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Terry Stawar

Conspiracy beliefs unfortunately are fairly common in the United States. According to research, over half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy story. Even bizarre beliefs, such as the idea that the government is intentionally placing invisible chemicals into the environment, is believed by nearly 5% of Americans.

Conspiracy thinking is usually validated by other people. In the past this was achieved by individuals who personally tried to radicalize others. Today, however, such conversions usually occur online, in so-called echo chambers, which are websites, that only post items that reinforce people’s existing beliefs and fail to provide any contrary information that might challenge their beliefs.

Many social media websites also have what are called “filter bubbles.” These are built-in mechanisms that ensure that people are exposed only to opinions that conform to their current beliefs, thus encouraging polarization over time.

Studies show that false news, such as conspiracy ideas, spreads faster and more extensively online than does accurate information. The Internet provides instant access to misinformation, as well as opinions disguised as facts, and deliberately manufactured hoaxes. Online false assertions are generally not subjected to critical evaluation, as they would be in face-to-face conversations.

Related to conspiracy beliefs are actual psychiatric delusions, which are characteristic of mental disorders. These are fixed false beliefs that are not shared with others and are far less common. Actual delusional disorders only are seen in about .2% of the population. The difference between having a delusion and believing in conspiracies is occasionally “murky” according to UCLA forensic psychiatrist Joseph Pierre, although conspiratorial ideation is related to delusion-proneness.

Conspiracy beliefs are not caused by a thought disorder or psychosis, but are related to a number of cognitive distortions. These include such errors as all-or-none thinking, overgeneralization, magnification and minimization, personalization, as well as various biases. These include the self-serving bias, overestimation of one’s abilities, the belief that everyone thinks just like you, and the inability to assume other people’s perspectives. These biases are fairly common throughout the general population.

Delusional and delusion-like conspiracy thinking is characterized by over-reliance on shallow instinctive estimations and underuse of careful deliberative analysis. Strange ideas occur to everyone, but we generally stop these from becoming part of our belief system by using our analytic reasoning abilities. Under stress or in complex situations, however, we may fall back on intuitive approximations, because our higher cognitive resources are overwhelmed. This is when we are most vulnerable to belief in conspiracies.

Pierre believes that using the insanity defense, or arguing for diminished capacity for any criminal acts that might stem from conspiracy beliefs is inappropriate. He says terms like “extreme overvalued beliefs… [created]… a new category to explain unusual beliefs and morally outrageous behavior, while ensuring that culpability remains intact.”

For many individuals, conspiracy ideas, unlike delusions, are usually shared, cause little distress, and do not interfere with functioning. For most it takes considerable intensity and incitement before a conspiracy belief derails their whole life. But as we have all recently seen, it is certainly possible.

While conspiracy thinking is notoriously difficult to change, it usually does not possess the 100% certainty that clinical delusions do. Delusions also tend to be individually based, while conspiracy beliefs have a social aspect. Thus, instead of believing that other people are out to get them personally, conspiracy devotees believe that people in other groups are plotting against their group.

Psychologist Gary Wenk of The Ohio State University says that people often try to control others by providing a “comfortable myth” that is consistent with the other person’s “fears and desires.” Wenk says that we all love a good myth with brave heroes who fight injustice and oppression. He suggests that today’s conspiracy beliefs may serve many of the same purposes of traditional myths. Primarily they reduce fears of a frightening world that seems uncontrollable. Historically such myths were endlessly repeated and regardless how outlandish the heroic claims were, believers accepted them unconditionally. Humans are hard-wired neurologically to make up things and are thus are excellent myth-makers.

Credibility is an important factor in being able to convince other people that conspiracy narratives are true. Such credibility can be derived from a number of sources, such as the legitimate power conferred by some authority such as the government or an educational system. Power might be based on perceived expertise or interpersonal charisma and the ability to entertain or charm others. It also is related to the access the recipient has to special information.

According to British psychologist Steve Taylor from Leeds University, there is a strong tendency for certain people to readily accept unsubstantiated conspiracy narratives and idealize authoritarian figures. This is because it provides them a sense of being special. Taylor says that they feel superior because they believe that “they possess secret esoteric knowledge that others are too naive or dim-witted to take on board.”

Deferring to an authoritarian leader may also appeal to people who are habitual hero worshipers. My wife Diane has always been suspicious of the influence of role models, most of whom as fallible humans, eventually demonstrate that they have feet of clay. Many see authority figures as all-powerful parental substitutes, whom they believe can take control of their lives and protect them. This represents a regressive “desire to return to a childhood state of devotion and irresponsibility,” according to Taylor. It is based in fear, anxiety, and a need for security.

Conspiracy beliefs have great appeal to people who desire meaningful associations in their world. Taylor says that such beliefs “…are all about connections. Nothing happens randomly. Nobody acts randomly or altruistically. There is an agenda, or a network of nefarious agents, behind everything.”

It is a way for some people to try to make meaning out of a world that regularly confounds them, and it provides an external rationale for fears and failures. Any undesirable outcome for these folks must have a sinister power lurking over it.

All of this reminds me of stories about hexes in a family history written about Diane’s mother’s German family emigrating to rural Wisconsin. When a cow went dry, it wasn’t seen as a simple random occurrence. It was assumed that a hex had been placed on the animal by a malevolent neighbor. I suppose things don’t change much.

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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