IS THE BELIEVE IN CONSPIRACY THEORIES COMFORTING?

You may offer counterevidence in an attempt convince conspiracy theorists to give up their conspiracy theories, but you’re unlikely to succeed. This is because you’re arguing facts, while they are defending the sense of security and their positive feelings about themselves. And for all of us, self-image trumps facts every time. If your goal is to convince conspiracy theorists, then an empathetic approach is necessary just to have a genuine dialogue. But also, when you do address conspiracy theories, do it in a way that doesn’t reinforce or promote them.

From eccentric and introverted to boisterous and bold, the human personality is a unique, multifaceted thing. Personality refers to a distinctive assemblage of traits—characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It derives from a mix of inborn dispositions and inclinations along with environmental factors and experiences. Although personality can change over the course of time, one’s core characteristics tend to remain steady over a lifetime.

Today, psychologists generally define personality in terms of five basic traits. The so-called Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism[1].

There’s been a lot of recent work in psychology attempting to figure out why some people are particularly drawn to conspiracy theories. For example, research has found that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to have a greater need for cognitive closure (the desire to find an explanation when explanations are lacking) and to be unique. They’re more likely to have a cognitive bias called hypersensitive agency detection or teleologic thinking (whereby events are overattributed to hidden forces, purposes, and motives). Some research has also found that conspiracy beliefs are associated with lower levels of education and analytic thinking[2].

Studies have also revealed that half of the US population believes in at least one political or medical conspiracy theory. So, belief in conspiracy theories is far more “normal” than many of us might think.

According to British psychologist Karen Douglas and her colleagues in a recent article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. The researchers found that reasons for believing in conspiracy theories can be grouped into three categories:

  • The desire for understanding and certainty
  • The desire for control and security
  • The desire to maintain a positive self-image

 

The desire for understanding and certainty. Seeking explanations for events is a natural human desire. We’re constantly asking why things happen the way they do. And we don’t just ask questions. We also quickly find answers to those questions—not necessarily the true answers, but rather answers that comfort us or that fit into our worldview.

We all harbor false beliefs, that is, things we believe to be true but in fact are not. Conspiracy theories are also false beliefs, by definition. But people who believe in them have a vested interest in maintaining them. First, they’ve put some effort into understanding the conspiracy-theory explanation for the event, whether by reading books, going to web sites, or watching TV programs that support their beliefs. Uncertainty is an unpleasant state, and conspiracy theories provide a sense of understanding and certainty that is comforting.

The desire for control and security. People need to feel they’re in control of their lives. For instance, many people feel safer when they’re the driver in the car rather than a passenger. Of course, even the best drivers can get into accidents for reasons beyond their control.

Likewise, conspiracy theories can give their believers a sense of control and security. This is especially true when the alternative account feels threatening. For example, if global temperatures are rising catastrophically due to human activity, then I’ll have to make painful changes to my comfortable lifestyle. But if pundits and politicians assure me that global warming is a hoax, then I can maintain my current way of living. This kind of motivated reasoning is an important component in conspiracy theory beliefs.

The desire to maintain a positive self-image. Research shows that people who feel socially marginalized are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. We all have a desire to maintain a positive self-image, which usually comes from the roles we play in life—our jobs and our relationships with family and friends. When we know we make a positive difference in the lives of others—as parent, spouse, friend, teacher or mentor—we see our own lives as worthwhile, and we feel good about ourselves. Most people who believe global warming is real or that vaccines are safe don’t do so because they understand the science. Rather, they trust the experts.

In sum, we have a good understanding of what motivates people to believe in conspiracy theories. That is, they do so because of three basic needs we all have: to understand the world around us, to feel secure and in control, and to maintain a positive self-image. But do conspiracy-theory beliefs actually help people satisfy these needs?

You may offer counterevidence in an attempt convince conspiracy theorists to give up their conspiracy theories, but you’re unlikely to succeed. This is because you’re arguing facts, while they are defending the sense of security and their positive feelings about themselves. And for all of us, self-image trumps facts every time. If your goal is to convince conspiracy theorists, then an empathetic approach is necessary just to have a genuine dialogue[3]. But also, when you do address conspiracy theories, do it in a way that doesn’t reinforce or promote them.

Meral Musli Tajroska – Psychologist, Consultant on violent extremism and radicalization, activist for gender equality.

 

Source: F2N2, Psychology Today.

 

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/personality

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/psych-unseen/201904/what-makes-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories

[3] https://f2n2.mk/en/empathy-can-debunk-covid-19-conspiracy-theories/

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