Note: This is the sixth blog post in a multi-part series
Why do so many people fall for far-fetched conspiracy theories? In my previous post I introduced Franz Neumann’s theory of successful conspiracy theories, which appears in his classic essay “Anxiety and Politics.” Among other things, Neumann identifies the “intensification of anxiety through manipulation” as one of the reasons why people believe in conspiracies. Following Neumann’s lead, contemporary researchers of conspiracy theories tend to emphasize psychological explanations of conspiracy theories. One study (Goertzel, 1994), for example, concludes that “belief in conspiracies [is] correlated with anomia,” while another study (Oliver & Wood, 2014) concludes that “the likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted by a willingness to believe in other unseen, intentional forces and an attraction to Manichean narratives.” Similarly, another study (van Prooijen & Douglas, 2017) examines the link between “societal crisis situations” and “belief in conspiracy theories” and blames “fear, uncertainty, and the feeling of being out of control” for “increasing the likelihood of perceiving conspiracies in social situations.” Yet another study, a comprehensive survey of the literature (Douglas, et al., 2020), concludes that conspiracy beliefs are due to “a range of psychological, political, and social factors.”
What all of these studies of conspiracy theories have in common, beginning with Neumann, is their focus on human psychology. For Neumann, for example, “anxiety” is what allegedly makes people more likely to buy into a conspiracy theory, like the infamous Stab-in-the-Back Myth during the Weimar Republic era. In Neumann’s own words (footnotes omitted):
“Germany of 1930–33 was the land of alienations and anxiety. The facts are familiar: defeat, shame, unfinished revolution, inflation, depression, non-identification with the existing political parties, non-functioning of the political system …. The inability to understand why man should be so hard pressed stimulated anxiety, which was made into nearly neurotic anxiety by the National Socialist policy of terror and its propaganda of anti-semitism.”
Although this explanation certainly sounds plausible, why did anxiety rear its ugly head in Germany and not in other countries? Why were Germans more anxious than, say, Americans, Spaniards, or Frenchmen? The underlying problem with these psychological explanations, including Neumann’s, is that they fall into what I like to call “the ad hominem trap.” (This fallacy occurs when, instead of addressing the merits of someone’s argument or position, we attack one’s appearance, one’s moral character, or some other irrelevant personal attribute, like one’s mental faculties. See the cartoon below for an illustration of this fallacy.)
Simply put, following Neumann’s lead, contemporary researchers often resort to finding some psychological fault or mental defect as the underlying source of conspiracy thinking. Ironically, however, blaming people’s mental states for holding fringe beliefs is itself a textbook example of the ad hominem fallacy.
Before going any further, it is worth asking why so many eminent scholars commit this egregious and embarrassing fallacy whenever they turn their attention to conspiracy theories? Why do so many research studies fall into this facile and tempting trap, questioning the intelligence or rationality of people who believe in conspiracy theories? Perhaps it is the result of researchers’ general inability to cast aside their own personal or normative views about conspiracy theories, or in the words of one scholar (Streicher, 2020, p. 281), “the academic treatment of [conspiracy theories] has frequently been characterized by the preconceived notion of conspiracy theories as morally ‘wrong’ ….” Or perhaps their falling into this fallacious trap is due to simple sociological factors. After all, most scholars have PhD’s or other advanced academic degrees, so how can anyone blame them for “looking down” on conspiracy theorists from their Ivory Tower perches, for seeing such gullible dupes as mentally-unhinged simpletons or irrational ignorami?
I, however, reject such ad hominem arguments out of hand. Instead of falling into the ad hominem trap, what if we were to take a more sympathetic view of conspiracy theorists and conspiracy believers? Specifically, regardless of one’s mental state, what is it about conspiracy theories that many people find so appealing? I will sketch several possible answers in my next few posts …
Goertzel, Ted. 1994. Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), pp. 731-742.
Oliver, J. Eric, and Wood, Thomas J. 2014. Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 58(4), pp. 952-966.
Streicher, Alois. 2020. “Truth under attack, or the construction of conspiratorial discourses after the Smolensk plane crash.” In “Truth” and Fiction: Conspiracy Theories in Eastern European Culture and Literature, Peter Deutschmann, et al., eds., pp. 279-299. Bielefeld, Germany and London: transcript Verlag.
van Prooijen, Jan–Willem, and Douglas, Karen M. 2017. Conspiracy theories as part of history: the role of societal crisis situations. Memory Studies, 10(3), pp. 323-333.