Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Subject: Conspiracy Theorist Psychology

A 2013 article from Slate magazine titled  "Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics: The fascinating psychology of people who know the real truth about JFK, UFOs, and 9/11" contains these key sections:

Conspiracy chatter was once dismissed as mental illness. But the prevalence of such belief, documented in surveys, has forced scholars to take it more seriously. Conspiracy theory psychology is becoming an empirical field with a broader mission: to understand why so many people embrace this way of interpreting history. As you’d expect, distrust turns out to be an important factor.


The strongest predictor of general belief in conspiracies, the authors found, was “lack of trust.”


More broadly, it’s a tendency to focus on intention and agency, rather than randomness or causal complexity. In extreme form, it can become paranoia. In mild form, it’s a common weakness known as the fundamental attribution error—ascribing others’ behavior to personality traits and objectives, forgetting the importance of situational factors and chance. Suspicion, imagination, and fantasy are closely related.

The more you see the world this way—full of malice and planning instead of circumstance and coincidence—the more likely you are to accept conspiracy theories of all kinds. Once you buy into the first theory, with its premises of coordination, efficacy, and secrecy, the next seems that much more plausible.


Psychologists and political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that “when processing pro and con information on an issue, people actively denigrate the information with which they disagree while accepting compatible information almost at face value.” Scholars call this pervasive tendency “motivated skepticism.”

Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep.

This would seem to apply to True Believers, also.  True Believers tend to think they are the only ones who can see the TRUTH, and the rest of us are just ignorant sheep.

The September 2013 issue of PSY-PAG (Psycology Post-Graduate Affairs Group) Quarterly is a special issue devoted to "The psychology of conspiracy theories."  The 56 page magazine contains these articles about conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists.

"An introduction into the world of conspiracy" - Christopher Thresher-Andrews

"Towards a definition of ‘conspiracy theory’" - Robert Brotherton

"A review of different approaches to study belief in conspiracy theories" - Anthony Lantian

"The psychology of conspiracy theories blog -"

"Has the internet been good for conspiracy theorising?" - Michael Wood

"The detrimental nature of conspiracy theories" - Daniel Jolley

The second PSY-PAG article on the above list, "Towards a definition of 'conspiracy theory'" poses an interesting question:

The claim that members of the US government were complicit in the attacks of September 11, 2001, for instance, is generally branded a conspiracy theory (e.g. Dunbar & Reagan, 2006; Grossman, 2006), yet the label is rarely applied to the claim that members of al-Qaeda secretly planned and executed the attacks. The two claims both postulate a successful conspiracy to commit the attacks.  Why is it that, in popular discourse, the term conspiracy theory is applied to the former but not the latter?

One amusing answer is:

The situation has been likened to attempting to define pornography – a task which forced US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart to conclude simply, ‘I know it when I see it’ (Byford, 2011).

But, the more comprehensive and useful definition is in this statement:

I define conspiracy theory as an unverified claim of conspiracy which is not the most plausible account of an event or situation, and with sensationalistic subject matter or implications. In addition, the claim will typically postulate unusually sinister and competent conspirators. Finally, the claim is based on weak kinds of evidence, and is epistemically self-insulating against disconfirmation.

In other words, a "conspiracy theory" is typically implausible, sensationalistic, gives the conspirators super-abilities, is based upon weak evidence, and is so vague that it cannot be easily disproved.

The article also contains this:

Conspiracy theories are unverified claims.
Conspiracies have occurred throughout history, and occur in some form every day – in politics, organised crime, insider dealing, scams, and so on. Philosopher Charles Pigden points out that ‘if a conspiracy theory is simply a theory which posits a conspiracy, then every politically and historically literate person is a big-time conspiracy theorist’ (Pigden, 2007, p.222). However, this is not how the label is commonly used. The term usually refers to explanations which are not regarded as verified by legitimate epistemic authorities. The theory may be regarded as indisputably true by those who subscribe to it, but this belief is invariably at odds with the mainstream consensus among scientists, historians, or other legitimate judges of the claim’s veracity.

I couldn't have said it better myself. 
It certainly fits ALL the conspiracy theories related to the anthrax attacks of 2001 that I've heard during the past 12+ years.

Another article from 2013, this time from Scientific American Magazine, is titled "Insights into the Personalities of Conspiracy Theorists," and it begins with this:

Conspiracy theories and scientific theories attempt to explain the world around us. Both apply a filter of logic to the complexity of the universe, thereby transforming randomness into reason. Yet these two theoretical breeds differ in important ways. Scientific theories, by definition, must be falsifiable. That is, they must make reliable predictions about the world; and if those predictions turn out to be incorrect, the theory can be declared false. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are tough to disprove. Their proponents can make the theories increasingly elaborate to accommodate new observations; and, ultimately, any information contradicting a conspiracy theory can be answered with, “Well sure, that’s what they want you to think.”

I think those three articles are enough to confirm that I'm not the only one who views "conspiracy theorists" as outside of the norm.  Conspiracy theorists tend to think of themselves as part of the majority, but, as I've written many times, they are just a fringe group that the vast majority of the public doesn't take seriously.  I don't see anything in these articles that disagrees with what I've been saying about conspiracy theorists for 12+ years.  

On the other hand, anarchist Alex Jones indicates he has a study which shows that conspiracy theorists are sane, and government dupes are crazy.   I found it by doing a Google search for conspiracy+theorist+majority.