Tom Stafford reports on an interesting review of the psychology of conspiracy theories – the persistent belief that ‘they’ are working secretly to conceal the truth about the assassination of JFK or the moon landings, for example. The review suggests current research is better at explaining the forces that drive conspiracy theories than at examining their psychological consequences. It seems the theories are motivated by three needs; for understanding, for safety/control, and for a positive image of yourself and the groups you belong to. But in point of fact, they are not very good at meeting these needs and may even make the people who subscribe to them feel worse.

Stafford suggests we could see this as maladaptive coping. He criticises some aspects of the review, in particular the way it defines conspiracy theories rather loosely, so that it seems to include reasonable conspiracy beliefs. You’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you, after all.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of a genuine conspiracy is the way that around this time of year we all go to enormous lengths to convince our children that a fat old man is going to come down the chimney into their bedroom one night (a idea that terrifies a few of them, possibly the more rational ones). Kids who subscribed to the theory that parents, teachers and media were involved in a massive con would not be wrong, but would they be displaying early signs of a tendency to conspiracy theories? Is it rational, at a certain age, to believe in Santa?

So far as I recall, my own attitude back in the middle of the last century was neither exactly belief nor disbelief. I was well aware that people in department store grottos were proxies, merely dressed up as Father Christmas. I got as far as noting that the logistics of delivering presents to every child in the world in a single night were challenging, and vaguely hypothesised that the job was done by similar proxies, maybe one for each street. But I didn’t worry about it much. There were lots of things I didn’t fully understand at the time. I didn’t really know how department stores came to be full of stuff anyway – why worry about Santa’s grotto particularly? You could well say that my attitude to Santa back then was pretty much what my attitude to quantum physics is now. I don’t really understand it, and parts of it don’t seem to make any sense. But people I basically trust have got this for me, so I’m happy to take their word (just to be quite clear here, I am not suggesting that quantum physics is a massive conspiracy).

The matter of who you trust is, I think, at the root of the conspiracy theory thing generally. We all have to take a lot of things on trust from appropriate authorities. An essential and probably under-examined part of the education system is about teaching people which authorities to trust, and much of the academic system of peer review and publication, unsatisfactory as it is*, is about keeping authoritative sources identifiable and reliable. People who believe in conspiracy theories have flaws in their judgement about which authorities to accept.

Not that this is simple. Trusting authority is a tricky business which needs to be balanced with an ability to evaluate and critique even reliable authorities. People who have been thoroughly educated may be weak on this side, inclined to believe what they read and pay more attention to the manifesto and the statement of principles than what is actually happening. Uneducated people may be more inclined to use their own observation and reason on the basis of perceived personality. Sometimes this works better, an excellent reason why everyone should have the vote. They say that cab driver off the ‘seven up’ observed around the turn of the century that the folks in the City were having a big party; in ten or fifteen years, he said, we’ll be told it’s all gone wrong and the bill is down to us. You can’t say that’s a detailed prediction of the crash, and it sounds a little conspiracyish, but it’s a good deal better than the financial experts of the day managed.

Perhaps the Father Christmas Conspiracy is the way we help our children sharpen up their understanding of the need to balance proper acknowledgement of reliable authority with prudent, independent use of common sense.

Merry Christmas!

*I think we ought to set up a Universal Academy which publishes free access papers and a great Summa Scientia, citation in which would be the gold standard of sound and important research. It wouldn’t be cheap, but maybe if we could get some kind of EU/USA rivalry going we could get two Academies?

3 Comments

  1. 1. David Duffy says:

    The point is not the conspiracy theory, but your emotional relationship to it – paranoid belief one’s spouse is unfaithful has a good chance of being correct. Hey, it’s another Gettier case.

  2. 2. jim says:

    I’ve been listening to Jordan Peterson in increasing volumes lately. As far as I can tell, he’s peddling the idea that certain important “life” lessons and existential qualms (how to deal with them, etc.) are (somewhat deeply and perhaps, too deeply) embedded in popular narrative, fiction and more specifically- Biblical scripture (what about the Koran?). I’m not quite sure what to make of it, or whether his apparently idiosyncratic views are endorsed by a larger community of likewise, Patreon lubricated and psychoanalytically oriented academics (?). The first burning question (and one that demands a straight forward scientific explanation) is why the average human requires this crucial life guidance to be deep fried in abstraction, myth, metaphor and allegory, with a healthy side order of bosh loaded trans-fatty dipping sauce, before we’re able to digest it (a.k.a., the Bible). The second is: why does the average Christian mistake the bottle for the sauce? Perhaps there’s something to had from a rigorous, coke infused, psychoanalytic hermeneutical dress down of Santa??? Maybe not. Who knows? Peterson definitely doesn’t. Merry x-mas.

  3. 3. Michael Murden says:

    “The first burning question (and one that demands a straight forward scientific explanation) is why the average human requires this crucial life guidance to be deep fried in abstraction, myth, metaphor and allegory, with a healthy side order of bosh loaded trans-fatty dipping sauce, before we’re able to digest it (a.k.a., the Bible).”

    I think one reason why societies prefer their wisdom in the form of stories is that human beings seem to be better at empathy than at abstract reasoning. Another reason particular to religion is that sometimes religious leaders, like advertisers, might want to bypass the critical faculties of the audience in order to foster emotional identification. In this case I think Daniel Kahneman has the right of it. Religion and advertising both seek to foster strong but unexamined brand loyalties. Stories are much better for that than careful reasoning.

    Regarding the bottle/sauce thing I think Marshall McLuhan has the right of it. The medium is the message. Stories as purveyors of a given society’s ideals are more effective than moral philosophy treatises because human beings are born emulators and imitators. Whether we strive to be like Mohammad or Jesus or Achilles or merely our parents imitation seems to be the learning modality most all humans are born with.

Leave a Reply