An integrated account from cognitive science, social representations theory, and frame theory
Conspiracy theories (CTs) can take many forms and vary widely in popularity, the intensity with which they are believed and their effects on individual and collective behavior. An integrated account of CTs thus needs to explain how they come to appeal to potential believers, how they spread from one person to the next via communication, and how they motivate collective action. We summarize these aspects under the labels of stick, spread, and action. We propose the quasi-religious hypothesis for CTs: drawing on cognitive science of religion, social representations theory, and frame theory. We use cognitive science of religion to describe the main features of the content of CTs that explain how they come to stick: CTs are quasi-religious representations in that their contents, forms and functions parallel those found in beliefs of institutionalized religions. However, CTs are quasi-religious in that CTs and the communities that support them, lack many of the institutional features of organized religions. We use social representations theory to explain how CTs spread as devices for making sense of sudden events that threaten existing worldviews. CTs allow laypersons to interpret such events by relating them to common sense, thereby defusing some of the anxiety that those events generate. We use frame theory to explain how some, but not all CTs mobilize collective counter-conspiratorial action by identifying a target and by proposing credible and concrete rationales for action. We specify our integrated account in 13 propositions.
[...] our present purpose is not to debunk yet another CT, but to theoretically elucidate their dynamics and inner logic. Like Freud (1914) considered slips of the tongue as openings to the unconscious mind, Norman (1981) presented action slips as markers of the organization of memory, and Reason (1990) uses errors to gain insights into skilled performance, we consider CTs as occasions to elucidate actual representations of reality as part of human social functioning. Understanding CTs in turn helps us understand the potentially high human costs of over-generalizing agency. Though we need to guard ourselves against creating a conspiracy theory of CTs, our working hypothesis is that CTs have a degree of functional autonomy in modern societies which needs to be understood.
Conspiracy theories have many facets. On the one hand, they constitute cognitive resources that fulfill a need to explain unusual, disturbing events such as disease outbreak, disruptive technology, major scandal, or sudden celebrity death (McCauley and Jacques, 1979; Wagner-Egger et al., 2011). On the other hand, they are narratives that circulate in culture – in mass media, as rumors, in stories (Byford, 2011). These narratives reduce the complexity presented by such events, contain the uncertainty they generate, and translate unspecific anxiety into focused fears (Barrett and Lawson, 2001). CT narratives are also inscribed in the context of antagonistic relations between groups, drawing on recurrent negative views of outgroups to explain events and, sometimes, motivate collective action.
- The psychology of conspiracy theories (illuminutti.com)
- The psychology of conspiracy theories (PDF) (illuminutti.com)
- Conspiracy theories: Why we believe the unbelievable (illuminutti.com)
- Conspiracy theories as quasi-religious mentality (lunaticoutpost.com)
- The psychology of conspiracy theories (conservativeread.com)