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.

Getting Untangled from Delusional Beliefs

How People Get Tangled Up in Belief Systems and How They Can Get Untangled

By George A. Boyd © 2019

Q: How do people come to believe such strange things? Like there are people who seek to confirm the prophecies of The Bible, and believe that these point to current events? How could you verify something like this?

A: You could begin examining promised prophetic outcomes and see if they actually come true. This would entail:

  1. Write down the prophecy you are studying. Identify the concrete events that could indicate the prophecy’s promised outcome has occurred.
  2. Note the key descriptors as measurable events. For example, does the prophecy say there will be earthquakes? Fires? Famine? Thunder and lightening? Wars? Will the seas turn red as blood?
  3. Set criteria for what constitutes a fulfillment for the prophecy. This should be significant. There have been nearly continual earthquakes, thunderstorms, and wars since the days when the prophets lived. There have been periodic famines. What would make these occurrences salient to indicate that this event was fulfilled?

For example, would you only consider earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or above? Would you only consider a famine if 100,000 or more people died? Would you only consider a war significant if 10,000 warriors on both sides died? How many square miles of the ocean would have to turn red for you to say that they outcome was reached? It is important that you decide what is the cutoff for you to consider each factor.

  1. You would find known historical instances of each of these factors that match the descriptors and that meet your criteria. So you would find all historical instances of earthquakes greater than 7.0 magnitude and notice if the other outcomes of the prophecy coincided with that factor.
  2. Calculate the statistical correlation for all of the factors matching the criteria and come up with a summated correlation for all factors. Apply an appropriate statistical test to determine whether this summated correlation is significant.
  3. Note which historical instances have the highest correlations, and whether these values are significant.
  4. Then consider, do any of these significant correlations provide definitive proof the prophecy has been fulfilled?

Since multiple historical events can be said to meet the outcome descriptors described in scriptures, it becomes a difficult task to identify which of these similar outcomes the prophet was actually predicting. Similar patterns of wars and famines might have occurred once or twice a century.

So does the prophecy seem to relate to captivity of the Jews in Babylon? Does it point to the Roman occupation of Judea? Does it indicate the period of the Fall of Rome? Does it refer to the Crusades? Does it suggest the battles of the American Civil War? Is it describing the events of the early 21st century?

Since the patterns are similar, believers could point to any of these events as “fulfillment of prophecy.” So in every generation, if these prophecies are correct, you have many of the markers to suggest the end of the world is nigh.

Q: Many Christians, Jews, and Muslims interpret the symbolic materials in their scriptures literally. As a result, they have projected apocalyptic, doomsday scenarios on current events. These events appear to them to confirm their beliefs. Can you speak to this?

A: There are several issues with interpretations of symbols. We go into these issues in greater depth in our book, Religions, Cults, and Terrorism: What the Heck Are We Doing?.

Literal interpretations of symbolic or archetypal images contained in scripture—particularly those that describe doomsday scenarios—are problematical. These concerns include:

  1. Symbols may not refer to any actual event or person. While originally they may be extrapolated from experience and envisioned as events of the future, it is not possible to objectively know what the prophet had in mind when he or she had the revelation in which this symbolic content was brought forward into awareness.
  2. Symbolic or metaphorical interpretation creates meaning from symbols or archetypes. Each symbol can become a container for widely divergent meanings—there is no consensus on what any symbol actually means.
  3. Symbols can become objects for projections of wishes, hopes, and fears. These emotional projections can be displaced on a current event that appears to fulfill an apocalyptic vision. For example, if the believer strongly desires the Christ to return, these events that match the signs of the prophecy foretelling his Advent evoke powerful yearnings.
  4. Symbols can enable the powerless to feel they have power. When people do not feel they have the power to change their current circumstances, they may look to archetypes of a Messiah or Warrior King to vanquish and punish those who oppress them. An avenging Deity may use Its Mighty Power to destroy the wicked, and to reward the powerless. For example, St. John’s virulent anger at Rome is thinly veiled in his visions of an angry God, who sends his Son to judge the world in “The Book of Revelations” in The Bible.
  5. Symbols convey the miraculous. The outcomes of many prophecies require that the known laws of physics be violated: For example, the corpses of the dead will be miraculously resurrected on the Day of Judgment, or believers will vanish from the world in the Rapture. In many cases, fulfillment of prophecy needs to have a magical, miraculous, or supernatural intervention to come true.
  6. Symbols give substance to the irrational or fantastic. Many symbols and archetypes are encountered in the unconscious mind. They embody desires, wishes, and fears—but also potential knowledge and abilities. Until they are integrated, however, symbols are mysterious and inscrutable.
  7. Mystery spawns speculation. The inherent mystery of symbols and archetypes invites conjecture about their meaning. Since none of these theories can be tested or validated, explanations of what symbols mean can take the form of elaborate conspiracy theories, recounting a mythical retelling of history, legends and stories of the future Advent of the Messiah or Prophet, or tales of the impending end of the world. Until the esoteric meanings of the symbol reveal themselves to the Soul, wild speculation prevails.

Q: What happens when you believe this way? When you interpret symbols in this highly speculative fashion?

A: You misunderstand and misinterpret the meanings of the symbol. As a result, you experience:

  1. Delusion – your misunderstanding of the symbol leads to mistaken belief.
  2. Denial – Once you have decided that you have the true interpretation of the symbol, you refuse to consider anything that disconfirms your belief.
  3. Projective identification – You look for confirmation of your belief in events. You distort the data to confirm what you believe. You filter your perceptions so that you look for any evidence that validates your belief. You attempt to convince others of the truth of your belief.
  4. Conviction – You hold these beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. When others attempt to question your beliefs, this only makes you hold this belief more tenaciously. You may feel someone is attacking one of the core tenets of your faith.

If you begin to hold many mistaken beliefs with conviction to level four, you may construct a mindset that progresses—from powerful conviction about one to five tenacious beliefs—to a comprehensive array of dozens of distorted beliefs. As you become more entrenched in this impregnable castle of beliefs, you may shift into an authoritarian worldview, and ultimately to outright paranoia. These deeper layers of warped belief construction are:

  1. Armoring of the heart – You create a “belief bubble” that encapsulates your beliefs, and projects an apocalyptic worldview—you have the belief that the doomsday scenario described in your scriptures will come true. You may hold that because you are a believer, you will be saved from the horrible things that are predicted to befall those who don’t believe the way you do. This may also take the form of elaborately constructed conspiracy theories in those that don’t embrace religious belief systems.
  2. Authoritarian worldview – Once you have constructed your fortress of unquestionable belief, your nexus of beliefs may shift into an authoritarian worldview—especially if you believe that others are actively challenging your beliefs. In this mindset, you take a black and white viewpoint: you may believe that the devil has deluded those who don’t believe like you do; they will be doomed to hell; and they are worthy to be ridiculed, persecuted, punished, or exiled. In this mindset, you commonly try to impose your beliefs and values on others.
  3. Paranoia – When you progress to this stage, when others begin to question your beliefs or criticize you, you begin to perceive you are persecuted or victimized. You may in fact be persecuting and victimizing others, but you aren’t aware you are doing this—nor are you aware of your intolerant, arrogant, and condescending attitude towards others.

Q: I have observed these stages of belief construction in other people—and I’ve caught myself going here as well. How do people untangle this cocoon they have woven out of their beliefs?

A: You unravel these knots of belief through applying strategies that deconstruct them. These methods include:

  1. Be willing to experience the world as it is without the filter of beliefs, metaphors, or symbols. The practice of mindfulness, being present and aware, helps you do this.
  2. Accept that people hold many alternative perceptions of reality. Seek to understand why they view the world differently. Studying the different strata of the Great Continuum of Consciousness and finding the different identity states that people embrace will assist you to understand this phenomenon.
  3. Take ownership of your projections. Notice if you are using symbols or events to project your desires on other people or the world. Tools such as process meditation and the Mandala Method help you trace your beliefs back to their origin, which gives you the option to re-own them and modify them.
  4. Use contradictory or conflicting evidence to arrive at a greater truth, a more complete theory that includes other viewpoints. If you hold truths hypothetically until you can fully confirm them, you will avoid the trap of tenaciously holding erroneous beliefs. Be willing to question what you believe as you gain new evidence. The Synthesis Method is a valuable tool for resolving conflicts between beliefs—it allows you to find a higher standpoint that allows you to integrate both perspectives.
  5. Dissolve your bubble of belief through experiencing your intentional consciousness (attentional principle), your loving heart (spirit), and your transcendent being (Soul) directly. Experience your body, your vehicles of consciousness and the levels of your mind directly, and relate to the world and other people from your authentic spirituality.
  6. Seek empathy, understanding, and compassion for your Self and others. Cultivate humility and recognize you do not have all the answers—you continue to learn and grow. Also allow others to discover their own truths. Don’t impose your beliefs and values on others. Share your discoveries in consciousness if they ask you about them.
  7. Take ownership of how you persecute and harm others and stop doing this. Take responsibility for your own actions, words, and thoughts. Stop blaming others for your shortcomings and failures; strive to improve yourself. Deconstruct the mindset that makes you believe you are under attack: embrace the beauty, harmony, and perfection of the universe as it is.

We suspect that if those who hold these rigid belief systems of apocalypse, hatred, and conspiracy would utilize these steps, much of the political and religious strife in the world could be dissolved. We are not holding our breath that this will happen any time soon; but employing methods like this to deconstruct these mindsets would relieve a lot of the turmoil in our world today.

We teach methods one through five in our intermediate meditation classes, the in-person Mudrashram® Master Course in Meditation and the by-mail and online Accelerated Meditation Program.

Those who want to go into these topics of belief construction and deconstruction in religion, cults, and terrorist groups more deeply may wish to acquire our book, Religions, Cults, and Terrorism: What the Heck Are We Doing? You may also enjoy our public webinar series on Cults and on Judeo-Christian religion.