Photo: Tyler Merbler, via Wikimedia Commons | Licence: CC BY 2.0

Fascination with conspiracy beliefs: why so many follow them

Anyone who believes in conspiracy myths must be crazy. Anyone who believes Angela Merkel is a lizard, Bill Gates drinks children’s blood and some Jewish families rule the world in secret must be crazy in the head.

However, it is not quite that simple. Not everyone who believes in conspiracy myths is mentally ill. But why do these people give in to narratives that are for the most part completely abstruse? What is it that fascinates them so much – or even satisfies deep psychological needs? Some scientists call it “conspiracy mentality.”

Psychologist Pia Lamberty, for example, has published an expertise in which she explains this theory. According to the 2018/2019 Mitte-Studie concerning opinions in Germany of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, conspiracy believers are represented in every age group, every class and regardless of ethnic education.

However, what people who fall prey to conspiracy belief have in common are some factors that I will point out below. Most of the respondents from the FES study assessed their economic situation as worse than it was. They felt disadvantaged, although they often were not. In addition, most of the respondents felt that they belonged politically to the right or to right-wing populist discourses. A lower or middle level of education was also a factor in increased susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs. Nevertheless – education is not an armour against which conspiracy belief bounces. We have seen the examples of this enough recently.

According to Lamberty, psychology distinguishes between different political ideologies:

Social dominance orientation: this shows how much people assume hierarchies in the (political) world and welcome them as an orientation for their own position.

Right-wing authoritarianism: This means that people of this ideology need norms and leaders they know and can follow. People who deviate from this worldview are enemy images for them. Traditions and subordination are important to them. (Examples of enemy images: leftists, feminists).

Conspiracy mentality: This form of political ideology is characterised by a general tendency to believe in conspiracies. While the other two ideologies “step down” to preserve their own status quo, this ideology does not. Here, group feeling is important, a common enemy, a common conspiracy statement. “Elites” – which can stand for all sorts of supposedly superior collectives of people such as Jews, medical doctors, politicians – are said to be responsible for the evil in the world and thus the suffering of the conspiracy believers.

A significant factor in the increased emergence of conspiracy myths is the internet. Individually adapted algorithms in social networks automatically repeat the content in advertisements or featured articles that one has previously viewed or searched for. This creates so-called filter bubbles in which internet users disappear into their own digital and ideational world and meet like-minded people. In this world, it seems as if everything only happens as it is now suggested by the articles, videos and links. You only must infiltrate anti-vaccination or anti-Corona groups and you are made to believe that the world as you know it is a lie and that only those with whom you share this filter bubble know the truth. In this way, ever more radical content can be presented, disseminated and reproduced.

In an increasingly complex, opaque world, some people find it difficult to orient themselves. Simple explanations for complicated events or structures are more attractive than self-research or self-education. Situations over which one has no control lead to feelings of stress and can eventually end in depression. To emerge from powerlessness and gain a sense of power, patterns are found where there are none, links are made where there are none and enemies are created where there are none – the ultimate recipe for conspiracy narratives. In this view, where there is a simple explanation, fixed culprits and no self-blame, coincidences do not exist.

A world conspiracy belief is born. Now you are part of a community, you stand out from the crowd, you have something to fight against – and you have regained a piece of control you thought was lost. The Catholic theologian Lutz Lehmhöfer calls it “relief through exposure”: one’s own problems from the “banality of one’s own everyday life” are shifted to unknown powers, thereby elevating oneself. Conspiracy myths are “hyper-rational.” That is, much more calculation is interpreted into events than is there, if there is any calculation there at all.

What people living completely in filter bubbles are capable of, we have seen again and again recently in Washington, but also in Germany on the streets. One example of what extremist conspiracy belief can do is the attack in Hanau, where the perpetrator was so immersed in his filter bubble of conspiracy myths that he created his own reality. Other examples include the attacks in Halle, where the perpetrator followed an anti-Semitic world conspiracy narrative, or the one in Christchurch, who believed in “the great exchange” (the conspiracy narrative of the “great exchange”, according to which the “white population” is to be replaced by migrants – especially Muslims).

Social psychologist Robbie M. Sutton believes that adherents of conspiracy myths seek to satisfy psychological needs, but this is ultimately doomed to failure. Among the needs he includes:

1. ‘Epistemic,’ or epistemic, needs: namely, to have a stable, secure and unified understanding of the world.

2. existential needs, such as security and belonging.

3. social needs, i.e., to have a positive self-image of oneself and one’s group.

However, since conspiracy statements are not “real” truth, but only pretend to be, these needs can only seem to be satisfied. The opposite is the result. If conspiracy narratives are to take on the function of explaining the world, then falsifications or scientific findings that contradict their beliefs unsettle the adherents in their very foundations. On the other hand, people who are deeply rooted in their conspiracy beliefs are often immune to criticism or the “real truth” with the argument that anyone who says something against the conspiracy explanation must automatically be part of the conspirators, i.e., the bad guys.

Hitler also used this argument when he continued to hold on to the infamous anti-Semitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion, although it was clearly a forgery. This is an anti-Semitic script about an alleged Jewish world conspiracy that was circulated in several editions and languages in the early 20th century. The content from “the Protocols” strengthened Hitler and his followers in their hatred of Jews, even after it turned out that the pamphlet was a forgery by the Tsarist secret service. According to Hitler, the critics of the “Protocols” were themselves part of the conspiracy and thus the falsification (forgery) was actually a verification (confirmation).

Since the 1990s, anti-Semitic conspiracy beliefs have been booming again with the pamphlet and have even been considered as a serious source by some politicians of the right-wing AfD. World conspiracies work on the same principle, with “the enemy” replaceable by reptiles, Muslims or aliens.

Another common trait that conspiracy followers share, according to Sutton, is a tendency to look for patterns and interpretations in the environment or to have a penchant for paranormal explanations. Conspiracy belief thus tends to affect fewer people who think rationally and critically. As also noted in the FES Foundation, Sutton concludes that conspiracy belief tends to be associated with lower levels of analytical thinking and education.

In addition, people who have little or no power socio-politically, who believe themselves to be socially ostracised and who crave a positive self- and group image are more inclined to conspiracy belief. Thus, belief in conspiracy myths allows people to be passive to their own self-image, blaming others for their plight and thus not needing to self-reflect.

Sutton says that conspiracy belief can also be accompanied by narcissism, which is expressed in a distorted self-image and a tendency towards paranoia. Sutton uses the term “collective narcissism” to describe the inflated group image that sees itself as something better than “the others” to whom they are negatively opposed. Groups that feel victimised are more inclined to form conspiracy myths about powerful groups of string-pullers.

Belief in conspiracy myths is not only a symptom but also a cause of alienation and lack of understanding of the social world. Such a worldview reduces trust in governments and promotes disenchantment with politics and science. Very quickly, such groups can also radicalise and incite each other to acts that can lead them to excesses of violence in the fight against the supposed “bad guys.”

Concluding, Sutton says that a belief in conspiracy is a self-destructive form of motivated self-knowledge.

If a belief in unknown powers, a need for direction and a search for meaning constitute a conspiracy mentality, how are conspiracy believers different from religionists?

People who develop the ability to deal calmly with the uncertainties of life because they are ascribed a hidden meaning or believe in it, even though they have no proof of it, possess the power of so-called contingency management.

Religion thus has a central significance in dealing with inexplicable events or inconsistencies. For Lehmhöfer, conspiracy myths take on the function of religions in contingency management. For him, conspiracy narratives are “badly secularised theology.” In the Middle Ages and early modern times, explanations for negative events always had a religious or superstitious undertone. Since the French Revolution, however, these explanations had adapted to the secularised world and from “the devil” as the cause of all evil now placed groups of people in his place as “evil.”

Conspiracy belief takes over the functions of religions such as community building, identity creation. In the process, conspiracy myths, like religions, offer people a “relief function” and redemption in the form of supposed knowledge. The well-known philosopher Karl Popper calls conspiracy narratives a secularised form of religious superstition. In their function, they resemble above all fundamentalist currents of religions. Another comparison between conspiracy beliefs and extremist currents is the lack of tolerance of ambiguity, i.e., the ability to accept several opinions and explanations side by side.

Conspiracy belief can become a worldview, either replacing the function of religion or emerging within religions.

Especially in the troubled times we live in, it is important to address the issue of conspiracy belief. We encounter conspiratorial statements every day in social media, and some are reproduced in congregations. Sometimes it is difficult to debunk conspiracy narratives because the propagators of such theories often use scientific or religious jargon to blind people.

To research whether the theory you just read is true, you can find out about it through fact-checking sites. At the same time, when researching conspiracy beliefs, it is difficult not to fall into a closed explanatory paradigm yourself – because “the conspiracy believers” do not exist. People fall into conspiracy belief for different motivations, through groups, through incorrect use of social media or simply out of desperation. Often, conversations or references to serious links are enough to debunk a conspiracy myth. When dealing with people who bounce off any kind of clarification and criticism, counselling centres or talks with experts are often a solution.

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