Even if you're a doomer.
We're All Conspiracy Theorists Now. Psychology Says So.
New research in psychology explains what makes conspiracy theorists tick. More and more of us fit the profile.
You can't go online anymore without tripping over a conspiracy theory these days. Right now, Disease X is trending on... X. Conspiracy theorists think they've found a hidden clue that the global elite are creating a virus specifically for Elon Musk and his fans. Yeah, I know...
It's a fresh level of crazy.
This is sort of how a garden variety conspiracy theory operates. It feeds existing worldviews while giving the conspiracy theorists themselves an elevated sense of importance, even connection to each other.
If you've been paying attention, "Disease X" has been popping up in the news for a long time. It predates Elon Musk's rebranding of Twitter by a solid year or two. It's simply the name epidemiologists give to whatever new pathogen is going to cause the next pandemic. It could be avian flu.
It could be a fungus.
We don't know.
Conspiracy theorists can't believe that scientists have learned how to predict pandemics. They're absolutely positive that "predicting" a pandemic means that they're planning to release a virus.
Actually, scientists have learned how to use computer modeling to predict future pandemics. They study diseases. It's what they do. They've gotten really, really good at it. Most of the diseases with pandemic potential already exist, and we can create vaccines for them before they take off. That's sort of the whole point of public health. All of this is lost on conspiracy theorists. They'd rather believe that big pharmaceutical giants are working with global health institutions to engineer diseases and profit off vaccines.
Here's the weird part:
They're sort of right. It's kind of true that big pharmaceutical companies don't actually want to prevent or cure diseases.
They want to use them to make money.
It's actually kind of true that Pfizer took a good idea for a vaccine and then ruined it with their profit model. It's actually kind of true that Bill Gates facilitated all of this, and that it makes him complicit.
For some reason, conspiracy theorists can't accept our version of events: That diseases exist naturally in the world, and that profit-hungry drug companies see them as an opportunity to make money. There's already a term for this, and it's called disaster capitalism. People like us see this explanation, and it rings true. That's what the evidence supports.
And you know what?
It's bad enough.
Anyway, conspiracy theories have been proliferating over the last few years. We've got conspiracy theories about disease. We've got conspiracy theories about climate change. We've got conspiracy theories about elections. We've got conspiracy theorists on TikTok arguing that droughts aren't real. They believe there's secret stores of limitless water buried deep in the earth.
Apparently, the government is hiding them.
Well, there's a new article out in Psychology Bulletin that tackles conspiracy theories. It explains a lot. The authors constructed a framework based on 170 studies. Here's how they define a conspiracy theory:
Broadly, conspiracy theories refer to causal explanations of events that ascribe blame to a group of powerful individuals (the conspirators) who operate in secret to form hidden plans that benefit themselves and harm the common good. Thus, the definitional recipe of conspiracy theories involves three primary ingrediants: conspirators, hidden plans, [and] malintent against others or society.
According to this study, conspiracy theorists aren't necessarily naive or paranoid. They're not uneducated, either. They're desperate to feel safe and secure in an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable world.
They're looking for answers.
Aren't we all?
Based on this psychological definition of a conspiracy theory, we're all conspiracy theorists now. We all see powerful individuals forming secret plans to benefit themselves at our expense.
It seems obvious.
Some conspiracy theorists are getting their answers by piecing together actual facts, scientific data, and general knowledge about how humans treat each other. We form holistic conspiracy theories.
For example, Naomi Klein's framework of disaster capitalism offers a robust theory explaining how the elite take advantage of wars, natural disasters, and pandemics to make money. They often present their schemes as "solutions," and those "solutions" screw us over.
It's pretty simple.
More radical conspiracy theories believe in what psychologists call events-based conspiracy theories. They don't really pay attention to larger frameworks explaining human behavior or the shortcomings of our economic systems. They just believe that 9/11 was an inside job, or that Covid was cooked up in a lab. These events-based conspiracy theories miss the forest for the trees. They don't offer very good explanations across multiple events.
The study also shows that conspiracy theorists root their beliefs in social networks. If you lean MAGA, then you're going to believe the conspiracy theories offered by Donald Trump and Elon Musk. You're going to believe Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro over everyone else, because they reinforce many of the beliefs you already had. You're going to like them better. You're not going to believe the theories offered by anyone you perceive as liberal.
They're not your tribe.
All this explains why some of us get so frustrated with events-based conspiracy theorists. They contradict themselves, because they only listen to theories that explain individual events in a way that supports their existing worldviews and social ties. That's why they're willing to attack big pharma, but somehow they mount a rabid defense of the larger systems of capitalism and exploitation that created the conditions for monopolies to thrive.
This also explains why Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro fans will happily believe there's a conspiracy among big corporations to push some kind of woke agenda, but then they'll turn right around and defend those same corporations for keeping everyone poor and trashing the planet.
There's a final layer here.
Conspiracy theorists maintain an aura of superiority. They think their explanation makes more sense than anyone else's. They think they're smarter. They think they're more clued in. Well, that also defines us all. We all think our conspiracy theory makes the most sense.
We think the other conspiracy theorists are nutcases.
We're all seeking explanations for why the world seems to be unraveling. Those explanations provide comfort. Maybe we can't stop what's happening, but we can at least understand why and how.
It doesn't help that there actually is a history of our governments colluding with the elite to screw us over, and it doesn't help that even liberal administrations are willing to throw vulnerable populations under the bus for political expediency. In other words, powerful individuals really are working together to hurt us in order to enrich themselves. We seem to all grasp that now. We just can't agree on how and why they're doing it. One group is turning to n95 masks and nose sprays. The other is turning to ivermectin and borax.
Are we really that different?
I don't think so.