Call me a nerd, but I have a confession to make. I subscribe to Psychology Today magazine. I was never a psychology major and the content in the magazine never really helped me in Human Resources, which uses some aspects of psychology in it. However, I do find some of the articles interesting. One of the articles, the cover story for the November 2020 issue, piqued my interest more than usual. The article talked about the mind of a conspiracy theorist: why do people tend to believe and espouse them? We all know that conspiracy theories have been around for ages, including whether Elvis is still alive and whether there is more to the story about JFK’s assassination. However, they are more prominent more recently because of the advent of social media and certain people’s normalization and promotion of them. I’ve always been an inquisitive person and always want to understand why something is the way that it is; this article does a great job at explaining it further. There is a link to the article at the bottom of this post for your reference if you would like to read more.
The article states that conspiracy theories tend to snowball at times of crisis when there is little information to fill in the gaps of understanding. The pandemic has been a big example of this, according to Ronald Imhoff, a social psychologist at Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, who has said it has “become a breeding ground for such thinking”. Since COVID-19 is a new disease and there is still little information known about it while hundreds of thousands die and millions more get sick, to some conspiracy theories provide an explanation.
There are certain personality traits that are associated with those that believe conspiracy theories, according to the article, including “a low level of trust, an increased need for closure along with feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, paranoid thinking and a need to feel unique”. Not only do people believe these types of theories because of uncertainty, but for other personal reasons as well. According to the article, there is also a “desire for control and security and a desire to maintain a positive self-image”. People can also be inclined to believe them because of several things: it connects an event to a deliberate motive, and it confirms what someone may already believe.
There are harmless conspiracy theories out there that may not have any bearing or effect on society whatsoever. However, these type of theories can cause an issue when there is a lack of credibility (usually there is) “when it puts [facts and] science on the same level as someone who posts a video on YouTube” that may be championing something that is not true. As I said before, the introduction and uprising of social media has increased the exposure that conspiracy theories have in the ethos. It’s easy for someone to post a video from Alex Jones or even the Plandemic video from earlier in the pandemic and make it seem like it’s sincere and reliable information.
The article seemed to make sense to me after finishing it and almost seemed it was slightly obvious. It makes sense that people would make up something completely disjointed and untrue, especially when we don’t have the full facts, just to make themselves look like the most knowledgeable one in the room. Hell, it seems like anyone could be susceptible to making up conspiracy theories based on what the article said. This, of course, is not the case since most people trust facts put in front of them. People may have low levels of trust in their government and an increased need for closure, but that doesn’t mean that they always resort to conspiracy theories. Sure, if something doesn’t sound right, it is important for a critically thinking person to challenge that. However, when it resorts to coming up with false information, that’s when it becomes a problem.
I don’t think that Psychology Today has any biases, but I do think that this article sheds some light on our political climate, especially over the last four years. It is clear people voted for our current president because of the low levels of trust in their government and feelings of powerlessness they had economically. The 2016 campaign’s communication provided plenty of solace to his voters, whether what he said was true or untrue and whether he would deliver on his promises (most of them he has, whether you agree with them or not). This is another discussion for another time, but what baffles me is why he remains to be believed when he espouses information that is untrue. Do people still possess distrust in their government, even though he is part of one of those branches of government? Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
It can be argued that the media, no matter the political leaning, is responsible at times for communicating conspiracy theories to its viewers or just putting information in their viewers’ heads to conjure them up. While they have freedom of the press, it is irresponsible to convey misinformation to its viewers. Regulating what they can say is out of the question and creates a whole other discussion, but it’s important to use the platform to be truthful. Social media and technology are areas that I’m on the fence about in terms of the regulation of information. Sure, it’s important people don’t post false information, but it also puts a bad taste in my mouth when regulation talk comes into the mix when it comes to Twitter and Facebook. It seems a little 1984 to me.
The biggest takeaway from this article in Psychology Today is to understand why others may think the way they do, possibly empathize with it, and create a valuable discussion among us. Now I wouldn’t start the conversation with “I understand that you have low self-esteem and a low level of trust…”, but it may open the doors of conversation instead of closing them immediately because of misinformation. I also think it’s important that we check the facts and multiple sources to understand the full picture. It seems obvious, but needs to be said numerous times given the times we live in. Try not to fall into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories because it’s hard to get out of it.
(Picture Courtesy of Science The Wire)