Tag Archives: Social Science

The psychology of conspiracy theories

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

By Dr Jovan Byford via OpenLearn – Open University

A detail of a mural in Denver International Airport, subject of much conspiracy theorist interest. A plea for peace, or a plan for future martial law?

A detail of a mural in Denver International Airport, subject of much conspiracy theorist interest. A plea for peace, or a plan for future martial law?

There is a curious relationship between psychology and the study of conspiracy theories. Historians, philosophers, sociologists and political scientists often present conspiracy theories as being of an essentially psychological nature.

Many such writers describe belief in conspiracies as manifestations of ‘paranoia’, ‘anxiety’, ‘fantasy’, ‘hysteria’ and ‘projection’, or as fulfilling a profound psychological need for certainty in the precarious (post-)modern age. In everyday discourse too, ‘conspiracy theorists’ are often labelled ‘lunatics’, ‘kooks’ or ‘paranoiacs’, implying that they suffer from some intrinsic psychological deficiency or dysfunction.

Yet, surprisingly, little psychological research has been conducted on this topic. In fact, it is only since the 1990s that social psychologists have turned their attention to the conspiracy theory phenomenon and scrutinised its psychological roots in a systematic way.

Investigating the conspiracy theorist

Much psychology research has focused on identifying factors which predispose certain individuals to endorse conspiracy theories. Given that not everyone believes in conspiracy theories, psychological studies have sought to uncover what distinguishes believers from non-believers, and in so doing create a “psychological profile” of conspiracist individuals.

conspiracy to do list_200px_200pxResearchers have explored the relevance of more general demographic factors like gender, socio-economic status, educational level or ethnic background and so on, but also things like disenchantment with political authority, sense of powerlessness, political cynicism, authoritarianism or alienation from society.

They have also looked at personality factors and aspects of cognitive functioning (resistance to disconfirming evidence, tendency to circular thinking, attributional styles, etc.) to see whether conspiracism is underpinned by some intrinsic perceptual or reasoning deficit which leads people to misunderstand or misinterpret causal relations in the world.

Overall, this quest for the psychological profile of conspiracy theorists has yielded modest results. Conspiracy theorists have been shown to be quite similar to sceptics in terms of cognitive functioning or personality. In fact, the only consistent finding is that believers tend to be disenchanted with authority and cynical about the mainstream of politics.

But this is hardly surprising: these are the central motifs of any conspiracy theory!

Look again…

clicktivism_250pxOne possible reason why the psychology of conspiracy theories produced so few meaningful results is that researchers have been approaching this phenomenon in the wrong way. They have tended to see conspiracy theories first and foremost as individual beliefs, thereby reducing them to events that are going on inside a person’s mind (information processing biases, personality characteristics, etc.).

But conspiracy theories are not just a set of individual attitudes.

Did you hear about…?

Anyone who has had the opportunity to engage with conspiracy theories will realise that they are, in fact, a dynamic set of stories and shared assumptions about the world which persist and evolve over time. As such, they are continuously exchanged, debated, evaluated and modified as people try to make sense of the world and events around them.

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Conspiracy Theory As Pseudo Theory

By via Conspiracy Theory As Pseudo Theory

Theory is often regarded a systematic framework formed of concepts that analytically account for phenomena observed. Philosophers for centuries have debated whether the goings on are external to human thoughts and cognition and thus real and material; or whether they are constructs of the mind, logically assembled and maintained by the exercising of reason with no independent reality.

20120600 Skeptic excerpt TRASH_300pxTheory is applied in both the social and natural sciences. In the social sciences disputes emerge, once again, between those who advocate that there is a real material world outside the remit of the observer and those who propose that the social sciences can only be understood internally by its inhabitants; resulting in normative theories that encompass Political Theory as well as historical, social and anthropological paradigms under the broader domain of hermeneutics. In the natural sciences the matter is somewhat different. Although Philosophers o f science such a Van Frassen advocate a scientific image along with anti-realism, most would accept that the methodological practice of the natural sciences is to generate hypothesis that form, or derive from, an overarching theory. This runs parallel to the procession of validating the phenomena in question with the eventual goal of producing a correlation between the explanandum and the explanan.

Classifying both the social and natural sciences as science, with the use of theory, means that the procedures of verification, evidence and explanation take the same abstract steps even though the physicist is completely divorced from the world he studies as where the sociologist, by the nature of human existence and the definition of the discipline, is inescapably part of the phenomena he studies, society. Nonetheless the issues that arise for both the sciences centre around preemption; when there is more than one theory competing for the explanation of the phenomena in question, or theoretical redundancy; when there is a theory that explains certain aspects of a phenomena but not every time nor in every context. This coupled with using evidence based empirical data to warrant the application and validation of a theory means that both the social sciences and natural sciences constantly refine their hypotheses and make predictions on future outcomes.

conspiracy to do list_200px_200pxThese are the formal understandings and uses of theory across the spectrum of the sciences and this is what sets both theory apart from pseudo theory and science apart from pseudo science. It is for this very reason that Conspiracy Theory is a pseudo theory. Take firstly one of the Holy Grail‘s of the scientific method: prediction. These abound in the natural sciences, ranging from how, why and when your PC will turn on to planes flying and equations of time and space. The social sciences, as already mentioned, tread a much more precarious, unreliable and unstable ground. However through the collection of data based on conceptualized variables and statistical models of causation, predictions can be levied. Anyone who has an investment portfolio can see the benefits of employing time series and regression analysis in economics although the latest financial crises illustrates that the predictions are far from completely accurate.

Conspiracy Theory as a serious ontological and epistemological alternative to social phenomena must provide predictions, demonstrate their applicability and warrant evidence that at least renders their explanations as plausible or highly likely. Although in the social sciences these do not map exactly due to the nature of the measurement of artificially constructed social variables, Conspiracy Theory falls spectacularly short regarding the relationship between observed phenomena, explanation and the use of reliable and relevant data and thus prediction.

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Attribution Biases

via Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking

head clouds_250pxHuman behavior can be understood as issuing from “internal” factors or personal characteristics–such as motives, intentions, or personality traits–and from “external” factors–such as the physical or social environment and other factors deemed out of one’s personal control. Self-serving creatures that we are, we tend to attribute our own successes to our intelligence, knowledge, skill, perseverance, and other positive personal traits. Our failures are blamed on bad luck, sabotage by others, a lost lucky charm, and other such things. These attribution biases are referred to as the dispositional attribution bias and the situational attribution bias. They are applied in reverse when we try to explain the actions of others. Others succeed because they’re lucky or have connections and they fail because they’re stupid, wicked, or lazy.

We may tend to attribute the behaviors of others to their intentions because it is cognitively easier to do so. We often have no idea about the situational factors that might influence another person or cause them to do what they do. We can usually easily imagine, however, a personal motive or personality trait that could account for most human actions. We usually have little difficulty in seeing when situational factors are at play in affecting our own behavior. In fact, people tend to over-emphasize the role of the situation in their own behaviors and under-emphasize the role of their own personal motives or personality traits. Social psychologists refer to this tendency as the actor-observer bias.
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One lesson here is that we should be careful when interpreting the behavior of others. What might appear to be laziness, dishonesty, or stupidity might be better explained by situational factors of which we are ignorant. Another lesson is that we might be giving ourselves more credit for our actions than we deserve. The situation may have driven us more than we admit. Maybe we “just did what anybody would do in that situation” or maybe we were just lucky. We may want to follow the classical Greek maxim “know thyself,” but modern neuroscience has awakened us to the fact that much of our thinking goes on at the unconscious level and we often don’t know what is really motivating us to do what we do or think what we think.

Something similar to the self-serving attribution of positive traits to explain our own behavior and negative traits to explain the behavior of others occurs with regard to beliefs.

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