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On the Psychology of Conspiracy Theorists (and why you won’t win an argument with one)

May 16, 2012

Those of you who know me, or who follow me on Twitter, will probably have noticed that I take a certain interest in conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists. Why they believe what they do fascinates me, especially when the evidence is overwhelmingly against them. I’ve refrained from blogging about the phenomenon before, mainly because it’s difficult to know which particular aspect to explore. All the main theories have been satisfactorily debunked, and so I’ve never felt like I could bring anything new to the discussion. Recently I’ve come to realise however that there are a couple of aspects that are currently rather unexplored; one is what underlies these beliefs, and the other is the psychology of adherents to these theories.

The two more immediate antecedents to this blog are an ‘argument’ with a conspiracy theorist I had earlier, and a talk I went to by a lecturer at my university, Dr Stephen Law, who was promoting his new book, “Believing Bullshit”. Dr Law explained how it’s pointless to try to engage a conspiracy theorist in a rational discussion as they simply don’t play ball. They have been taught to use various tricks and intellectual misdirection to further their point, whilst ignoring or sidestepping any rational argument presented against them. In the book he outlines the various tricks used, and suggests that the only way to get conspiracy theorists (or people slipping towards these kind of beliefs) out of their ‘intellectual black hole’ is to draw attention to their methods of argument, rather than the contents of argument (the latter being what most people do). In short, he outlines various kinds of argument, explains why they’re unacceptable and advises the reader “if you find yourself arguing in this kind of way, alarm bells ought to be ringing”.  I can’t go into anywhere near the kind of detail he does, but I will look at a couple of the tactics I’ve noticed conspiracy theorists use, attempt to pinpoint the fundamental principles of such thought, and discuss what we can learn about the psychology of these people.

If you do find yourself resorting to these methods of argument, then what you need to do is make a conscious effort to substantiate your point using more legitimate forms of argument. If you can’t do this, then be prepared to admit that you’re wrong. Unfortunately, the nature of being sucked into these theories is that you won’t be able to see that you’re using these kind of tactics – hence Stephen Law’s idea of an “intellectual black hole”. If you find yourself arguing against someone who is using these tactics, withdraw. They will not listen to reason.

Logical Fallacies

Conspiracy theorists rely very heavily on standard logical fallacies. Modes of argument that are irrational, but appear rational to the casual observer. In my experience, the most commonly used fallacies are the straw man fallacy (David Icke does this a lot); the Texas sharpshooter (very popular amongst 9/11 conspiracy theorists, but also amongst conspiracy theorists in general); shifting the burden of proof (conspiracy theorists invariably do this as soon as you ask them for evidence. If they propose a theory, the onus is on them to provide evidence for it, not on you to provide evidence as to why they’re wrong); fallacy of composition (they tend to throw a lot of irrelevant facts into their argument, hoping that the reader/listener will assume the whole point is true just because some of the constituent points are. Similarly, they often cite novels like 1984, noting how some of Orwell’s ‘predictions’ have ‘come true’, hoping that we’ll then come to the conclusion that the whole book has/will come true); appeal to motive (“you only disagree because you don’t want to believe that it’s true!”).

Another tactic I find they often use (this is also a logical fallacy but warrants slightly more extensive discussion) is to try to incite an emotional reaction in their opponent. They will often put down their opponent by calling them blind or naive (anyone who has ever debated a conspiracy theorist will know what I’m talking about here), or ridiculing their position (“lol! next you’ll be telling me the BBC aren’t a government propaganda device!”). This is particularly nasty because it attempts to manipulate insecurities of their opponent. They hope that the person they are talking to will feel sufficiently foolish or humiliated that they’ll have to abandon their position.

Show me the evidence

What interests me most is the way they react when you ask them for evidence. They seem to react in one of two ways: the first is to challenge you to provide evidence to the contrary (see above). The other is to provide you with what they think constitutes evidence. Funnily enough, it’s never the sort of thing that most people think constitutes evidence. It’s almost always some long-winded article or YouTube video espousing the same view but in more detail, and that itself offers a plethora of citations. Each citation links to something of similar format but less relevant to the point of interest – and so on and so on. No hard evidence is ever uncovered, we just get lost in an exponentially increasing host of less and less relevant information. This is actually quite an effective method (despite adding no credibility to their argument), because they intend one of the following:

1) They hope that their opponent will see a long, heavily cited article, and rather than properly scrutinise it, will think “oh well this looks professional and well researched, it’s probably true”.

2) They hope that their opponent will see a long, heavily cited article, and just give up because it requires too much time and effort to read. The opponent fails to criticise the ‘evidence’, and the conspiracy theorist can then go “look! I provided him with the evidence and he’s remained silent! He knows I’m right!”.

I’ve noticed this a lot, they throw inordinate amounts of information at you and go “here, this is my evidence, criticise it if you can”, knowing full well you are unlikely to have the time or desire to sift through the mountain of crap they’ve provided you with. If they make a simple claim, it should be simple to verify it. If you’re having to delve into citations to uncover the actual evidence, then they haven’t provided you with the relevant source.

Essentially, it’s to confuse you. If they try this with you, just ask them for a more direct link to evidence.

You are being lied to

At this juncture, I think it important to establish just what constitutes good evidence. Some of the things we believe, we can verify personally because video evidence exists (funny then that the New World Order should allow video technology and the internet to become as prevalent as it is), but most of the things we believe, we haven’t experienced directly (I haven’t personally experienced the diameter of the moon, the number of votes cast in the last general election, or that Kim Jong-Il is dead). Generally, most of our evidence about what is going on the world comes from news outlets (sometimes we get conclusive video proof, sometimes we don’t). The conspiracy theorists love this because they are notoriously mistrustful of the western media. They will literally laugh at you if you cite a mainstream news article as evidence for anything. What is interesting though, is that the closest to hard evidence you will ever get from them in support of their view is journalism from some underground conspiracy theory website. So which set of journalists do we believe? Well, the mainstream media are subject to regulation. Not only that, but the fact that these outlets are so pervasive means they are subject to various other restrictions – if they libel someone, they will likely be sued. If some small conspiracy theory website libels someone, they will likely not be sued. If BBC News falsely reports that some international political figure has died, that person is not unlikely to make a public statement refuting this. If a conspiracy website makes a similar report, it’s highly unlikely that person will feel the need to refute it. The more popular a news outlet is, the more people exist to question and criticise it. In short, mainstream media is more reliable by its very nature.

Of course, this plays right into the hands of the conspiracy theorists. They simply respond by saying “yes but the regulators are part of the conspiracy. The law firms who would deal with libel are controlled by the conspiracy. They control everything!”. Whatever you say to them, they can respond by saying that the powers that be are pulling the wool over your eyes. And this I think, is the fundamental principle of the conspiracy theorists: “you are being lied to“.  Nothing ‘official’ should ever be believed because it’s all a part of the conspiracy. This is something of a master stroke; in one fell swoop they not only dismiss the reason for believing the ‘official’ account over them, they actually spin the strengths of the official account as weaknesses.

The genius doesn’t end there. The “you are being lied to” principle that underlies all conspiracy theories is also not only unfalsifiable, but renders all evidence to the contrary as unverifiable. No matter what evidence you come up with to disprove their theory, they can dismiss it as having been manufactured by the conspirators. This is why arguing with conspiracy theorists is pointless. This is an effective principle, but is not without weakness. If we accept that we are being lied to, why should we believe the conspiracy theorists’ version of events instead? Any reason to not believe the BBC can also be used to not believe their ‘news’ outlet of choice. Why shouldn’t we believe that they are lying too? Are we really ruled by reptiles from the constellation Draco, or is that just what the crab-people from Taurus want us to believe? Indeed, this uncertainty has caused much in-fighting amongst conspiracy theorists, with many of them labelling other conspiracy theorists as being part of the conspiracy. If we accept that we are being lied to on such a large scale, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that we do not know what is really going on. I don’t know about you but I’ve never seen a conspiracy theorist say “I don’t know what the real truth is”.

The psychology of conspiracy theorists

What then of the psychology of conspiracy theorists? Whilst I think it’s reasonable to believe that most conspiracy theories are untrue, we do not need to rely on this belief. It is certainly the case that many are untrue, as they are often incompatible with each other. Therefore, adherents to these theories are misled for some reason. So how can we psychologically profile such a person? Well firstly, they often hold right-wing beliefs. Conspiracy theories tend to be based on mistrust or dislike of government, and mistrust/dislike of government in western society is something particularly characteristic of the libertarian right. We should perhaps not be surprised then that anti-semitism often pervades such theories. Studies also show that conspiracy theorists tend to be mistrustful in general and experience disaffection and feelings of alienation (Goertzel, 1994).  One suggestion is that people who experience such negative feelings need a tangible enemy upon which to focus their anger (Volkan, 1985), hence why they invent these conspirators.

A couple of things have struck me in debates with conspiracy theorists. One is that they love to put down their opponents. They call them naive, deluded, blind. They often compare them to sheep. It is certainly the case that conspiracy theorists think that they have access to the truth where the majority of people do not. They think they’ve noticed something that other people either haven’t noticed, or refuse to notice. They think they’re either more intelligent or more open minded than most people. On a psychological level, I think this is what drives them. The idea that they have some esoteric knowledge that most other people are blind to. Perhaps a symptom of an inferiority complex?

My final question is this: are they consciously aware of their deception? At the Stephen Law talk, he outlined ‘tactics’ and ‘methods’ used by conspiracy theorists (as I have done in this article), which immediately invokes the idea of a conscious effort. I’ve always assumed that conspiracy theorists genuinely believe the stuff they say, but the talk made me consider that there are at least some people who know they are being dishonest, due to the existence of such calculated tactics. I posed this question to Stephen after the talk, and he immediately told me there was no doubt that some of them were deliberately lying as in the past he’d refuted some of their points and then overheard them making the same points to other people later on. Perhaps he’s right, although I think it not unlikely that the people to whom he is referring simply still believe their points even after refutation. There is perhaps a certain irony that they engage in such doublethink.

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3 comments

  1. Conspiracy theories remind me of those discussions we’ve all had with friends, where one person relates a story, and then everyone else relates similar stories with each trying to ‘out do’ the others. In the end there can be a mountain of evidence supporting an initial statement without any real debate ever having taken place.


  2. Clever and very interesting. My personal favourite line: ‘Are we really ruled by reptiles from the constellation Draco, or is that just what the crab-people from Taurus want us to believe?’


    • It’s both. They are in it together.



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