One of my English professors was fascinated by conspiracy theories — purely in an academic sense. She had us read The Da Vinci Code to analyze why a story about a “symbologist” uncovering a massive Catholic conspiracy was a number-one global bestseller.
She wasn’t the first to turn an academic eye to the novel: a 2011 study found that those who believed the Da Vinci Code conspiracy to be real found it helpful in coping with stress. Indeed, multiple studies have shown that conspiracy theories appeal to people who tend to be more fearful, which explains why they have been rampant during these troubled times.
However, these academic discussions of conspiracy theories and their psychology belie their dangers. We have already seen how the Pizzagate conspiracy led to a mass shooting, and more recently, the Plandemic “documentary” contributed to a wave of misinformation about COVID-19. Conspiracy theories aren’t just fun ideas about whether or not Jesus was married; they’re a fundamental way of thinking that accompanies a distrust of science and an arrogant self-interest.
A Rejection of Authority
Many conspiracy theorists proudly express that they are not “sheep.” They say they “think for themselves,” by which they mean they do not abide by authoritative sources. While it’s always a good idea to question authority, many conspiracy theorists seem to call for an outright rejection of anyone in a position of power. There’s a flaw in that: that’s the inverse of an appeal to authority. Just as it is a fallacy to say, “We must believe them because they are in power,” we cannot say, “We can’t believe them because they are in power.” Neither position allows for critical thought.
In the case of public health issues, rejecting authority can be dangerous. Conspiracy theorists would rather accept the risk than lose their “freedom,” and that’s a problem. Here, they’re confusing freedom (of which Americans have plenty) with convenience. When the CDC and the WHO recommend wearing masks, rejecting that advice so that you aren’t seen as “scared” means that you prioritize your self-image over others’ safety. (And ironically, conspiracy theories appeal most to fearful people who want to feel in control.)
To justify their rejection of this advice, conspiracy theorists have cooked up a volatile mix of ideas. They say that wearing masks can cause carbon dioxide poisoning (they do not) or present a HIPAA rights violation (again, they do not). They assert that COVID-19 is not that deadly and that the media has cultivated a panic to control us. And to affirm that they are good and smart for rejecting the advice, they’ve rejected germ theory and embraced ideas that 5G and/or Bill Gates are behind it all.
Conspiracy theorists have rejected the massive amounts of scientific research and historical studies in favor of sensational ideas delivered via YouTube or blogs. They’ve conveniently convinced themselves that academic researchers and other “experts” are only following the money and therefore cannot be trusted. (Oddly, they seem unconcerned by the massive amounts of money that one can make from viral YouTube videos.)
“Research,” to a conspiracy theorist, is their engagement with like-minded people who fancy themselves investigators. They’ll pinpoint similarities in numbers, images, or language to prove hidden links between disparate things, or they’ll examine photographs or video footage at length to find secret meaning. Many, such as the team who created the fake Planned Parenthood footage, are willing to alter or falsify footage to suit their narrative. To them, it’s all in the pursuit of a greater truth, while “mainstream” journalists are sellouts.
These apparently hypocritical attitudes make sense when you consider the psychology of conspiracy theorists. They need to feel a sense of control and order in the world, so by co-creating these “truths,” they can feel like the architects of their own lives. Absorbing information from mainstream sources seems passive to them, which might be why they consider people who do that to be “sheeple.” Notice that most conspiracy-theory books and videos invite the reader/viewer to share their experience, thereby contributing content. This clever marketing tactic makes the consumer feel like the idea being presented is more “true” or authentic, as opposed to research presented in an academic paper that seems too formal or out-of-touch.
An Arrogant Self-Interest
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with co-creating content, conspiracy theorists ultimately aren’t interested in sharing knowledge — despite what they may say. It’s all a form of performance art in which they assert that they are one of the select few who are “awake” and “aware.” They trample over anyone who disagrees and insult others’ intelligence as they share misinformation.
“Wake up sheeple!” they trumpet, eagerly posting on social media. They’re quick to defend their posts as “truth,” while dismissing any naysayers’ thoughts as “opinion.” That’s a deliberate tactic meant to shield themselves from scrutiny. According to research, this attitude reflects their psychology: conspiracy theorists simply don’t budge when presented with alternate information.
That’s not to say that conspiracy theorists are dumb. In fact, according to renowned skeptic Michael Shermer in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, smart people are just as susceptible to conspiracy theories as anyone else. They use their intelligence to concoct dramatic, overarching theories that are meant to provide themselves a coping mechanism for stress. Moreover, many conspiracy theorists are skilled in the art of persuasion and can bring others to the cause.
Still, belief in conspiracy theories requires an arrogant self-interest. When you refuse to entertain other perspectives, you’re not only asserting that only your view matters, but you’re also engaging in behavior that might be harmful to others. Take the people who have spread misinformation about vaccines, for example. They’re able to defend their position with just a few YouTube videos because “no other sources can be trusted.” They never have to entertain the science behind vaccines because “it’s all a cash cow.” By instilling fear in others, they can grow their ranks and attain both power and control over their chief fear (which is apparently autism).
If conspiracy theories and the people who believe them are here to stay, how do we solve the problems they cause? Unfortunately, troubled times are associated with an uptick in conspiracy belief. It’s much easier and less frightening to believe that the pandemic isn’t serious because “it’s just a hoax” than to acknowledge that more than 100,000 Americans have died. It helps take some of the burden off our backs if we believe that race riots are being engineered to take down Trump rather than that racism has been a pervasive problem in the United States for centuries. It makes us feel better to believe that we have all the answers and can co-create our truth, as opposed to being dragged through this chaotic reality.
Conspiracy theories make people feel better. Unfortunately, it’s little more than a placebo, a Band-Aid slapped on a deep wound. Critical thinking and empathy are the only ways that we will survive as a species. It’s time to leave the YouTube videos behind and embrace science as a means of inquiry.
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