded).  Historically, most conspiracy theories of the sort politically relevant here, have been disproven and evidence against them has been overwhelming.  Such findings result from the same basic psychological need to find answers to the W-questions of an occurrence that triggers possible emotional responses.  With the media development since the 1960s, the television since the 1980s and the social media revolution in the past decade, the possibilities to acquire and process information have increased exponentially.  The speed at which findings, and also theories, are being replaced or (at best) updated has never been at the level it is today.

The existing paradigms, their perception and their interpretation are constantly changing.  However, once a person’s mental state (i.e. beliefs, ideas, motivations, knowledge, values, norms, etc) has accepted conspiracy theory as a viable explanation, he or she becomes more susceptible to popular beliefs and further conspiracy theories, and cognitions will not be easily changed.  Existing anomalies in analytical reasoning or new and better cognitive shortcuts are often ignored or put (temporarily) aside until they become incontournable.  In other words, new and alternative analytical approaches that help explain events and occurrences previously believed to be explained by conspiracy theories often fail to settle in the psyche of people until their value has been widely acknowledged and proven.

Cognitive shortcuts have a primary function in how people’s cognition is shaped; they form the main barrier between human cognition and societal information.  Not only do they serve as a gatekeeper or a filter of information; they also contribute to how a person psychologically assesses the information made available to him or her.  Therefore, the value and the role of cognitive shortcuts should not be underestimated. Cognitive shortcuts are an important explanation for why, how and which conspiracy theories appeal to people.

Steven Van Hauwert is a researcher working, amongst other things, on preparing a literature review on conspiracy theory in France, as well as assisting in the execution of a survey on belief in conspiracy theory and interpretation of the results. 

Further suggested reading

  • Johnson, G., 1983. Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories of Paranoia in American Politics. Boston: Houghton: Mifflin.
  • Tackett, T., 2000. Conspiracy Obsession in a Time of Revolution: French Elites and the Origins of the Terror, 1789-1792. American Historical Review, 105 (3), pp.691-713.
  • Hofstadter, R.. 1964. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Wood, G.S., 1982. Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century. William and Mary Quarterly, 39 (3), pp.402-41.
  • Keeley, B., 1999. Of Conspiracy Theories. Journal of Philosophy, 96 (3), pp.109-26

Research supported by the OPEN SOCIETY FOUNDATIONS


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