The election of donald j. trump has brought the conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork like never before. After all, the man LOVES the uneducated. He said so himself, and conspiracy theories are those theories that are not based in fact. They are not based on scientific evidence. They are not even based on common sense. They are cooked up stories based on literally nothing, and their proponents claim that they “resonate” with them or that they are “spiritually based” or other reasons, and they vehemently believe them.
Most roots of conspiracy theories stem from prejudice, whether it is racial discrimination, sexual discrimination or other redneck, uneducated beliefs.
I found this commentary on conspiracy theorists on Scientific American, and wanted to share it with you, because this seems to cover the subject very well. However, first, I want to bring attention to an excellent book on the topic of people who believe conspiracy theories. It is called Empire of Conspiracy by Tim Melley.
Melley seeks to explain why conspiracy theories and paranoia have become so pervasive in American culture in recent decades. He discusses some of the paranoia behind our obsessions with political assassinations, gender and race relations, stalkers, mind control, bureaucracies, and the power of corporations and governments.
Melley proposes that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one’s own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators.
When fervent individualists feel that they cannot exercise their independence, they experience a crisis and assume that larger forces are to blame for usurping this freedom. “For one who refuses to relinquish the assumptions of liberal individualism, such newly revealed forms of regulation frequently seem so unacceptable or unbelievable that they can only be met with anxiety, melodrama, or panic.”
Research by psychologist Jean Twenge is consistent with his hypotheses. Twenge’s research examines how Americans’ personality traits have been changing over the past several decades. She reviews the results of hundreds of studies published from the 1960s through the end of the century, looking at the personality scores for each year. For example, she finds that trait anxiety (or neuroticism) has been rising dramatically in both children and adults over this period.
In another study, she shows that people have come to hold an increasingly stronger external “locus of control”; this refers to the feeling that external forces are determining what happens to you, as opposed to an internal locus of control, the feeling that you dictate your own outcomes. Twenge suggests that the stronger external locus of control reflects our ever-increasing exposure to uncontrollable events and a rise in the “victim mentality” of our culture. (Is this sounding familiar?)
Individualistic values have also been getting stronger in our culture, with greater importance attached to personal freedoms and self-reliance. The U.S. currently ranks highest in individualism compared to all other nations in the world.
The rise in anxiety, individualism, and external locus of control may therefore underlie the rise in conspiracy thinking. This is somewhat troubling because these personality trends show no sign of leveling off. In fact, given the current pace of globalization and the “Americanization” of other countries, it seems likely that these personality traits (and conspiracy thinking) will be increasing elsewhere too.
But what’s the actual appeal of believing in conspiracy theories? What purpose do they serve people?
For one thing, conspiracy theories help us cope with distressing events and make sense out of them. Conspiracies assure us that bad things don’t just happen randomly. Conspiracies tell us that someone out there is accountable, however unwittingly or secretly or incomprehensibly, so it’s possible to stop these people and punish them and in due course let everyone else re-establish control over their own lives. Conspiracies also remind us that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for our predicaments; it’s not our fault, it’s them! In these ways, believing in conspiracies serves many of the same self-protective functions as scapegoating.
In addition to the changes in personality, conspiracy theories are also growing more popular because of the mass media, which circulates these ideas to a wider audience and indoctrinates more believers. Plus, the sheer amount of information in today’s media increases the odds that someone will detect “coincidences” or “patterns” that serve to fuel these beliefs. These trends in the media won’t be reversing themselves anytime soon either.
Does all this mean we should expect even more conspiracy theorizing and paranoia to come? Will conspiracy theories ever become a dominant ideology in our culture the way scapegoating sometimes is in other cultures?
It’s not clear whether we’ve reached any sort of tipping point yet. But if polls are any indication, the events of 9/11 may have transformed conspiracy theories from “implausible visions of a lunatic fringe” to a mainstream response to the most disturbing of events.
Here is the Scientific American article that I referred to earlier:
By Caitlin Shure on September 1, 2013