Conspiracy Theorists Just Want to Feel Special
Like when people only listen to "underground" music, but with poisoned water supplies and space Nazis.
Alex Jones shouting. Screen shot: Infowars / YouTube
Among the everyday absurdism of post-Trump America's culture wars, one of the stranger vignettes was the sight of arch-conspiracy peddler Alex Jones running down the street to confront a man who had apparently interrupted his pavement Periscope by flipping him the bird, the Infowars capo calling this man an "intellectual dumbass who watches mainstream media". He then accosts another passer-by who calls Jones "trash" and tips coffee on him, Jones babbling that "this literal slave of the system" was the victim of "brainwashing" before concluding, apropos of no-fucking-idea: "That's why they're allied with jihadis."
Whether staged or authentic, these oddball encounters seemed to encapsulate both Jones' indefatigable fury, as well as a few of the conspiracy theorist's psychological hallmarks: the grandiosity and free-floating paranoia, the in-the-know self-righteousness – a walking rant in search of a cause.
Of course, we can only guess whether, in the not particularly grey areas of Jones' addled grey matter, there's a genuine (if delusional) credulousness – a commitment to the conspiracies – or a simple crowd-playing cynicism. Faced with litigation recently, his lawyer claimed "Alex Jones" was a performance. Either way, he's at the vanguard of conspiracy-as-cottage industry, his Infowars radio show routinely backing (or inventing) everything batshit and beyond – extreme weather events and food shortages being engineered to usher in one-world government; Michelle Obama being transgender; the NOW opening portals for ancient demons – while seeing false-flags from Oklahoma to Oslo and in every major school-shooting massacre from Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook – all staged by the anti-gun lobby, dontcha know. And if not them, it's the globalists, the communists, the Satanists.
Meanwhile, Infowars' editor-at-large, Paul Joseph Watson, as part of an avowed mission to "red-pill a generation", has also pushed all manner of esoteric ideas, including "Paedophiles Rule the World" (a yeah-but-no-but follow-up to the roundly debunked "Pizzagate" hoax); American sixth-graders are being taught to use strap-on dildos as part of the core curriculum; and "How the Illuminati Control the Music Industry". (Apparently, the "satanic symbolism" and occult imagery with which pop videos are laced is now "so flagrantly in our faces, it's impossible to deny". And what might we try to deny? "It's sending the message, consistently, if you analyse it: you're just a bunch of dumb slaves, we're the elite, we're in control of the music industry and we're using it to poison your kids' minds." Okay, gotcha.)
While us "intellectual dumbasses" are able to combine healthy, rational skepticism with a residual faith in mainstream media coverage – that is, to retain the ability to distinguish critically between inevitable ideological bias in editorial line and Illuminati-run mind-control programmes – the conspiracy theorist sees through reality's alluringly deceptive naturalness, its fake facade. It's all kayfabe, man, staged for the sheeple. These surface-scratchers and decoders are able to join the dots, spot the agendas, see the hidden forces at play. They are different, woke, "Too Special to be Duped".
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Such is the title of a recent paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology, which has shown that presenting people with evidence is only likely to make them more prone to believing in conspiracy theories, taking care to distinguish legitimate skepticism of official accounts (even over climate change) from belief in a conspiracy (arguing that it's a Chinese plot to make American businesses less competitive).
Its authors, Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty, of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, first sought to establish a correlation between 238 participants' "Need for Uniqueness" – standing out from the crowd in the field of opinions, just as some consumers like to when buying goods – and a "Conspiracy Mentality", ascertained with a range of survey questions, before then asking about their specific endorsement of 99 popular conspiracy theories, as well as their prior knowledge of those theories.
They followed up with another experiment, this time with 465 participants, which again successfully established how the need to stand out from the crowd predicted a conspiracy mentality. This time, they wondered whether such a need would lead to conspiracy types being drawn to the least popular theories, allowing them to feel more special. They thus presented half the participants with the five best known (for example, "the US government is hiding UFO wreckage at Area 51") and five least well-known ("Codex Alimentarius is a plan to poison us all") theories from the first experiment, and the other half with the five most accepted ("Revolutionary free energy technology is being suppressed by governments and the oil industry") and five least accepted ("The Nazis are in the centre of the moon") theories. The results were inconclusive, largely because the less accepted theories were too far-fetched to be attractive.
So, a third experiment was devised, the express intention being to show not just a correlation between Need for Uniqueness and Conspiracy Mentality, but also that this in turn varied according to whether a specific conspiracy theory was presented as a minority or majority view. A story was fabricated about smoke detectors in Germany, with a rogue scientist claiming they emitted a dangerous "hypersound" and questioning whether they did more harm than good. Half the 290 participants read a mocked-up magazine article claiming 81 percent of Germans agreed with this scientist's ideas, while the other half read one that said 81 percent of Germans strongly doubted his theory.
Overall, there was little effect, but among those participants pre-disposed to believe in conspiracies, their belief in the smoke detector hypersound conspiracy was enhanced when it was framed as a minority opinion, much as some people enjoy buying music they consider non-mainstream.
Even more remarkably, explain the authors of their most "potentially unsettling realisation", once all the participants had been thoroughly de-briefed, that there was no such thing as hypersound, 25 percent of them continued to believe the smoke alarm conspiracy held some truth, "even after we explicitly informed them that the whole text was freely invented. It thus seems that ideas about malign action by powerful others, concerted in secret, are easier done than undone. Once a conspiracy theory is accepted, any argument brought forward against it can easily be reframed as part of the big plan to conceal these activities, including our debriefing".
By showing that the need to feel special and unique acts as a strong motivation for believing in conspiracy theories, Imhoff and Lamberty build on previous findings that the conspiracy mentality might be the result of cognitive biases and taking mental shortcuts, or about establishing feelings of control amid the bewildering complexity, if not chaos, of the world. In that latter sense, conspiracy theories serve the same basic adaptive needs as evolutionary psychologists argue for religion: ascribing a single source or agency as the cause of events reduces anxiety (and therefore increases functionality), regardless of how factual the account might be.
The paper's conclusions certainly help to explain the behaviour of self-styled contrarians such as Watson who love nothing more than to be edgelords – hence his (oxy)moronic claim that "Conservatism Is the New Counter-Culture". And it also elucidates the way in which far-fetched conspiracy theories endure, since – in some people – having these beliefs openly questioned serves only to reinforce their desire to believe them. Climate change? Pah, your 97 percent of scientists are probably all in on it!
None of this will have escaped those such as Jones and Watson, who monetise their audience's legs-akimbo gullibility. Despite having been demonstrably wrong about so much, such is their brass-necked shamelessness that they'll happily cook up and push the next conspiracy – Trump is being covertly drugged by White House insiders, say – to an audience only too willing to lap up the snake oil, even – maybe especially – when "the mainstream" have proven that it's nonsense.
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