“People are drawn to conspiracy theories to satisfy particular unmet psychological needs - epistemic, existential and social.”
Turi talks with Professor Karen Douglas of the University of Kent, to understand where conspiracy theories come from.
Podcast recorded on 23 July, 2020
Turi: [00:00:46] Today we are super excited to have with us Karen Douglas, from the university of Kent, where she’s a professor of social psychology. Her focus for the last 12 years has been the psychology around conspiracy theories. Karen, we’re thrilled to have you. Thank you for joining us.
Karen: [00:01:02] Thank you very much for inviting me.
Turi: [00:01:05] Karen, we’re interested in conspiracies at Parlia because they’re one more way of apprehending the world around us. They’re also very much the order of the day today. I saw that recently Twitter has been banning QAnon accounts across the platform, but also conspiracy theories and conspiracy believers are an interesting way of looking at mainstream society – from the margins. Can I ask you to start us off by defining “Conspiracy theory”?
Karen: [00:01:38] Sure. Conspiracy theory can normally be defined as a proposed plot, usually carried out by powerful people in secret, and this would normally have some kind of malevolent or not very constructive goal. So, we’re not talking about things that are good for people generally. they’re more self serving or negative, objectives.
Turi: [00:02:05] And so this is very much about conspiring: that there is a conspiracy, a plot somewhere hidden…
Karen: [00:02:12] and it’s being hidden from the public. That’s kind of the ingredients that are the most important thing to say. It’s a plot usually by powerful people. And it’s being hidden from the public - is being hidden from people that didn’t want you to know about it.
Turi: [00:02:25] Is there a deeper typology of conspiracy theories that you like? I know that some people think of systemic ones, supra-conspiracy series, event-driven ones…
Karen: [00:02:39] There hasn’t ever really been a typology established in the psychological research, but conspiracy theories certainly do come in different types and it’s usually related to who is to blame for the conspiracy. Who actually are the conspirators. So for example, some can blame governments such as, the 9/ 11 conspiracy theory, which was supposed to be an inside job by the Bush administration. The assassination of JFK, which was a, supposed to be some kind of collusion between somebody and the CIA. Some blame other groups like pharmaceutical companies, such the anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Some others blame secret groups, secret societies that, I guess, are in charge of everything that happens in the world. As you mentioned before, some of them are specific to events such as 9⁄11 or other kinds of events. And some are more, I guess, about circumstances like climate change. So they’re not all necessarily about events. Some can be about things that are just always there - there are many different types of conspiracy theories. I think a typology, quite a strict typology should be possible, but of course, conspiracy theories are emerging all the time when something new happens. Like for example, we’re seeing a lot of conspiracy theories now about the Coronavirus. So they’re emerging all the time, which makes things always more complicated.
Turi: [00:04:05] There is also a sense in which conspiracy theories sort of bleed in and out of each other. The conspiracy theorists or conspiracy believers are prone to link up multiple conspiracies in the way that you end up with possibly a sort of a David Icke character for whom it all bubbles up into a giant cosmic conspiracy. It’s like a cosmology of conspiracy.
Karen: [00:04:29] Yes, that does happen. There’s a very, very common finding in the psychology literature that if people are inclined to believe in one type of conspiracy theory, then they’re also likely to entertain other types of conspiracy theories, even when they can contradict each other, they might be about the same event, and directly contradict each other! People will nevertheless detain these ideas at the same time. So some people would argue that this reflects an underlying tendency to prefer conspiracy explanations over others these sorts of events. And it is true that for some of the more extreme conspiracy believers, a lot of things seem to fit together. And one of the reasons why this kind of thing happens is because most, if not all conspiracy theories do assume that there is something being covered up. There is something that governments (or whoever) don’t want you to know about. So while one of these things might be possible in your mind, And then pass all of these other things seem possible as well, because they all are consistent with that underlying idea that something is not quite right: some thing is being covered up.
Turi: [00:05:44] It’s almost like it’s a mode, whether it’s a mode of thinking or a mode of feeling or a mode of apprehending the world, but it’s an approach. You’ve done very deep analysis of the entire literature on conspiracy theories and, you surface three broad causes if I’m right: the Social, the Political, and of course your key focus, the Psychological. Let’s park that last bit for a second, but could you walk us through and unpack how you see the Social and Political causes of this conspiracy theorizing?
Karen: [00:06:15] Sure. There are quite a lot of social factors which have been found to be associated with belief in conspiracy theories. And most of these are related to demographic factors, such as, say, your level of education. So one of the findings that has emerged in psychological studies and in other studies is that belief in conspiracy theories tends to be associated with lower levels of education. That’s not to say that people who have lower levels of education are gullible or stupid in any kind of way. It’s simply means that people who have high levels of education, perhaps have access to certain tools that allow them to reject conspiracy theories more readily, such as critical thinking skills and digital literacy. Likewise, certain factors like income level have been associated with belief in conspiracy theories. So people who are lower levels of income are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, people from ethnic minority groups as well. Which doesn’t necessarily seem surprising because, I think that ethnic minority groups seem to be often the people who stand to lose the most when powerful people can spy us. So that makes perfect sense. And also older people tend to be less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. And again, that could be confounded with education level. And in common, various other life opportunities that might allow people to think more critically. So those are some of the social factors
Turi: [00:07:57] Do males tend to tend to believe in conspiracy theories more than females?
Karen: [00:08:06] Well, that’s an interesting question because we don’t really find that there are any gender differences in beliefs in conspiracy theories, which is very interesting, because if you think of the prototypical conspiracy theorist or conspiracy believer, the people that run the radio shows and those sorts of things, and they’re always men - always middle aged white men to be more particular.
Turi: [00:08:31] You’re talking about me!
Karen: [00:08:33] So we kind of expected to see this gender difference, right. But we don’t actually find that men believe them more than women, it might be, the case that men believe in some conspiracy theories, more than women do and vice versa, but I haven’t really found a great deal of evidence.
Turi: [00:08:53] OK, so you were going to jump onto the political factors?
Karen: [00:08:58] well, in terms of all of the political factors in the United States, we have a very partisan political system. And a lot of the research on conspiracy theories has been conducted in the United States in terms of political science research and the psychological research as well. And, this research tends to show you that partisanship is quite a significant predictor of conspiracy beliefs specifically when they’re about politics, which makes a lot of sense. So for example in the USA you find that a lot of Republican people are prepared to believe the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and they’re hiding his birth certificate. Whereas you’ll find more Democrats believing 9⁄11 conspiracy theories because the protagonists were supposed to be members of the Bush administration. So people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that suit their political agenda or match up with their political ideology. And, this is an example of what you call Motivated Reasoning where people will interpret information in a way that is consistent with their ideology. And that’s a really critical and common findings in terms of conspiracy beliefs: were likely to believe the ones that match up with our political ideology and reject the ones that don’t. We’ve also found that conspiracy beliefs tend to be endorsed more when people are in a losing political position. So you might see more conspiracy theories from Democrats when Republicans are in power and vice versa. Another finding in terms of politics, is that people who are on the extremes of the political spectrum – both at the extreme right and the extreme left – tend to believe in conspiracy theories. Whereas those who are more moderate tend not to be such believers. You find these beliefs occurring quite a lot at the political extremes. So those are the main points about politics or political factors that predict belief in conspiracy theories.
Turi: [00:11:08] And would you say that you find the same tendency to believe in conspiracies both on the left and on the right?
Karen: [00:11:16] It depends on the conspiracy theory. Obviously climate change conspiracy theories tend to be endorsed more by people on the right than on the left. And it depends on the type of conspiracy theory as well. There are some climate change conspiracy theories that implicate big oil companies in some suppressing information about climate change and trying to downplay climate change, then obviously you’re likely to see those beliefs emerging more on the left. On the whole, when we measure conspiracy belief or like just a general generalized sort of tendency to believe a variety of conspiracy theories, we find that people on the right are more likely to believe than people on the left, but it’s more like a U shaped function. So you do see people who are more extremists on the left, also more likely to bind to these theories.
Turi: [00:12:08] What are the political or media ecosystems which make conspiracy theories thrive?
Karen: [00:12:15] It’s easier to find information during these times we have social media and all sorts of ways of communicating with other people and finding information. So it’s it’s very, very easy for people to find others as well. And of course, when we consume media, some media sources are less partial than others. Some are more credible than others and the way that people consume information now, and who consumes what type of information can strongly influence what they think. Some media sources are much more likely to run with conspiracy stories than others. And depending on who consumes this information will strongly affect which groups of people will endorse conspiracy theories. Social media platforms? There are a lot of conspiracy theories floating around - so they’re part of the problem, but also more lately they can be part of the solution. So even just yesterday, Twitter put a ban on a certain type of conspiracy theory being shared on its platform. I guess the media ecosystem can be part of the problem, but also part of the solution in stopping the spread of conspiracy theories.
Turi: [00:13:36] I’m interested in understanding whether today, across our political and media ecosystems, conspiracy theories have greater freedom. Do they spread faster? Are we in a moment of particular concern, or have we always had these kinds of conspiracy tendencies?
Karen: [00:13:59] Well, I think we’ve always had these conspiracy tendencies. I think to some degree we’re all conspiracy theorists. We’re all susceptible to these sorts of beliefs at one point or another. And I can talk about the psychology, a little bit later. So I think that we’re all susceptible to these, these sorts of conspiracy theories, but, It’s, it’s obviously the case that social media has allowed people who want to consume conspiracy information much more freedom and ability to be able to do so. But what happens in that particular case is that individuals who are interested in conspiracy theories will go and search for that information online and they’ll find it straight away. They might join groups. They will join communities of other conspiracy believers and their ideas can become much more polarized. Their beliefs can become stronger. And so they can become part of these echo chambers or information bubbles, where they don’t really communicate with outsiders. And this happens in terms of normal conspiracy believers as well. They’re very unlikely to search for this information in the first place. So what you, what you end up with is lots of polarized opinions going on there.
Turi: [00:15:09] But it’s not as if we’re in a cultural moment in which conspiracy theories are particularly thriving?
Karen: [00:15:15] I don’t necessarily think so. As a psychologist, I’m interested in why people are attracted to these things much more than how technology allows this to happen and whether or not we’re in an age of conspiracy. I’m much more interested in why these beliefs are interesting to people in the first place. They do seem more visible than ever. And of course right now, we’re in a time where there’s a lot going on politically, both here in the UK and elsewhere. Also we have a Coronavirus that we’re dealing with and there’s lots of conspiracy theories. So I think maybe at this particular time we might be seeing more conspiracy theories because we’re in a particular time of crisis. And you do find that conspiracy theories are much more prominent in times of crisis.
Turi: [00:16:06] So we’ve spoken now - thank you! - about the social and political factors that influence conspiracy thinking. Can we jump into the psychological, which is the heart of your work? So what are the psychological factors that have impact on people’s tendency to believe conspiracies?
Karen: [00:16:24] Well the psychological literature to date would suggest that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when they appear to promise to satisfy particular unmet psychological needs. And we would argue that there are three different types of needs that they might seem to fulfill: The first is epistemic. Then Existential. And the third is Social. Just to run you through those: In terms of epistemic motives, this is really the desire to have knowledge and be accurate and to know the truth. And when time’s very short and people don’t know what’s going on, there’s a lot of information here, there, and everywhere and there’s a lot of bad things happening, they want to know the truth and conspiracy theories might appear on some level to give people the answers that they’re looking for… to reduce those feelings of uncertainty and confusion. The second motive is Existential. We argue that those are related to people’s need to feel secure and safe in the environment that they live in, but also to feel that they’re in control of themselves as autonomous human beings. So, Conspiracy theories might seem to offer some of those things. In particular, if you feel that you suddenly have this information that you didn’t have before, when you felt that you were out of control, then suddenly having that information might make you feel that you have a little bit more of that control back again. So, you know, what’s happened, you know why it’s happened and it can explain to you a little bit. So conspiracy theories can seem to offer a sense of control and power again. In terms of the Social needs that conspiracy theories may appear to satisfy, people generally have a tendency to want to feel good about themselves and the groups they’re part of. Conspiracy theories might seem to offer a way to maintain that level of self esteem and also feelings of positivity and pride about the groups that you belong to. Some research suggests that people who are high in narcissism tend to believe conspiracy theories. People who have a high need for uniqueness tend to believe in conspiracy theories more. We argue that this happens because the knowledge that comes with conspiracy beliefs allows people to feel that they have unique special knowledge that other people don’t have. Other people are in the dark about what’s going on and that can make you feel in some ways, superior to others. So Conspiracy theories would seem on the surface for people to satisfy these particular needs, especially when they’re unmet. In particular times like these, those psychological needs might be more threatened. And so you might turn to conspiracy theories a little bit more. But there isn’t really any evidence yet to suggest that they actually work. So you might turn to conspiracy theories as a way to cope. For example, you might turn to conspiracy theories when you want to regain a sense of control and power, but ultimately these sorts of beliefs don’t help you to cope better. If anything, they make you feel worse.
Turi: [00:20:20] Can I ask you to unpack a little bit more examples of these epistemic and existential and social motives at play? Let’s perhaps start with the last one, which is the social motives around believing in conspiracies. You talked of narcissism, you talked about the need to feel unique. Talk me through the narcissism and the collective narcissism that you see amongst conspiracy believers.
Karen: [00:20:45] Sure. Well, the narcissism finding is is very, very straightforward. People who are more narcissistic tend to believe in conspiracy theories more, it’s not necessarily about having a high level of self esteem. It’s more about this level of insecurity that you feel about your high self esteem. So you might have very strong sense of positivity about yourself, but you don’t necessarily feel that other people share that positivity. So you’re a little bit insecure about how good you feel about yourself. And, this is associated with belief in conspiracy theories, maybe again, because it allows you to feel that you have information that other people don’t, it makes you a bit better than others. In terms of collective narcissism, that’s simply the idea that we have very strong, positive feelings about the groups that we belong to. So that can be anything - a national group, a gender group… It could be collective narcissism about sporting groups or the university that you work for or whatever really. But most of the research has been done in terms of national identity, and people who have a very high inflated, but again, insecure sense of self esteem about the groups that they belong to also tend to believe conspiracy theories. Especially when those conspiracy theories are about them. Because, they feel more threatened and it’s a negative kind of feeling for somebody who feels so positive about the groups that they belong to, to be challenged in that way. But it also makes them feel better or might seem to make them feel a little bit better because at least they can maintain this idea that big group is moral and upstanding compared to these other horrible, nasty groups out there that are conspiring and especially conspiring against us. So it’s like a feeling almost of group victimization in a way you feel that, your group’s not appreciated and there’s all these. Terrible things that other groups are doing specifically trying to get at your group. And if you’re a collective narcissist, those sorts of feelings are stronger.
Turi: [00:22:49] That ties into what you were describing as the existential motives behind conspiracy theory as well: this feeling of not feeling safe, or of not being in control. People turning to conspiracy ideas when they they’re anxious or feel powerless or feel alienated from the political system… Is that the move that is happening there?
Karen: [00:23:13] Well, in terms of these existential factors, I can just give you maybe just, one example there. We found that people who are “anxiously attached” tend to believe in conspiracy theories. Attachment style is said to be the kind of derives from your early childcare giving experiences. How attached you are to a caregiver in your very young age has an impact on how you experience relationships and other factors in your later life as well. Anxious attachment is the kind of attachment style, which constantly needs reassurance, tends to catastrophize negative experiences, feelings of rejection and all those sorts of things. People who are more anxiously attached tend to believe in conspiracy theories more because they tend to exaggerate the bad things that happen around them. You experienced this high level of anxiety and perhaps a conspiracy theory might appear to at least allow you to understand why you should be anxious. There are now ‘good reasons’ why you feel the way that you do! That’s what’s going on there.
Turi: [00:24:40] So it both reinforces the original anxiety and gives a way out for it on some level. Is that right?
Karen: [00:24:48] Yeah. Or people might think it’s a way out but in actual fact it, it does tend to make people feel more anxious. So you end up with a vicious cycle. You approach a conspiracy theory to try to make yourself feel better. And to cope with a negative situation, but ultimately it doesn’t make you feel better. You might feel a little bit worse and then you start looking for something else to try to make you feel better, perhaps another conspiracy theory. And you can end up in a negative sort of cycle of belief that ultimately doesn’t ever make you feel any better.
Turi: [00:25:23] So in terms of some of the psychological assessments which you’ve seen linked with the tendency to believe in conspiracies: we’ve talked of narcissism and anxious attachment… Is psychological projection also a part of this? One of the things that we perhaps see with conspiracy series is that the attributes that the conspiracy believer would dislike about themselves is then projected upon the group that is supposedly doing the conspiring. Is that a move?
Karen: [00:25:59] Yes, that certainly is something that we have evidence for in psychology as a process that does predict the extent to which someone will believe in a conspiracy theory. We talk about it more in terms of social projection. So, for example, if you’re in a particular social situation, you meet some people or person for the first time, you don’t know very much about them. So you don’t have a lot of information at hand to be able to predict how they’re going to behave, how they’re going to react to you, what they’re going to say. And the only real information that you have is what you would do in these particular situations. So how would I react in this social situation? How would I feel? How would I react to this particular individual is that people tend to project their own social tendencies on to others. And we have some evidence to suggest that something very similar happens in terms of whether or not a person believes in a conspiracy theory. So a person who is likely to believe that (in that sort of situation) they would conspire, then they will also believe in the conspiracy theory more. So, for example, if you believe that if you were asked to bump off Princess Diana or to become part of a plot that would do such a thing, and you would say, yeah, I would probably do that, then you’re more likely to also believe in the conspiracy theory. So in other words, if you think it’s possible that you would do it, then it suddenly becomes quite plausible that other people would do it. So it explains it. It’s one thing that can explain why conspiracy theories might be plausible to people.They’re plausible if, in a similar situation, they might do it themselves.
Turi: [00:28:05] So on some level, there is an analytical failing with conspiracy theorizing, which you’ve flagged earlier. But also there’s lots of findings of yours suggesting that there’s actually a series of psychological flaws which also prompt it. Is there a kind of, I hesitate to use the word, but is there a kind of madness, to conspiracy theorizing.
Karen: [00:28:31] I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a kind of a madness or there’s something wrong with the person. There’s certainly a level of irrationality there. I think that everyone can be susceptible to conspiracy beliefs at one time or another. I’ve talked about particular psychological needs that might draw people to conspiracy theories and at any given time, those needs might be more threatened for some people than others. So at any given time, someone might be more inclined to believe conspiracy theories. Whereas when they’re feeling particularly good -their epistemic needs, social needs, et cetera, are met quite well – they might not be attracted to conspiracy theories. So everyone’s attracted to them probably at one time or another. Now, obviously paranoia is a big contributor to conspiracy beliefs and some people’s beliefs can be so extreme as to cause damage to their lives and damage to their relationships. But I wouldn’t want to necessarily pathologize the belief conspiracies as a whole, because I think that everyone has a tendency simply because their general thought processes and cognitive processes just sometimes go a little bit awry, because your psychological needs are being threatened at a particular time. So I think everybody will believe something like this at one point in time or another.
Turi: [00:30:14] I want to pick that up because I’m fascinated by this. As I read about more and more about conspiracy believers, it did seem to me that we were all doing it a little bit, perhaps even all the time. You mentioned motivated reasoning, which is perhaps the polite way of saying conspiracy theorizing. We all motivate. We’re all deploying motivated reasoning all the time. There are two key and opposite instances of what might b understood as everyday conspiracy theorising. One is the fact that at least I, but I think probably most of us, jump to conclusions all the time based on partial evidence, which is one particular move of a conspiratorial believer. And the other is that, we’re all – rightly! - trained to doubt so much of what we see in the media, so much of what we hear about politicians… and that also the starting point of a conspiratorial view of the world around us. They’re two opposite, but linked, reasoning tendencies.
Karen: [00:31:35] Yes. Of course I think that it would be very unwise to believe everything that we hear and it would also be unwise to doubt everything that we hear, but nevertheless, we do have those two competing tendencies. Again, I’m just going back to the idea that we’re all prone to this kind of thinking, especially in times of crisis, when you have feeling that your, your psychological needs are just not being met. Many of the underlying psychological mechanisms of conspiracy beliefs are just simple faults in the way that we might process information. And we’re all prone to doubting the truth. We’re all prone to questioning the truth, but I think we’re all likely to do this type of thing and specifically approach conspiracy theories when the circumstances are right. Like in these sorts of difficult times that we’re in right now.
Turi: [00:32:29] Okay - last question for you, Karen, which is: are there not some elements of conspiracist thinking that are correct? You’ve just said it yourself now: the tendency to doubt the world around us and the information that we’re given… It is intelligent. It would be naive to, to not ask “qui bono” – the fundamental question of many conspiracists – “Whom does this serve?” And as many of us look around the world, it does seem as if an increasing amount of power is concentrated in the hands of very few people who, for the most part, do seem to be taking decisions in their own and not the collective interest. That’s almost the framework for conspiracy theorizing itself. Is the instinct wrong?
Karen: [00:33:19] Well, of course conspiracies do happen. There are instances in history where real conspiracies actually have happened. And we know, of course, it’s just the way the world works. It’s in the interests of many people to keep others in the dark. And it’s in the interest of some people to control all of the power and have all of the power. Someone always benefits. So when conspiracies have happened and when these sorts of things do happen and there are powerful people doing things in secret, then of course, other conspiracy theories automatically seem more possible. If it’s happened once it could potentially happen again. But I would argue that this is why other less plausible conspiracy theories can often take root. If one’s possible, then many others might seem possible.
Turi: [00:34:19] That is a great place for us to stop. I’m enormously grateful for this conversation. It’s been hugely enlightening and great fun. Thank you!