Conspiracy Theories: Everybody's doing it!
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Our favorite conspiracy theory is that powerful figures, including the Royal Family, are lizards from outer space.
This week we talked about conspiracy theories. Specifically, what leads people to believe crazy shit, like that the moon landing was faked or that Boston is a livable city.
We’ll start with a bit of background on conspiracy theories, then we’ll dive into the research into what makes people believe conspiracy theories, and finally we’ll look at what, if anything, we can actually do about conspiracy theories.
What is a conspiracy theory? The dictionary definition is “ a belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people.” So it isn’t just misinformation. If I say “Covid is fake,” that’s misinformation, but not a conspiracy theory. If I say “Bill Gates created covid to…” I actually don’t know what he’s supposed to get out of it, but anyway, that would be a conspiracy theory.
Everyone has their favorite conspiracy theory. Take Mimi - hers is the Lizard People conspiracy (Mimi would say it's not a conspiracy, but luckily she's not writing this post). There is a theory that, actually, the world's most powerful people are lizards from outer space wearing human suits. It would explain why Prince Philip looks like that...but really nothing else.
So why are we doing an episode on conspiracy theories? It feels like we’re in the age of conspiracy theories, amplified by the internet. Once upon a time there were those weird chain emails your uncle or your grandma would send you back when you shared the same email account with your parents about how some corporate body was like ruining the world or whatever. And they were silly and we laughed them off.
Well... those emails assumed human form and became the 45th President of the United States. So as much as you might want to just brush off conspiracy theories...they wield real political power.
A recent YouGov-Cambridge study found that more than 20% of people across 20 countries believe that there is “a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.” This belief is held by 37% of Americans, and the percentage went as high as 78% of Nigerians.
Mimi pointed out that's a poorly worded question though. A lot of people might have said yes to that question. After all, there is some truth to the idea that there is a small bourgeoisie class that has undue influence on world events. That same survey also found that people think 5G mobile technology spreads Covid. Less room for interpretation on that one.
But it may comfort you, or make you even more terrified, to know that conspiracy theories have always been around. In the 1980s in the US, a moral panic swept the country that a satanic cult was infiltrating elite power circles and abusing children. And back in the roaring 1690s, this little thing called the Salem Witch Trials happened.
Again - Massachusetts….should it exist? That’s a separate episode.
In researching this episode, I found articles about conspiracy theories in Ancient Rome, and I’m sure if I’d kept digging, I could have found more about conspiracy theories in other ancient societies. I also found straight up the coolest professor out there - shoutout to Victoria Pagan, a classics professor at the University of Florida, whose research specialties include conspiracy theories in Ancient Rome.
Victoria...you’re doing amazing sweetie. Also...you’re in Florida? Blink twice if you need help, girl.
Pagan writes that most Ancient Roman conspiracy theories blamed women and slaves for nefarious goings on throughout Rome. Only upper class men were allowed to hold power in Rome. They dominated most aspects of the lives of their wives, so conspiracies blaming women or slaves trying to strike back jived with the social hierarchy of the time. Women? Bad and scary. Slaves? Untrustworthy. The solution? Rich powerful dudes to the rescue!
It’s like that saying if you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. If you’re a dude, the solution to everything is just...more dudes.
Except with conspiracies, the hammers say that actually screwdrivers are conspiring to make your house fall apart and steal your children.
So going back to the definition, the nefarious group doesn’t need to be someone traditionally thought of as “powerful.” Like, I’ve never personally thought of iguanas as being particularly powerful participants in society, but that doesn’t mean they can’t put on their human suits each day and become powerful people. Or the slaves in ancient Rome that were causing all these problems? It can be a group that’s just imagined to be powerful.
So conspiracies can be useful for certain people in power. That’s not that surprising..
But what makes conspiracy theories so attractive to people who believe them?
In a literature review by the American Psychological Association, they identified a few key psychological factors which will make people more likely to believe crazy shit
First is just the human need for uniqueness and importance. Believing a conspiracy theory can make you feel like you’re part of some new elite group because you know something other people don’t. Soho House? So last year. Now everyone is joining the “Space is Actually Potatoes” club. Oh, did you not get invited?
Second, there is just a need for certainty, which reality often doesn’t provide. Covid is a perfect example. Like, the world came to a standstill and over a million people died because...one dude cut open the wrong bat?
We crave order and certainty and reality doesn’t always give us that. But if it’s a plot by Bill Gates? That is a story. There’s a villain, a motive and, also, a clear solution - we have to kill Bill Gates.
What’s also fascinating is that an event’s outcome can determine the degree to which it spawns a conspiracy theory.
Back in 1979, researchers Susan Jacques and Clark McCauley ran an experiment. They asked people to read about a fictional presidential assassination. Half read a version where the assassin was successful, and half read a version where he failed.
People who read the successful version were much more likely to view it as part of a conspiracy. Because a president being murdered is such a big thing, the motive and actions leading up to it must also be a big thing. This is a logical fallacy called “consequence-cause matching.” Basically, the same action will be interpreted differently based on the scale of its consequence, because humans crave predictability and certainty.
Third, a big motivation for believing in conspiracies is the need to have a group identity and maintaining a positive image of that larger group or family, often resulting in attributing blame to others. Basically, me and my people? We’re good. You and your people? You’re bad, and are the reason bad things happen to me and my people.
Those who feel social isolation or have lower social status are more likely to believe in conspiracies, which can provide a sense of belonging or an external source to blame. This can extend to specific events too -- a 2014 study found that people on the losing side of political processes are more likely to believe in conspiracies than those on the winning side. And yes, I said a 2014 study, ahem ahem.
So that’s why people are most likely to believe them. Now - who is most likely to believe them?
First of all, there is no evidence that the left or right wing is more likely to believe them. I am so sorry to my leftist friend who shared that thing on Facebook about how conservatives are more likely to believe conspiracy theories...there is no evidence for that. The left and the right are equally likely to believe that space is actually potatoes.
One paper I found, which was terrible, just kept saying “Manichean” a lot. I googled Manichean, and the definition is, “of or relating to Manicheaism.” Love that. Basically, it’s this old school religion that loosely sorts everything into good and evil. If you have a “Manichean” worldview, you’re more likely to believe conspiracies. So thank you, academics, for using the word “Manichean” when you could’ve just said that, because that is literally why we do what we do.
Other common traits include high ego and low self-esteem. So basically, Trump is like the definition of who would believe in conspiracy theories.
If I ask you what does a conspiracy theorist look like, you’ll probably say something to the effect of “a white guy in his parents’ basement.” But in reality, people across all demographics are equally likely to believe conspiracy theories, but which theories they believe will vary.
So what’s the takeaway here? Conspiracy theories emerge in information vacuums to provide clarity, a group identity and affirm one’s moral high ground and self-importance. Most demographics are equally likely to believe conspiracy theories, but the type they believe will vary.
Now - how do you combat conspiracy theories?
The honest answer is most people who believe them are probably too far gone. According to Geoff Dancy, an expert at Tulane, arguing in the Facebook comments section isn’t going to get you very far. Shocking...I know.
If you come in hot trying to disprove a conspiracy, all you’re doing is proving you’re actually either part of that conspiracy theory or part of the masses blind to reality.
Instead, what you should do is start from a place of agreement. So like, with the lizard people thing… I don’t k
now where to start with that one. But with covid for example, you could start by saying something like “yeah, a lot of this does seem so strange.” Because that’s true! There is uncertainty. But then try to ask them questions and make them support the theory rather than directly attack them to undermine their theory. It honestly still might not work, but coming from a place of empathy and inquiry will get you a lot farther than just yelling in all caps on Twitter.