Neumann’s Test

Alternative Title: Why do we like to believe in conspiracy theories?

Note: This is the fifth blog post in a multi-part series

When are conspiracy theories real? Last week, in my previous set of blog posts, I presented (and rebutted) Ross Douthat’s four-part test for deciding which conspiracy theories to believe in or keep an open mind about. This week, I will ask a different question. This week, I will ask, why are people so gullible as to believe in so many far-fetched conspiracy theories in the first place?

It turns out that scholars and researchers from many different fields–including law, political science, philosophy, psychology, and sociology–have been fascinated by this very question and have attempted to answer it through a wide variety of theoretical lenses. But as far as I am concerned, the best place to start is still with Franz Neumann (1900-1954), who is pictured below, and his classic essay on “Anxiety and Politics,” which was published posthumously in 1957 in a book edited by the great Herbert Marcuse: The Democratic and Authoritarian State: Essays in Political and Legal Theory, pp. 270-300 (Glencoe, Illinois: The Fress Press). I begin with Neumann because of his background and intellectual pedigree. Also, as a German, he must have been intimately familiar with the Stab-in-the-Back Myth and how it was exploited by the Nazis to win votes. (For your reference, here is his Wikipedia page.)

In his essay “Anxiety and Politics,” Neumann identifies three features that all shadowy conspiracy theories or alternate realities have in common: “intensification of anxiety through manipulation, identification, [and] false concreteness.” The first of these elements–anxiety–refers to the psychological aspect of alternate realities: who is most likely to fall for a conspiracy theory? The last two elements–identification and false concreteness–refer to the content or internal logic of any given conspiracy theory: the identity of the conspirators and their nefarious goals. In my next post, I will use the World War I Stab-in-the-Back Myth to illustrate each one of these three features.

Franz Neumann (1900-1954)

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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