How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The Psychology of the Conspiracy Theorist
How does the conspiracy theorist think? Conspiracists come in many guises so it is wrong to portray them simply as cranks or activists, although such people may be attracted to the principle. Freudian issues of repressed childhoods are not discussed here, although one's past can always affect how one sees the world today.
Conspiracies are all about secrets, with those in the wrong keeping their wrong-doing highly confidential and denying all accusations that the conspiracy exists, or that they have any involvement in it. Theorists find this element of secrecy sufficiently compelling that they are prepared to spend much time trying to understand more and spread this knowledge.
Given the limited hard evidence in many conspiracies, the theorist must be persuaded by relatively weak data, having faith that a conspiracy exists. This is helped by a suspicious nature and a lack of trust of people in power.
The need to know is driven by the need for a sense of control. Not knowing suggests potential threat, including blindness to impending danger and a consequent weakened ability to respond. Control also appears within many theories, at least in the control of knowledge and sometimes in the control of individuals (typically by governments).
Knowledge that there are secrets (or at least believing this) and knowing that the secrets are understood gives an increased sense of control. On the other hand, these beliefs may trigger a reduced sense of control as the theorist feels an increased threat. This can continue to be a driving force that propels their continued actions in this area, especially in those for whom control is a critical personal issue.
Conspiracies often contravene social values as well as national laws. This triggers a sense of righteous indignation in the theorist. They are appalled at the actions of the members of the conspiracy. Those who enjoy this sense of righteousness seem more likely to be attracted by conspiracy theories.
We all have a need for a sense of status, where we have a position of superiority in society. One way we do this is to judge others and find them guilty of transgressing values or laws. People who are quick to judge tend to be those who keenly feel they are of lower status. It is also easier to judge when suspects do not defend themselves or simply deny the charge. Status issues are significant in particular cultures, such as in organized hierarchies as well as where personal reputation is important.
As well as the flat denial by people in the conspiracy, the heinous nature of their actions only serves to amplify the indignation and consequent status of the conspiracist. When people we know are guilty do not even admit their crimes, we can safely assume ourselves far better than them.
Conspiracists, even when they collaborate, are very small in comparison to the organizations that they see to be conspiring. The apparent danger increases with the notion that the need for secrecy leads the conspiracy to killing or otherwise silencing those who try to expose their secrets.
For some, this may be a daunting prospect, but for the conspiracy theorist it is an opportunity to be a hero, to be the bold David to the conspiracy Goliath. This plays to the need for a sense of identity, where the hero gains the esteem of others for their bravery in the face of danger. Playing David can be attractive for those who have little to lose, which is perhaps why affluent people tend to avoid conspiracy theories.
In practice the risk is seldom as bad as it seems as many conspiracies do not really exist. The lack of recrimination of course may be explained by the conspiracy's need for secrecy as any action would prove both their existence and their guilt. This plays to people who like to appear heroic but who are not so keen on taking significant personal risks.
Conspiracists seek believers who will join their crusade. By organizing and collaborating with others, the theorist both affirms their own belief and also sends the message to the world at large that the conspiracy must be true (why else would so many people believe in it?).
As numbers increase, a hierarchy may be formed, with the originator and early acolytes at the higher levels. This can become like an inner club where secrets about the secrets are shared. Given the threat from the conspiracy, this secrecy may well be deemed necessary. All this also plays to the sense of identity as the inner circle members feel superior even to the lower members. It also helps those who are less trusting of the world at large as they focus in with a trusted group of like-minded people.
Greater numbers of people give the theory a louder voice and more credibility as the detail of the conspiracy is shared and formalized. Numbers also offer protection, as diffusing knowledge makes it more difficult for the conspiracy to silence the voices calling against them.
Where people feel outside mainstream organizations and society, they may get a greater sense of achievement when they attack the main institutions that they believe have rejected them. This can lead to more people in fringe groups subscribing to conspiracy theories. Theories may also be attractive to elite intellectuals who feel themselves above everyday society.
One of the best affirmations for the theorist is public recognition, where the theory is taken seriously or at least reported through news and other media. As more people know, even if the theory is rather uncertain, the more it becomes real.
We all seek affirmation of the things in which we believe and support for the causes which we feel are important. Public reporting amplifies the diffusion of knowledge about the theory, spreading it widely and increase the probability of more supporters appearing. It also provides a serious provocation to the conspiracists, who of course deny the conspiracy.
Reporters and new media love a good conspiracy and so can be important channels for information and support, although they may also portray the theorists as cranks and reactionaries. Even when they trivialize the cause, their reporting is likely to lead to wider knowledge and more benefits than if they had ignored the situation.