Reflections on Conspiracy Theories

By George A. Boyd © 2019

Q: What makes people believe in conspiracy theories?

A: When we analyze conspiracy theories, we find there are several levels at work.

  1. Sensory gating or filtering – When you believe in a conspiracy theory, you only look at the sensory information that confirms your belief. You ignore contrary information that doesn’t support your belief.
  2. Emotional bias – This attaches negative emotions to beliefs that disagree with the theory you hold, and positive emotions to the beliefs of your own theory.
  3. Cognitive distortion – This minimizes flaws or errors in your own viewpoint, and magnifies errors or flaws in other views.
  4. Egoic defensiveness – You use denial, projection, and rationalization to support your own view. You criticize and blame others that don’t hold your views.
  5. Values deconstruction – This uses justification to support hypocrisy, lying, and unethical behavior required for you to embrace a conspiracy theory.
  6. Intellectual narrowing – This labels your own theory as unassailable. You do not give yourself permission to reflect upon or consider alternate viewpoints.
  7. Mythic worldview – This embodies the secret desires and fantasies that underlie the conspiracy theory. You might secretly wish to be seen as a hero, to be vindicated when people disagree with you, to be superior to others because you know the truth.

Several characteristics mark conspiracy theories:

  • Those who embrace conspiracy theories supplant facts with opinion.
  • They prefer untested speculation to careful analysis to arrive at the truth.
  • They make logical leaps without taking in the big picture.
  • They validate their mistrust and paranoia through believing in spurious narratives.
  • They follow charismatic thought leaders who advocate and disseminate conspiracy theories, and become true believers.
  • They ignore information that contradicts the conspiracy theory, and they cling tenaciously to information that upholds it.
  • They envision hidden or secret actors that attempt to hide the truth that the conspiracy theory purports to reveal, and that this truth is either unknown or is actively suppressed.
  • They hold that the conspiracy theory is a hidden truth that conventional sources do not believe in or condone, and they believe they must advocate for this revolutionary new truth.
  • They believe that those who hold an alternative viewpoint are ignorant or deceived. They may actively attack or demean others who hold other beliefs.

The Slippery Slope to Paranoia

Many conspiracy theories are steeped in paranoia. This progression to a paranoid mindset does not happen instantaneously, but appears to follow several steps.

  1. You come to doubt one element of a belief you hold. You make note of it, but do not reject the belief outright.
  2. You come to see several flaws or omissions in the belief you hold. This may lead you to investigate why there are discrepancies or things that do not seem to fit.
  3. In the course of your search for answers, you come upon the alternative viewpoint of someone who advances a conspiracy theory. You begin to study this material.
  4. At some point during your exploration of this material, you find a key idea that makes you believe that everything you formerly believed was wrong. This makes you embrace the conspiracy theory and reject your former view. This is the conversion stage.
  5. Once you have begun to view your old mindset is flawed, you begin to replace your former beliefs with the beliefs of the conspiracy theory. You begin to deny, justify, and rationalize these new beliefs if you are challenged.
  6. You become a “true believer,” and you begin to advocate for this new conspiracy theory. You may attend conferences advocating the conspiracy theory, publish articles about it, or post about it on social media.
  7. As you receive more pushback about the error or limitations of your conspiracy theory, you may retrench and hold the belief more tenaciously. You begin to believe you are under attack: that others are trying to undermine you, to persecute you, and to crush you. At this stage, you may begin to shift into full-blown paranoia.
  8. As paranoia begins to envelop you, you may become delusional. For example, you may believe that secret actors are attempting to silence you or eliminate you; your phones are tapped and your rooms are bugged; or government agencies are trying to arrest you under false charges to suppress your viewpoint.

The Erosion of Reality Testing

Those that embrace conspiracy theories may shut off aspects of their reality testing to adhere to their beliefs. Some of these pillars of reality testing include:

  1. Sensory evidence – You are able to verify that the information you are receiving is accurate. It is not the opinion or interpretation of someone else. You are able to validate the experience is accurate.
  2. Impartiality – You become emotionally open to listen to each of the voices of an argument. You determine independently what is true after listening to the different opinions.
  3. Introspection – You examine your own beliefs to ensure that you are rightly weighting each element of your belief.
  4. Vulnerability – You become honest about what you feel and believe, and you are willing to be corrected. You stop blindly defending your beliefs.
  5. Moral reasoning – You think through the consequences of holding a particular value—and if it is untenable, not founded in truth, you jettison it. You do not automatically introject the beliefs of the conspiracy theory unexamined; you look at the implications of adopting this value.
  6. Intellectual prehension – You look at different explanations and the evidence supporting them. You give yourself permission to examine other viewpoints and explanations.
  7. Uncovering motivations – You uncover your motivations for holding beliefs and viewpoints, discovering what you “get out” of holding a belief or adopting a mindset.

If you think that you might be embracing a conspiracy theory, you may wish to apply the pillars of reality testing to determine if you are deceiving yourself. We suggest that you hold the contentions of a conspiracy theory as an unproven hypothesis. Listen to facts pro and con, and be willing to reject the conspiracy theory if you cannot verify its claims.

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