The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy Theory cartoonMind Hacks highlighted an interesting article on the psychology (and sociology) of conspiracy theories which is available on-line through The Psychologist (alt: PDF, MP3). Some excerpts:

(…) Hofstadter’s essay on the ‘paranoid style’, in which he examined right-wing conspiracy theories, effectively set the tone of much of the research that was to follow. The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgement was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism. In this view, the incorrectness of conspiracy theories was usually assumed a priori and, more than this, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.

While it is possible that some people who believe in conspiracy theories suffer forms of psychopathology, this in itself is an incomplete explanation given how widespread conspiracy theories are. Hofstadter, however, has remained influential for his interest in why people acquire conspiracy theories, suggesting that a belief in conspiracy theories was more likely to emerge among those who felt powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be, for some individuals at least, a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.

To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought they may gain more widespread acceptance in instances when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities. A conspiracy theory, in this sense, helps explain those ambiguities and ‘provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty’. Or as Young and colleagues have put it, ‘[T]he human desire for explanations of all natural phenomena – a drive that spurs inquiry on many levels – aids the conspiracist in the quest for public acceptance.’

In addition, it is also thought that conspiracy theories offer explanations of the world that are not contradicted by information available to adherents. In the context of extremism, Hardin has discussed what he calls a ‘crippled epistemology’: in some cases, extremism is not an irrational response, but rather stems from the fact that people have very little correct or accurate information. Sunstein and Vermeule apply a similar perspective to conspiracy theories: those who believe in conspiracy theories may be responding rationally and logically to what little information they receive, even if that information appears absurd in relation to wider, publicly available knowledge.(…)

The last paragraphs of the excerpt also seem to point in the direction of what in some cases appears to be functions of the ultimate and lasting conspiracy theories better known as religions.

Also see several updates (via related links) at the end of this post.

Another excerpt:

(…) Other research activities have focused on the psychological factors and processes associated with belief in conspiracy theories. For example, some early work suggested that conspiracy theories emerged because of ‘an irrational need to explain big and important events with proportionately big and important causes. Clarke, on the other hand, has discussed conspiracy theories in the context of the fundamental attribution bias: because of the general tendency to overestimate the importance of dispositional factors and underestimate situational factors, conspiracy theorists are more likely to blame Hofstadter’s ‘preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network’ even when adequate situational explanations are available. This may be especially true when people are outraged or distressed and seek to justify their emotional state by claiming intentionality of actions even in the absence of evidence.

Sunstein and Vermeule have suggested that the emotional content of many conspiracy theories plays an important role in their dissemination and acceptance. They cite studies showing that ‘urban legends’ that are devised to trigger strong emotions are more likely to be spread among populations. Applying this to conspiracy theories, they postulate that conspiracy theories create intense emotions that help spread similar beliefs, while also providing a justification for affective states produced by some traumatic event. (…)

In an earlier study, McHoskey predicted that conspiracy theories concerning the assassination of JFK, and possibly all conspiracy theories, would continue endlessly because of the processes of biased assimilation and attitude polarisation. In the first instance, when opposing sides were presented with the same evidence, McHoskey showed that there was a tendency to uncritically accept evidence that was supportive of one’s own argument, while scrutinising and discrediting contrary evidence. When participants were presented with mixed evidence, there were signs of attitude polarisation, with participants reporting that they were more in favour of their initial viewpoint, rather than reporting a reversal of their beliefs. In a similar vein, Leman and Cinnirella found that conspiracy believers judged fictitious accounts of an assassination more plausible if it was consistent with their beliefs, a tendency called ‘confirmation bias’. Conspiracy believers found that ambiguous information fitted better with a conspiracist explanation, whereas non-believers believed it suited a non-conspiracist account. In other words, the same piece of information can be used to support very different accounts, depending on who it is presented to. (…)

The seminal text by Richard Hofstadter, written in the sixties, is available through Scribd and embedded below:

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Update 20110419: Belief In Conspiracies Linked to Machiavellian Mindset (Miller-McCune)
Update 20110514: Conspiracy Theory And Osama Bin Laden (Google Knol)
Ten Super-Secret Rules of Conspiracy Theories! (David Brin’s YouTube)
Update 20110608: Bilderberg mystery: Why do people believe in cabals? (BBC News)
Update 20110614: Stephen Law: A field guide to bullshit (New Scientist)

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