We often hear of plots and conspiracies; but how does a conspiracy theory arise? Who are we dealing with when we discuss flat earth, dangerous vaccines and QAnon?
A conspiracy theory can be defined as the set of explanatory beliefs of the behavior of people who collude in secret to achieve a malicious end. Although we are used to a negative connotation, some theories turn out to be well founded and real, like Watergate, making it even more difficult to find your way around.
But who is more inclined to believe in conspiracies?
Two starting points can be identified for understanding and explaining the phenomenon.
The first is that one of the indicators of belief in new conspiracy theories is belief in other conspiracy theories.. Even the belief in mutually exclusive conspiracy theories has a positive correlation. Thus, one can simultaneously embrace the idea that Lady Diana was killed and that she faked her disappearance.
The second is that beliefs seem sensitive to the cultural context: people with a certain political orientation are more likely to believe theories involving members of the opposite side. The impact of conspiracy increases in times of crisis and instability.
From these two starting concepts, four basic principles of conspiracy can be derived:.
- FIRST PRINCIPLE
Belief in conspiracies has significant consequences. Personal beliefs modify and shape behavior. The effects of conspiracies can be relevant to aspects such as health, security and personal relationships. Attitudes towards vaccines are striking in this area, 5G and bezels. As absurd and baseless as the theory may seem, the effects are real and often severe. Embracing these theories seems to be associated with problems of the interpersonal sphere such as paranoia, narcissism and Machiavellianism; but in turn generates stigmatization by increasing the sense of exclusion. Conspiracies are empirically associated with populism and political extremism and often favor greater alienation from active politics and the vote.
- SECOND PRINCIPLE
Conspiracies are widespread in all times and in all cultures. There is an adaptive hypothesis of conspiracy that claims that humans have evolved a conspiracy identification system to remedy the frequent inter-group conflicts resulting in aggression and loss of reproductive opportunities in the time of hunter-gatherers. The ancestral mechanism would be activated by signals of possible hostile coalitions. It would exist, then, a natural psychological propensity for conspiracy.
Among the historical conspiracies we can remember the witch hunt or the widespread belief among Roman citizens that Nero had set fire to Rome, as told by Tacitus. No people seem to be exempt from such speculations: wherever there is psychological tension between competing subgroups, there is fertile ground.
- THIRD PRINCIPLE
Beliefs about conspiracies are emotional in nature. Even for the most imaginative theories a lot of evidence and supporting arguments are presented. All these arguments and refutations could make the theory seem like the result of inquisitive thinking and critical analysis that does not take the official versions for granted. Empirical evidence, on the other hand, shows the opposite. A higher education and a predisposition to analytical and rational thinking are indicators of a lower propensity to conspiracy.
Adherence to these theories has a more emotional motivation linked to the need to explain things. This need grows in periods and in contexts in which emotions such as anxiety are protagonists, uncertainty and a feeling of lack of control. This would be one of the reasons why it is so difficult to dismantle and refute these theories with logical and rational arguments in the eyes of the followers..
- FOURTH PRINCIPLE
Conspiracies are a social phenomenon that mirrors the dynamics of inter-group conflict. A conspiracy theory is such only if it assumes an external group or coalition that is hostile and a source of threat to a group to which the "believer" feels he belongs. Often there is also a feeling of collective narcissism for which a moral superiority is attributed to the group.
There are two relevant social motivations in this dynamic.
First, the need to maintain a strong group identity. People feel more involved because they are emotionally connected to the potential victims of the conspiracy. Second, the sense of protection offered by the group to the outside which is often seen as hostile and dangerous due to attributes that can scare, as wealth and power.
These reasons are sadly visible in the political arena, and there is still a lot to investigate to get a complete picture. In fact, understanding these mechanisms could help us find more effective and persuasive ways of communicating with conspiracy theorists.
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