I found myself recently on a walk (socially distanced of course) with someone who saw the World incredibly different from me. He spoke in sweeping generalisations about government corruption (this was all governments not just UK by the way). He spoke of “they” but never clarified who “they” were. He spoke of his frustration around lockdown and seemed suspicious about why we were not coming out of it sooner and yet in the same breath said he would not have the vaccine if it was voluntary. I struggled to connect with this person, such was the gap between our outlooks on the world. I felt uneasy in their presence, fearing that some conspiracy theory thinking might be lurking in the background.
In an attempt to bridge the gap between us, I’ve been thinking about conspiracy theories and why they seem so attractive, especially against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. The World Health Organisation has named this moment an infodemic, where rapid data and falsehoods collide and spread as quickly as the virus, thanks to our old friend the internet.
The reasons why people might be attracted to conspiracy theories varies from individual to individual. But there definitely are some themes.
The urge to make sense of things
We humans are meaning making creatures so we can become pretty rattled when things aren’t making a lot of sense. We seek to find patterns and reasons for events to avoid the potential truth that sometimes things just happen for no rhyme or reason. Conspiracy theories work to self-sooth, to help us feel found when we feel wobbly and lost. This provides a false sense of comfort, after all correlation isn’t the same as causation.
To avoid uncertainty
None of us like uncertainty and boy have we had a massive dose of it for almost a year now. We are motivated to reduce our anxious feelings by any means and as quickly as possible. Such is our need for certainty that we can easily ignore evidence which may challenge our beliefs, even when it comes to outlandish conspiracy theories.
To find belonging
Attaching ourselves to a group with a strong belief system (regardless of their validity) provides the much-needed structure and blueprint to help reduce our fear and anxiety. The group informs its members on how to act, what to think, how to feel etc, leaving little room for self-doubt or insecurity. Belonging to a group promotes a positive sense of self-image for the individual and can provide that much needed sense of being heard and seen when previously we’ve felt lost or ignored. Just as much as we acquire a sense of belonging in a group, we can also lose ourselves in a temporary sense of transcendence, just like football fans chanting in unison at a match. This is described as Hive hypothesis by psychologist Jonathan Haidt
To feel special
Linked to finding a sense of belonging through group membership, sharing in conspiracy beliefs can make us feel special compared to the average person on the street. We know something others don’t, we have access to special knowledge and secrets. We reject the mainstream, preferring to live outside of the norm. This can seem very attractive to those who feel a sense of powerlessness and inequality in their lives.
Believing in conspiracy theories can be an easy shortcut to explain things which are probably far more complex and nuanced. Say if we believe that all governments are corrupt or evil (such as my recent walking buddy), then we never need enquire about their motivations or actions on specific policies or events. It’s a safe and easy go to. A sweeping generalisation which offers immediate relief from anxiety or confusion and requires little cognitive exertion.
Believing in conspiracy theories is a failure on our part of understanding our inner selves. Instead of sitting with our personal fear, anxiety, discomfort etc. we project these difficult emotions onto the external world and scan the internet looking for relief. If we can sit with our own inner turmoil, avoid projection, and reach for appropriate support, then we can actually grow and develop individually from the experience.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever be rid of conspiracy theories, they’ll always be an immediate soother for some people in times of anxiety or crisis. But if we can begin to understand why people are so pulled towards them, then maybe we can develop empathy and help bridge the gaps between us different believers. Maybe I should give my walking buddy another chance now I don’t feel quite as uneasy as before. Knowledge is not just power, it’s a key ingredient for connection and empathy.
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash