Carl slots conspiracy theorists as lonely losers looking for an affinity group. As a comment I offered my own conspiracy theory: Trump and associates are plotting a herd immunity strategy. After a week of waiting for a reply I’ve tentatively hypothesized from his silence that Carl is in on the fix, not unlike the space aliens who don’t reply to SETI pings as they hatch their insidious plots of invasion. So I figured I had better move my elaborations over here to my own safe space.
Here’s a 2017 article reviewing the psychology of conspiracy theory — I reference it throughout the post.
As well as their purely epistemic purposes, causal explanations serve the need for people to feel safe and secure in their environment and to exert control over the environment as autonomous individuals and as members of collectives. Several early theories of conspiracy belief suggested that people turn to conspiracy theories for compensatory satisfaction when these needs are threatened.
At an abstract level, I’m looking for an explanation — a way of embedding observations in a context of meaning. A meaningful explanation can’t be read directly off the evidence; it must be inferred, operating beneath the surface and behind the curtain. When trying to arrive at a meaningful explanation of observable human behavior, I look for intent, for a purposeful activation of specific cause-effect cascades that achieve the individual’s ends.
Purposeful intent might not be accessible to the agent under observation; it might be operating beneath the surface and behind the curtain of their own self-awareness. Alternatively, hiding their motivations and intentions from observers might be integral to the agent’s purposes. That’s where conspiracy theory comes in.
In general, empirically warranted (vs. speculative), parsimonious (vs. complex), and falsifiable explanations are stronger according to normative standards of causal explanation.
Agreed. But, as the authors acknowledge, conspirators seek to hide the evidence, distracting observers with seemingly simple explanations while also precluding falsification with bucketsful of red herrings strewn along garden paths. And it must be conceded that there are situations in which a conspiracy offers the most concise explanation for the facts on the ground.
Studies have shown that people are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they are anxious and feel powerless. Other research indicates that conspiracy belief is strongly related to lack of sociopolitical control or lack of psychological empowerment
I acknowledge that with respect to the pandemic I am vulnerable and impotent, potentially amping my motivation for finding someone to blame.
Conspiracy theories may promise to make people feel safer as a form of cheater detection, in which dangerous and untrustworthy individuals are recognized and the threat they posed is reduced or neutralized…
I also acknowledge a longstanding personal mistrust of Trump. He lies, a lot. He’s been accused of other conspiracies, with the accusations supported by what many who’ve investigated the cases regard as a preponderance of the evidence. Would I feel greater control over Trump if I could see through his charades? Would I feel safer upon realizing that a powerful cadre really is out to get me?
…Unfortunately, research conducted thus far does not indicate that conspiracy belief effectively satisfies this motivation. On the contrary, experimental exposure to conspiracy theories appears to immediately suppress people’s sense of autonomy and control…
Like I said.
These same studies have also shown that it makes people less inclined to take actions that, in the long run, might boost their autonomy and control. Specifically, they are less inclined to commit to their organizations and to engage in mainstream political processes such as voting and party politics.
If I believed that Trump wanted me as a casualty of his race-purifying, herd-culling project, would I be less likely to do social distancing and sheltering at home? No, I don’t think so. Would I be less likely to vote against Trump? No, not that either, even though I recognize that voting offers only an illusion of personal autonomy and control.
Conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction.
The pandemic is fraught with uncertainty. My series of posts have focused on the uncertainties, attempting not to arrive at precise truth but to narrow the confidence intervals. Trump spawns uncertainty and contradiction: his actions and utterances can be subjected to systematic procedures for separating signal from noise.
The epistemic drawbacks of conspiracy theories do not seem to be readily apparent to people who lack the ability or motivation to think critically and rationally. Conspiracy belief is correlated with lower levels of analytic thinking and lower levels of education…
Do I see a drawback in identifying a Trumpian conspiracy for achieving herd immunity? Sure I do. Things would surely go worse for those of us most vulnerable to the virus if we’re specifically targeted for removal in pursuit of national purity and strength of the Fatherland, rather than merely being added to the body count as collateral damage in an attempt to juice the economy and hence Trump’s prospects for reelection.
…It is also associated with the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring events and the tendency to perceive agency and intentionality where it does not exist.
I don’t regard myself as susceptible to the conjunction fallacy: I don’t think that Republican crooks are more prevalent than crooks full stop. I am, however, captivated by synchronicities — the improbable conjunction of seemingly independent events. We need to think of ourselves as warriors AND we need to open our country up — when Trump strings together two seemingly contradictory ideas in the same sentence, I’m more likely to find a way to fit them together than to dismiss one or both as empty sloganeering. And I am a sortilege enthusiast, as evidenced in my relying on a random number generator to select the short stories I’ve read and interacted with on this website. Do I interpret these convergences as revelations, or as raw materials for constructing meaning? Hmm… can I say both?
Experimental results suggest that experiences of ostracism cause people to believe in superstitions and conspiracy theories, apparently as part of an effort to make sense of their experience. Members of groups who have objectively low (vs. high) status because of their ethnicity or income are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories. People on the losing (vs. winning) side of political processes also appear more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Conspiracy belief has also been linked to prejudice against powerful groups (Imhoff & Bruder, 2014) and those perceived as enemies. These findings suggest that conspiracy theories may be recruited defensively, to relieve the self or in-group from a sense of culpability for their disadvantaged position.
At last we get to Carl’s loser affinity theory. In coronaworld I’m decidedly of lower status: older, more likely to incur heavy medical expenses without contributing proportionately to the GDP. And I certainly was on the losing side of the 2016 presidential election. Am I looking to justify my societal value by positioning myself as a victim of the powerful ingroup? Sure.
In keeping with this defensive motivation, conspiracy belief is associated with narcissism—an inflated view of oneself that requires external validation and is linked to paranoid ideation.
Well I have been talking a lot about me in this post…
Conspiracy belief is also predicted by collective narcissism—a belief in the in-group’s greatness paired with a belief that other people do not appreciate it enough.
Older is better? Nah. I do believe that the Democrats stand on higher ethical and political ground than the Republicans. Maybe that makes me more prone to attribute evil intent when mere incompetence is to blame.
Experiments show that exposure to conspiracy theories decreases trust in governmental institutions, even if the conspiracy theories are unrelated to those institutions. It also causes disenchantment with politicians and scientists. So far, therefore, empirical research suggests that conspiracy theories serve to erode social capital and may, if anything, frustrate people’s need to see themselves as valuable members of morally decent collectives.
Trump sounds like a prototypical conspiracy theorist. The virus is a conspiracy of the Chinese; high infection rates and body counts and lockdown defenses are a conspiracy of the left. Does he truly believe these crackpot theories? Or are they part of his own conspiracy — acts of verbal legerdemain intended to throw his enemies off the track and under the trolley, techniques for replacing evidence with wild speculation and faith in his authority, ways of neutralizing dissent and consolidating power?
Maybe that’s the real conspiracy here: Trump feigns a conspiracy of herd immunity in order to alienate me from government and to deplete my social capital and self-worth. That unscrupulous bastard!