Buying into conspiracy theories can be exciting – that’s what makes them dangerous
Summary: Conspiracy theories are not only appealing because of the alternative “information” they provide, they also evoke emotional reactions that can be detrimental.
Source: The conversation
Conspiracy theories have been around for centuries, witch trials and anti-Semitic campaigns for beliefs that Freemasons were trying to overthrow European monarchies. In the middle of the 20th century, the historian Richard Hofstadter describes a “paranoid stylehe observed in right-wing American politics and culture: a mixture of “passionate exaggeration, distrust, and conspiratorial fantasy.”
But the “golden age” of conspiracy theories, it seems, is now. On June 24, 2022, the unknown QAnon conspiracy theory leader put online for the first time in over a year. QAnon enthusiasts tend to be strong supporters of donald trumpwho made conspiracy theories a feature of his political brandfrom Pizzagate and QAnon to “Stop the Steal” and the racist “birther” movement.
Key themes of conspiracy theories – such as a sinister network of “pedophiles” and “groomers”, “bankers” and dark “globalists” – have entered the mainstream right-wing talking points.
Much of the commentary on conspiracy theories assumes that followers simply have bad information, or not enoughand that they can be helped with a better regime of facts.
But anyone who talks to conspiracy theorists knows they never run out of detail, or at least”alternative facts.” They have a lot of information, but they insist that it be interpreted in a particular way – the way that feels the most exciting.
My research focuses on how emotion drives the human experience, including strong beliefs. In my latest book, I argue that confronting conspiracy theories requires understanding the feelings that make them so appealing – and how those feelings shape what feels reasonable to devotees. If we want to understand why people believe what they believe, we need to examine not only the content of their thoughts, but also how that information feels to them. Just as the “X-Files” predicted, conspiracy theorists “want to believe.”
think and feel
More than 100 years ago, the American psychologist William James Noted: “The transition from a state of bewilderment to a state of resolution is full of keen pleasure and relief.” In other words, confusion is not good, but certainty is.
He was deeply interested in a question that is urgent today: how information feels, and why thinking about the world in a particular way might be thrilling or exhilarating – so much so that it becomes hard to see the world otherwise.
James called it the “sense of rationality“: the feelings that accompany the thought. People often talk about thinking and feeling like they were apart, but James realized they were inextricably linked.
For example, he believed that the best science was driven forward by the excitement of discovery – which he said was “caviarfor scientists – but also the fear of being wrong.
The attraction of the 2%
So how does the conspiracy theory feel? First, it makes you feel smarter than everyone else. political scientist Michael Barkun points out that conspiracy theorists love what he calls “stigmatized knowledge», Obscure or even despised sources.
In fact, the darker the source, the more true believers want to trust it. It’s the stock in trade of the popular podcast”The Joe Rogan Experience– “scientists” who present themselves as the only voice in the desert and are somehow seen as more credible because they have been repudiated by their colleagues. Ninety-eight percent of scientists may agree on something, but the conspiracy mentality imagines that the other 2% are really onto something. This allows the conspirators to see themselves as “critical thinkers” who separated from the pack, rather than outliers who fell in love with a pitch of snake oil.
One of the most exciting parts of a conspiracy theory is that it makes sense of everything. We all know the thrill of solving a puzzle: the “click” of satisfaction when you complete a word, crossword or sudoku. But of course, the whole point of games is that they simplify things. Crime shows are the same: all the clues are there on the screen.
What if the whole world was like this? In essence, it is the delusion of the conspiracy theory. All the answers are there, and everything fits with everything else. Great players are sinister and sneaky – but not as smart as you.
QAnon works like a huge live action video game in which a showrunner teases viewers with tantalizing clues. Followers turn every detail into something deeply meaningful.
When Donald Trump announced their diagnosis of COVID-19, for example, he tweeted, “We will get through this TOGETHER.” QAnon Subscribers saw this as a signal this their much sought after endgame — Hillary Clinton arrested and convicted of unspeakable crimes — was finally in play. They thought the capitalized word “TOGETHER” was code for “TO GET HER” and that Trump was saying his diagnosis was a feint in order to beat “the ‘deep state’. For enthusiasts, it was a perfectly designed puzzle with a perfectly exciting solution.
It is important to remember that the conspiracy theory very often goes hand in hand with racism – anti-black racism, anti-immigrant racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia. People who hatch plots – or are willing to exploit them – know how emotionally powerful these racist beliefs are.
It is also essential to avoid saying that conspiracy theories are “merely” irrational or emotional. What James realized was that all thought is tied to feeling – whether we learn about the world in useful ways or are misled by our own prejudices. As a cultural theorist Lauren Berlant written in 2016“All messages are emotional”, regardless of the political party from which they come.
Conspiracy theories encourage their proponents to think of themselves as the only ones with their eyes open, and everyone else as “sheep”. But paradoxically, this fantasy leads to self-delusion — and helping followers recognize that can be a first step. Unraveling their beliefs requires the patient work of persuading devotees that the world is just a duller, more random, and less interesting place than one might have hoped.
Part of the reason conspiracy theories have such a strong hold is that they have kernels of truth: there really are elites who stand above the law; there really is exploitation, violence and inequality. But the best way to unmask abuses of power is not to cut corners – a critical point in “Conspiracy Theory Handbook», a guide to fight them written by climate change denial experts.
To progress, we must patiently prove what is happening – research, learn, and find the most plausible interpretation of the evidence, not the funniest one.
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