When Conspiracists Psychoanalyze

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Mick West

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As a skeptic, I often have an experience that many people will find familiar. I'm talking to someone. They tell me something I know to be wrong. I explain why they are wrong. They refuse to believe me. I continue to try, sometimes over days or weeks. They still won't get it, and sometimes their false belief becomes even stronger. What is wrong with them?

The inability of the true believer to see reason is a frustrating puzzle. One of the most common questions I get in interviews is, "why do people fall for conspiracy theories?" I explain that it's often just a chain of chance, circumstances, and being in an unsettled time in their life with too much spare time. But that's not the "why" the interviewer is looking for. They want to know what is wrong with the conspiracy theorist. Specifically what is mentally wrong with them.

A Desire to Pathologize​


There seems to be a natural desire to pathologize unconventional beliefs. Many of these conspiracy theories seem so wrong that, for a lot of people, a belief in them can only make sense if there's some kind of mental illness involved. So they ask, "what is wrong with them."

Sometimes, of course, there is something wrong with them. Aspects of mental illness, specifically paranoia or delusional disorder, can lead to belief in conspiracy theories. In addition, ordinary mental quirks such as narcissism or a tendency toward attribution errors (assuming things have deliberate or at least non-random causes) have a statistical correlation with conspiracism.

But most conspiracists are essentially ordinary people who just hold some mistaken beliefs. They have been persuaded by deceptive media (usually videos) that a particular event or situation is best explained as being the result of a conspiracy by a small group of powerful people acting for nefarious purposes. Once they come to this false realization, it can be difficult for them to un-realize it because they have become epistemologically unmoored and have difficulty trusting any source.

This reluctance to accept any contradictory evidence can seem very puzzling to people unfamiliar with the conspiracy world. So it is straightforward to leap to the conclusion that there's some mental illness there. We pathologize their misunderstanding.

A Symmetry of Perception​


But something I have learned, often by painful experience, is that with conspiracy theorists, there is a symmetry of perception. You think they are wrong, and they think you are wrong. You think they have been misled by YouTube videos, while they think the mainstream media or government education has brainwashed you. You are frustrated that they don't listen to reason; they are angry you refuse to listen to Alex Jones.

You think there's something wrong with them. They think there's something wrong with you.

If I interact with a conspiracist for long enough, I often see their perceptions of me go through a trajectory. First, they are friendly, and eager to share the knowledge of their theory with me, thinking I'm simply unfamiliar with it. Later they see I continue to be unpersuaded and so conclude that I must be either stupid or a government shill (a misperception with a whole set of problems of its own.)

Good conversation will generally show them I am not stupid. More time and effort will lead them to realize I'm not a government shill and that I genuinely believe what I am saying is correct. Since they "know" their beliefs to be correct, cognitive dissonance forces them into one remaining logical conclusion: that I am mentally ill or I have psychological factors that prevent me from seeing the truth.

Rationalizing Demolition Denial​


In 2012, a decade after the events of 9/11/2001, the conspiracy group "Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth" was feeling this cognitive dissonance. Frustrated that their expertise and their evidence was not convincing people, they asked psychologists and other mental health professionals to help explain it. Of course, the mental health professionals they chose were that tiny fraction of the profession who also thought that the Twin Towers were demolished with pre-planted explosives. So the results were predictable yet still revealing.

9/11 Truth supporter and licensed clinical psychologist Robert Hopper, Ph.D., explained it:

“9/11 Truth [the conspiracy theory] challenges some of our most fundamental beliefs about our government and about our country. When beliefs are challenged or when two beliefs are inconsistent, cognitive dissonance is created. 9/11 Truth challenges [our] beliefs that our country protects and keeps us safe and that America is the ‘good guy.’ When this happens, fear and anxiety are created. In response, our psychological defenses kick in [to] protect us from these emotions."

So the reason given for people not believing in AE911Truth's explosive demolition theory is not that it is contrary to the evidence (to a ridiculous extent), but rather that our brains are accustomed to being kept safe by the government and we shut down if it is suggested this is not happening.

It is not lost on me that I just accused them of cognitive dissonance, then, in the very next paragraph, they said the exact thing about people like me. Their conclusion is just as seemingly valid in their epistemology as it is in mine. Again, there is a symmetry of perception.

Another 9/11 Truth supporter, Psychologist Fran Sure, M.A., had a similar take on people who disagreed with her take on the demolition theory:

"What is common to every one of them is the emotion of fear. People are afraid of being ostracized, they’re afraid of being alienated, and they’re afraid of being shunned. They’re afraid of feeling helpless and vulnerable, and they’re afraid that they won’t be able to handle the feelings that are coming up. They’re afraid of their lives being inconvenienced … of being confused… [and] of psychological deterioration. They’re afraid of feeling helpless and vulnerable.”

This way of thinking was gratefully adopted by the rank-and-file followers of the conspiracy theory. Finally, they had a way of understanding their friends and relatives who somehow seemed immune to reason, who refused to watch their YouTube videos. They were simply afraid! Rather than the troubling reality that someone might be disagreeing with them because of science and logic, they were able to feel superior, and even take pity on the poor people around them who were too afraid to face their "reality.

First Impressions Matter​


This is not restricted to 9/11 Truth. A few years ago, a popular promoter of the "Chemtrails" conspiracy theory described meeting me (paraphrasing)

"I met that debunker, Mick West. He was all over the place, he couldn't complete a sentence. He could not look me in the eye. He seemed frantic. I think there was something mentally wrong with him."

I remember that meeting well. It was at a chemtrail conference in Los Angeles. I was the only non-believer there that I knew of. At one point I started talking to a small group, and I explained who I was. They grew angry, and surrounded me, asking me how I could live with myself as a government shill. While there was no immediate threat of physical violence, it was a rather nerve-wracking experience. I explained my interest, and eventually had a halfway rational chat with one of them.

Later, I went to talk to the promoter. Still rather shaken, I hesitated to interrupt his conversation and hovered nearby for a while, uncertain what to do with myself. Then I did actually talk to him, and my nerves must have shown. I don't really remember it as such, but years later his suspicious mind interpreted my nervous glances as indications of guilt, and my hesitations to choose the right words as evidence of mental illness.

The lesson I learned from this encounter (and the later way he characterized it) is the age-old one that first impressions matter. This is especially true when the person receiving their first impression of you is apt to interpret every nuance in a particular way that fits their worldview. It can be very difficult, but the impression you want to get across is neutral, friendly, and honest. The simplest way to give that impression is to actually be those things. Be yourself, be polite, and try to relax!

My Childhood Alien "Trauma"​


More recently, a paragraph in the New Yorker about me was gleefully seized upon by UFO enthusiasts who were confused and angry with me for spending so much time investigating and then debunking UFO videos. In reality, I do that because enjoy the challenge of figuring out what is often a complex 3D puzzle mixed with fascinating detective work. But what they found instead was:

He used to lie in bed at night, as he wrote in his book, “Escaping the Rabbit Hole,” “literally trembling with the thought that some alien could enter my room and spirit me away to perform experiments on me.” Of particular cause for terror was the “Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter,” a 1955 case in which a Kentucky farmhouse was said to have come under attack by little green men.

This is true, a scary story had frightened me for a few weeks, over 40 years ago. My discovery that these old cases often had solutions was indeed part of my motivation for debunking. Once you figure one thing out, it's fun to figure other similar things out. But some UFO fans took this story to mean that I have a pathological fear of aliens and that I now spend time debunking them to convince myself they were not real, even though I secretly think they are.

The reality is that my childhood fears are long gone. I don't have nightmares about aliens. In fact, I grew to love the idea of aliens by reading comics like the Silver Surfer or 2000AD, watching films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and especially endless reading of science fiction that often involved aliens. Some old favorites still resonate with me: Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama, Larry Niven's Ringworld, Philip K. Dick's Galactic Pot Healer, and Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg. My favorite author now is the late Iain M. Banks, whose Culture novels describe an inspirational future universe with a diverse and fascinating array of alien civilizations.

Yet I now get my childhood fears repeated back to me on a weekly basis. Sometimes in the most convoluted ways, for example:

The most hardcore [UFO skeptics] shared something in common and I mean all of them. They used to be hardcore believers. They were ashamed of themselves at one point and became obsessed with debunking UFO cases. [...] You did not get into UFO debunkings earlier on in your life because you felt reassured by the work of other skeptics. You then were too busy with THPS and enjoying the American Dream and I can only thank you and congratulate you for that. Then your love for aviation led you to debunking chemtrails conspiracy theories [...] Then chemtrails naturally led you to your ancient trauma...aliens. so UFOs are the closest thing to aliens

Polite Honesty is the Best Policy​


What to do when someone thinks your arguments are founded only on your accidentally recovered "ancient trauma?" The most important thing is to be aware that this is going to happen. If you persist in skeptical investigations or expositions, then some people are going to think you are irrational - and possibly even publicly accuse you of some mental illness or pathological obsession.

Then when this happens, don't get angry - because that will just be interpreted as an irrational denial. Calmly but firmly explain yourself, then move on. Don't give the accusations oxygen or dignify them with any debate. Note that they are false, show some context, and talk about something else.

Above all, understand that these accusations are often coming from a genuine place. Viewing you as mentally ill might be the only way of viewing you that makes any sense to them. Try to figure out why that is. What do they believe, and why? What is it about what you are saying that is so incompatible with their worldview that it seems (to them) literally crazy? If you can get past any hurt feelings and show them that your thoughts on the topic are (from your perspective) actually rational, fact-based, and well-meaning, then the conversation will be a lot more productive.


A version of this article first appeared in SKEPTIC magazine, Volume 26, issue3, Summer 2021
 
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Ann K

Senior Member.
Concerning American politics of the past few years, I've run across people who actually said, in so many words, that "FOX is the only news outlet I trust". Without using the words "confirmation bias" I've had a little success in reasoning with them by pointing out the comparison with doctor-shopping, and the dangers of ignoring the many that prescribe the same treatment but choosing to accept the word of the only one who tells the patient that he is just fine and the condition will go away.

Then along came COVID, and Donald Trump telling people precisely that, that "it'll all just go away like magic, by the summer". A lot of people liked that "diagnosis", yet here we are, two years and over a million casualties later. Wishful thinking seems to have a greater hold over many people than reality, and I despair of reaching them.
 

Henkka

Active Member
I've read a few mainstream articles on why people believe in conspiracies, and one claim that puzzles me is that they give people a sense of security. I went looking for an example of this reasoning, and Google immediately obliged me:

The second set of motives, we would call existential motives. And really they just refer to people's needs to be or to feel safe and secure in the world that they live in. And also to feel that they have some kind of power or autonomy over the things that happen to them as well. So again, when something happens, people don't like to feel powerless. They don't like to feel out of control. And so reaching to conspiracy theories might, I guess, at least allow people to feel that they have information that at least explains why they don't have any control over this situation. Research has shown that people who do feel powerless and disillusioned do tend to gravitate more towards conspiracy theories.
https://www.apa.org/news/podcasts/speaking-of-psychology/conspiracy-theories

I don't understand this. Why would believing that powerful people are doing nefarious things outside your control give anyone a sense of security? Isn't it the complete opposite? A 9/11 truther believes a group of domestic schemers pulled off this monstrous attack to create justification for wars that benefited them and faced zero consequences, and could do so again. Someone who believes the mainstream view thinks it was just a group of ragtag jihadists, and the US army went over there and kicked their asses. If I was picking my beliefs on the basis of what made me feel more secure, I would rather believe the culprits have all been dealt with.

But that's not to say there aren't real psychological reasons people could be compelled to believe conspiracies. For example, believing that you're one of the few "enlightened ones" hunting down these powerful bad people can make you feel like a hero, and give a kind of purpose. You're like a secret agent in a movie, or the protagonist who knows a terrible truth but nobody believes him. But debunkers can fall into similar psychological traps, where you can see yourself as a stalwart defender of rationality, reason and science against the hordes of irrational claims. You're the skeptical detective in a movie who reveals the ghost was just a guy in costume. And anyone who's looked at the research on this will know that it's incredibly, incredibly difficult to actually change someone's mind once they've come to believe something. So whichever side you're on, it's unlikely you've arrived at your beliefs 100% through reason and nothing else.

In general, I find psychonanalyzing on both sides to be a waste of time... I would say someone might be mentally ill if they believe literally every conspiracy theory out there, and even perhaps believes people in their personal life are scheming against them, or think they're being followed etc. Imo, that could indicate a general paranoia and delusions that could turn into 9/11 trutherism or belief in vaccine microchips. But just holding a fringe belief or two doesn't seem enough to me... Is everyone who believes in astrology mentally ill? Or ghosts? Which is crazier, believing Jesus rose from the dead, or that the Twin Towers were demolished with explosives? Religions aren't thought to be indicative of mental illness, even though they usually involve supernatural claims with no evidence. That's mostly because so many people believe in them, and they are culturally normalised. But if there were only a few hundred thousand religious people, would we then consider them mentally ill? Hmm.
 

Mythic Suns

Member
I've read a few mainstream articles on why people believe in conspiracies, and one claim that puzzles me is that they give people a sense of security.
Damn, seriously? I know someone who is seriously depressed because he believes in conspiracies and when he shared them with me I believed every word he said, almost immediately felt suicidal, and started frantically looking for anything to debunk the claims (which is interestingly how I came across Metabunk). How the hell can someone feel more secure believing that they've got even less control over their life?
 

Mythic Suns

Member
But that's not to say there aren't real psychological reasons people could be compelled to believe conspiracies. For example, believing that you're one of the few "enlightened ones" hunting down these powerful bad people can make you feel like a hero, and give a kind of purpose. You're like a secret agent in a movie, or the protagonist who knows a terrible truth but nobody believes him.
What's interesting about this is that I've seen conspiracy theorists who tend to use lines and phrases from films to describe situations. Say for example if they read up about some kind of police takeover they would start making references to Order 66 from Star Wars. Or another one which seems to be big around the alt-right is using the term "red pilled" (a term weirdly taken from The Matrix which is a pretty left wing film) to describe learning "the truth" about the world. Or if all else fails they'll just settle for good old 1984 references.
But debunkers can fall into similar psychological traps, where you can see yourself as a stalwart defender of rationality, reason and science against the hordes of irrational claims. You're the skeptical detective in a movie who reveals the ghost was just a guy in costume. And anyone who's looked at the research on this will know that it's incredibly, incredibly difficult to actually change someone's mind once they've come to believe something. So whichever side you're on, it's unlikely you've arrived at your beliefs 100% through reason and nothing else.
Yeah, the human mind is tricky like that. I'd say the best we can do is try to keep our egos in check, recognise any mistakes we make and, most importantly, forgive ourselves for making those mistakes.
In general, I find psychonanalyzing on both sides to be a waste of time... I would say someone might be mentally ill if they believe literally every conspiracy theory out there, and even perhaps believes people in their personal life are scheming against them, or think they're being followed etc. Imo, that could indicate a general paranoia and delusions that could turn into 9/11 trutherism or belief in vaccine microchips. But just holding a fringe belief or two doesn't seem enough to me... Is everyone who believes in astrology mentally ill? Or ghosts? Which is crazier, believing Jesus rose from the dead, or that the Twin Towers were demolished with explosives? Religions aren't thought to be indicative of mental illness, even though they usually involve supernatural claims with no evidence. That's mostly because so many people believe in them, and they are culturally normalised. But if there were only a few hundred thousand religious people, would we then consider them mentally ill? Hmm.
That's a fair point that kind falls into a belief of mine which is that humanity would benefit from trying to avoid generalising people so much. Given how complicated the human mind can be it seems unlikely that we can fit close to 8,000,000,000 people into just 2 or 3 categories.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
How the hell can someone feel more secure believing that they've got even less control over their life?
I don't think it's a huge components, but I think it's more about a sense of order and understanding. 9/11 by abstract terrorists seems like chaos. 9/11 by the government seems both sensible, and gives a you very specific enemy to focus on.

Also, having a lot of "hidden" privileged knowledge can make you feel special and powerful.
 

Mythic Suns

Member
I remember that meeting well. It was at a chemtrail conference in Los Angeles. I was the only non-believer there that I knew of. At one point I started talking to a small group, and I explained who I was. They grew angry, and surrounded me, asking me how I could live with myself as a government shill. While there was no immediate threat of physical violence, it was a rather nerve-wracking experience. I explained my interest, and eventually had a halfway rational chat with one of them.

Later, I went to talk to the promoter. Still rather shaken, I hesitated to interrupt his conversation and hovered nearby for a while, uncertain what to do with myself. Then I did actually talk to him, and my nerves must have shown. I don't really remember it as such, but years later his suspicious mind interpreted my nervous glances as indications of guilt, and my hesitations to choose the right words as evidence of mental illness.
As someone with autism I know for a fact that I would hate that, partly because people have always labelled my behaviour without trying to understand it which means they would essentially be opening old wounds without realising it, but also because the way they get hyperfocused on every single bit of behaviour is not unlike what I do which would make the experience kind of eerie for me. The one big difference with me though is that I'm willing to doubt myself; I'm willing to believe that I'm just misreading a person and that their nervous behaviour could be for any number of reasons.
 
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Mythic Suns

Member
I don't think it's a huge components, but I think it's more about a sense of order and understanding. 9/11 by abstract terrorists seems like chaos. 9/11 by the government seems both sensible, and gives a you very specific enemy to focus on.

Also, having a lot of "hidden" privileged knowledge can make you feel special and powerful.
So in essence they're picking and choosing the details without considering the further ramifications of what they're suggesting?
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
So in essence they're picking and choosing the details without considering the further ramifications of what they're suggesting?
I think it's like "the Devil you know". Terrorists and school shooters are not only exotic wild cards, but at least with the government there is a chance of getting it under control.

Solving the problem of terrorists or young men snapping, is... a bit hopeless.

Also for a government false flag that requires a big group of people, vs a lone gunman or 7 terrorists getting together. That means it's harder for the government to pull stuff off. Also the people in the government group also aren't typically suicidal, so there's a better chance one of the group will say "stop! i change my mind".

^that's my guess anyway, of how it could feel "safer" and more controllable. As far as ramifications... in my experience most humans don't consider actual ramifications.
 

LilWabbit

Senior Member
Thanks @Mick West for sharing your experience on how to better understand the epistemological framework of the conspiracy theorist. Thank you also for reiterating the following important piece of advice:

Above all, understand that these accusations are often coming from a genuine place. Viewing you as mentally ill might be the only way of viewing you that makes any sense to them. Try to figure out why that is. What do they believe, and why?

Working in the field of preventing armed conflicts, I've had to delve into your 'why' question professionally for almost two decades with regard to fanatical political or religious beliefs (similarly unreasonable and unscientific) from which militancy of various kinds stems from.

My work has taken me to observe militant fanaticism sometimes at a perilously close distance, and to investigate and analyze, with fellow analysts, the root-causes of such fanaticism with a view to finding ways to addressing them before violent outbreaks. Many of the psychological characteristics of conspiracy theorists you've identified from your experience are uncannily similar to what I have come to regard as fanaticism -- with the only difference that most (not all) conspiracy theorists are non-violent fanatics. Fanaticism comes in a vast range of degrees and forms, and some of its forms are so mundane and widespread that we do not even instantly recognize it as fanaticism. Hardly anyone is totally immune to fanaticism as some of it is unconsciously learnt. However, we can become ever-increasingly cognizant of our own hidden fanaticisms by putting in the hard work of exercising our capacity to self-reflect.

By fanaticism I mean a somewhat simple psychological phenomenon: Clinging strongly to an unreasonable idea owing to the emotional payoff it produces.

Each fanatic is an individual seeking a particular type of emotional payoff from a given idea. The payoff they seek is only understandable from their personal histories -- whether it be a sense of superiority (moral, intellectual or physical), a sense of being special, a sense of exclusion, a sense of power, a sense of escape from boredom and the mundane (I suspect some UFO enthusiasts), a sense of comfort, a sense of security, a sense of importance, a sense of being loved, a sense of belonging, a sense of acceptance, a sense of being normal rather than weird/deviant, you name it (including a combination these).

For this reason we cannot make sweeping statements that all 'UFO enthusiasts' are in that particular rabbit hole because they're seeking, say, a sense of security. Some may. Some may not. Each 'chemtrail believer', 'firebrand Evangelical Christian' or even 'Islamist militant' seeks a particular type of emotional payoff that isn't completely identical to their fellow-believers. Some are statistically generalizable within or between groups, but other payoffs aren't. Some of these payoffs have been well-researched and documented, others haven't. That's why your 'why' question must be tailored to each person we seek to understand. It takes a lot of listening on a very personal level to find the answer. But by patiently and genuinely listening, and understanding, we may also win the believer's trust and make them willing and interested to genuinely listen to us. There's just no shortcut. And in some cases there's an impenetrable wall.

Our intellectual laziness together with the emotional payoff produced by the unreasonable idea we hold onto usually ensure that once we are introduced to a wider and more complex sampling of facts that questions our simplistic pet idea, we conveniently shrug those facts off as biased, unreliable or even nefarious. Why should I complicate the picture if it makes me work harder (intellectual laziness) and may threaten the emotional payoff I'm currently getting from my belief?

Usually people prefer highly biased sources, and avoid others, because those sources justify their own personal beliefs or personally convenient narratives. However, it's an epistemological red flag if your favoured source or its sponsors actively tell you to mistrust other sources and question everyone else's integrity but theirs. It demonstrates that such sources are uncomfortable in the strength of their 'truth'.

Then there's the narcissist or the authoritarian leader that has either created a fanatical group around themselves or managed to assume a leadership position within one by manipulating ignorant and impressionable audiences. Their authoritarian position is characterized by a strong attachment to power (one of the greatest emotional payoffs known to man) which they protect by thought/media control, obscurantism, fear-mongering, mistrust-mongering, preservation of ignorance and, in the worst cases, a culture of blind and absolute obedience. Obviously such authoritarianism also comes and manifests in various degrees.

Great masses of the world population -- irrespective of culture, level of wealth or 'formal' education -- are vulnerable to fanaticism as long as such manipulators reign free and unchallenged, and the rank-and-file remain largely ignorant and impressionable. The primary way out, as I see it, is a multi-generational educational process where we start teaching already at homes and schools skills of critical thinking, and a commitment to integrity, honesty, intellectual effort, scientific principles, objectivity, reason, factuality, accuracy and impartiality as foundational principles of meaningful human lives. This is obviously a gargantuan task. But even MB may represent but a tiny little attempt to nudge the world towards these ideals.

Personally, though, I think it's going to get worse before it gets better. And maybe that's what's indeed needed for a bigger 'nudge' to occur.
 

Henkka

Active Member
I think it's like "the Devil you know". Terrorists and school shooters are not only exotic wild cards, but at least with the government there is a chance of getting it under control.

I don't think any conspiracy theorist denies that actual terrorism happens as well, though. Does anyone for example claim that the various ISIS attacks in Europe a couple years back were false flags? Clearly, actual jihadists exist as well. So it's like you're getting the worst of both worlds, actual chaotic terrorist attacks sometimes, but also sometimes it's some nebulous group of powerful people faking a terrorist attack for some nefarious goal.
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
Does anyone for example claim that the various ISIS attacks in Europe a couple years back were false flags?
i would be shocked if they don't. But i agree with your point. It seems to me the difference in how MANY people believe a particular conspiracy theory/false flag, is size of the event and amount of (and context of) media coverage. <this ties into political responses to each event. 9/11 was a huge event and led to war. smaller terrorist attacks likely result in increased defense budgets but those aren't typically covered much by media.
 

Edward Current

Active Member
I've read a few mainstream articles on why people believe in conspiracies, and one claim that puzzles me is that they give people a sense of security.
I agree with Mick that it's not about personal security. Instead, it's about hierarchy that they can wrap their brains around. Stochastic, bottom-up terrorism is unpredictable and upsets the apple-cart of social order. Top-down, methodical planning by powerful faceless entities, executed and covered up perfectly (except of course for all of those gosh darn mistakes discovered by online sleuths in their underwear), keeps the hierarchy right in its place. If you already believe that the government routinely does these kinds of things, even better: Rather than being stochastic and unpredictable, it is deliberate and predictable.

I've defined believers (as opposed to skeptics) as people who would be disappointed if they were proven wrong. Some believers have said to me, "Of course I don't want to believe the government planned and executed an attack — that's terrifying." On the surface, yes; but on a deeper level, it's the hierarchy that they can wrap their brains around that they want to believe in, and don't want to be disappointed about.
 

Henkka

Active Member
Because it means these events are controllable, and not seemingly random.
Organized jihadism isn't random or uncontrollable, though... I thought that was what the whole "war on terror" was supposed to be about. Now obviously lone wolf attacks are random, but I think it's fair to say organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been kicked to the curb. But if you believe in 9/11 truth stuff, you think the actual perpetrators escaped justice and are probably still in positions of power. That is a much more unnerving thought.

And again, both things can be true... That random jihadist attacks occur, and that false flag operations disguised as jihadist attacks occur.
 

Henkka

Active Member
By the way, do people disagree there is some truth to this:

“9/11 Truth [the conspiracy theory] challenges some of our most fundamental beliefs about our government and about our country. When beliefs are challenged or when two beliefs are inconsistent, cognitive dissonance is created. 9/11 Truth challenges [our] beliefs that our country protects and keeps us safe and that America is the ‘good guy.’ When this happens, fear and anxiety are created. In response, our psychological defenses kick in [to] protect us from these emotions."

I know you guys don't think there is evidence of controlled demolition on 9/11, but if there was such evidence, obviously it would be extremely psychologically uncomfortable to millions of people, no? So uncomfortable that they might even deny clear proof. Humans do this all the time regarding events that are much less psychologically harrowing than 9/11. There's also an aspect of the sunk cost, people will want to believe the US did at least something meaningful in the Middle-East for the past 20 years, the troops that went over there were really serving the country, they avenged those who were killed on 9/11, they prevented further attacks, and so on.
 

Ann K

Senior Member.
I've defined believers (as opposed to skeptics) as people who would be disappointed if they were proven wrong. Some believers have said to me, "Of course I don't want to believe the government planned and executed an attack — that's terrifying." On the surface, yes; but on a deeper level, it's the hierarchy that they can wrap their brains around that they want to believe in, and don't want to be disappointed about.
There's a narrative pushed upon many conspiracists that they are the "good guys", the "ones who know the secret", the "true patriots". Everyone likes the idea of being in on a secret, and when it is a "secret" no longer as it is spread to millions, that just vindicates the believers and gives them the warm fuzzy feeling that they belong to the group who knows "the truth". They become the "righteous ones" in their own eyes, even while others see them as deluded and manipulated.
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
obviously it would be extremely psychologically uncomfortable to millions of people, no? So uncomfortable that they might even deny clear proof.
millions of people? 2 million? even 10 million? probably.
300 million in US? no.
billions of people worldwide? no.
Mick West (from Britain, btw), no.
econ (from australia), no.
Mendel (from Germany), no.

(not to mention how they feel about Republicans, which the Bush administration was)
 
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deirdre

Senior Member.
... that just vindicates the believers and gives them the warm fuzzy feeling that they belong to the group who knows "the truth". They become the "righteous ones" in their own eyes, even while others see them as deluded and manipulated.
which is what they think about you.
 

Z.W. Wolf

Senior Member.
I wrote something about mental relativism, which is my own neologism, in this post:

https://www.metabunk.org/threads/re...mous-idea-christine-garwood.7950/#post-205390

Please notice that in that post I cite modern evidence based research.

I'll make further posts on this subject later, but I want to make this point, very seriously.

To everyone in this thread, starting with MW: You really should educate yourself in modern psychology. You're speaking in the language of early 20th century Psychiatry, not even early 20th century Experimental Psychology. Those two things were never on the same page at all.

Additionally you're speaking in the language of a pop understanding of early 20th psychiatry. Not even an educated understanding of the field.

Just one example; Psychoanalyzing is a long obsolete term from the field of Depth Psychology - which is the larger theory over the psychological theories of Freud, Jung, Adler, etc. A field that is now considered at best to be early speculation. But in all honesty, considered to be an ancient crackpot theory on level with phrenology.

I don't want anyone to take this too literally though. By "speaking the language of," I'm not referring to vocabulary words. I'm talking about the mental language of unsupported speculation.

Seriously, the speculations you all are making are so far removed from present day experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience as to be meaningless. Even wrongheaded.

What if the threads on 911 were full of naïve speculations based on a pop understanding of physics? It's much the same.

I mean, would any of you consider making speculations about math or physics without having even a basic education in the field? Why is psychology different?

Is it something like singing? A huge number of people think they can sing when they can't, but very few people think they can play the piano when they can't. People think they can sing because it's just another way of talking. "I can talk, so I can sing."

"I think about people and gossip, and psychology is just another way of thinking about people and gossiping. I can think about people and gossip, so I'm an expert in psychology."

Referring to modern experimental psychology: Dunning-Kruger Effect - a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.

In the future, when writing something about the psychology of a group of people, please cite evidence based research. If you can't do that, maybe that should give you pause.

(A problem I anticipate. Sadly, there's a raft of poor, biased articles and papers masquerading as evidence based research. It's easy to cherry pick citations to support any naïve idea you might have.

So, how do you tell the difference between serious main stream evidence based research and fringe speculations? Well first, you make a serious minded effort to educate yourself in the field of psychology.)
 
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Ann K

Senior Member.
which is what they think about you.
True, which results in a stalemate that facts can't penetrate. Once people are taught not to believe what they're told by reputable sources, they learn that lesson very well indeed. Insert obligatory quotes from "1984" here...
 

Ann K

Senior Member.
millions of people? 2 million? even 10 million? probably.
300 million in US? no.
billions of people worldwide? no.
Mick West (from Britain, btw), no.
econ (from australia), no.
Mendel (from Germany) who hates everything America, no.

(not to mention how they feel about Republicans, which the Bush administration was)
This article is from 2016, and everything I have seen in recent years indicates the number of conspiracy theorists have increased greatly since that time, and the theories themselves have become more outlandishly ridiculous. And, as I'm sure you have noticed, even some of the skeptics of Metabunk are not immune.

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/half...onspiracy-theories_n_5804ec04e4b0e8c198a92df3


A majority of Americans believe that the government is concealing informationabout the 9/11 attacks, one new survey suggests.
And that’s not the only conspiracy theory believed by a wide swath of Americans: Around 40 percent believe the government is hiding informationabout aliens, the John F. Kennedy assassination and global warming.
Content from External Source
 

JMartJr

Senior Member
For those interested in this question of WHY people come to believe conspiracy theories, and cling to them so strongly (as I suspect pretty much everyone who frequents Metabunk would be) I recommend Rob Brotherton's "Suspicious Minds: Why we believe conspiracy theories." At book length (and so too much to condense easily into a post here!) he explores the history and the psychology behind the popularity of conspiracy theories. He notes that they are by no means a strictly modern phenomenon, citing theories about the burning of Rome in the year 64 as an early example, and that they are by no means the sole property of the uneducated, the socially marginalized or ideologically extremist members of society -- we all have the same mental tics and psychological tendencies that can lead us into the ol' Rabbit Hole one way or another.

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Mauro

Senior Member
In my opinion people cling to beliefs without evidence because, for them, they are actually the foundation of their worldview: remove the beliefs and all what gave a meaning to life for them is shattered. There's a common driver to this: not accepting the fact that the world, alas, is what it is. Aliens, faeries, conspiracies and, well, religions are just that: an escape hatch into an alternative 'reality' where there is hope for something better that what we can possibly get in the real world. somehow. This holds not only for positive beliefs (God/aliens/whatever will come and lead us into a wholly satisfying world) but also for negative beliefs (the world is so bad because Illuminati/devils/paedophile rings/whatever are making it so, when we'll finally get rid of them everything will be fine).

So it's not just the matter of convincing someone that belief X is wrong, it's a whole worldview which must change and this takes time, and very much help from, yes, debunkers among others and, most of all, it requires the believer to invent new ways to justify to himself why life is worth to be lived even if there is no God or no afterlife or no almost-equivalent technological supermarvels, nor any evil supercabal to overthrow or fantastic secrets to discover. Not an easy path to take at all.
 
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deirdre

Senior Member.
To everyone in this thread, starting with MW: You really should educate yourself in modern psychology. You're speaking in the language of early 20th century Psychiatry, not even early 20th century Experimental Psychology. Those two things were never on the same page at all.
what specifically do you have an issue with that Mick said? I don't see him saying anything at all about psychology other than what legit sources/studies previously posted on MB have said. Granted we haven't talked about effective debunking in years on MB so maybe those sources and studies are outdated.

It would be much more helpful if you post specific examples. (of Mick. i know the rest of us are speculating...but i imagine all readers can tell most everyone is just speculating)
 

Rory

Senior Member.
Maybe I'm mis-reading but it seems to me that this thread is about: a) the psychologies of debunkers; and b) what conspiracy theorists think about the psychologies of debunkers (ie, the way they rationalise and explain our mindsets, drawing similarities with the ways we rationalise and explain theirs).

What it doesn't seem to be about is "the psychologies of conspiracy theorists" - excepting how that relates to point b. We already have umpteen threads and posts on that subject and it seems pretty well-explained and understood.

The psychologies of debunkers is interesting and perhaps not so well-explained and understood though. So if that's what this thread is about - as well as point b - I'd certainly like to encourage some exploration there.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
Maybe I'm mis-reading but it seems to me that this thread is about:
It's about the desire to explain (and to an extent, to diminish) other people's words and actions by attributing them to some mental quirk or defect.
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
It's about the desire to explain (and to an extent, to diminish) other people's words and actions by attributing them to some mental quirk or defect.
then you should have known to lock the thread after you posted your OP. (which was a great article, sad all the comments have completely diminished the point of the article)
 

Rory

Senior Member.
It's about the desire to explain (and to an extent, to diminish) other people's words and actions by attributing them to some mental quirk or defect.

And I suppose in particular, based on your closing section, to note that this is what conspiracy theorists are doing, that it makes perfect sense to them given their worldview, and that in understanding and respecting this it should help us in our interactions with them.

Perhaps my observation was less about the OP and more about the conversation that follows. So maybe the question is: what should that conversation be about it? Or is it as Deirdre seems to be suggesting: that the conversation isn't necessary, that everything that needed to be said on the subject was contained in the OP?
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
The idea here is that by better understanding the perspective of conspiracy theorists about you, then you can better communicate with them - in part to help them see those misperceptions are not true, and in part to communicate other things while understanding they have this perception of you that will cloud their interpretation of what you are saying.
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
Or is it as Deirdre seems to be suggesting: that the conversation isn't necessary, that everything that needed to be said on the subject was contained in the OP?
i was suggesting that many current members wouldn't understand the OP. but maybe it's just you and i that dont understand the OP.
 

Rory

Senior Member.
I feel like I understand it - or at least understand it in the way that I understand it (to me it's about broadening one's vision, putting oneself in another person's shoes, understanding that their perspective is perfectly rational given their view of the world, and contemplating the bigger picture and other possible factors that all go into forming and shaping a person's words and ideas and beliefs in order to better understand them and develop more mutually beneficial interactions based less on misunderstanding and conflict and more on openness and connection - very Buddhist, actually).

What is it that makes you say that you don't understand it?

The idea here is that by better understanding the perspective of conspiracy theorists about you, then you can better communicate with them - in part to help them see those misperceptions are not true, and in part to communicate other things while understanding they have this perception of you that will cloud their interpretation of what you are saying

Yes, that's very interesting and well-said and worthwhile.

I do still think that some more contemplation on "the psychologies of debunkers" could be illuminating - eg, what drives us, why we think it's necessary, what underlying causes may lead us to commit so much time to something which appears mostly futile - but perhaps another thread is the place for that sort of thing.
 

LilWabbit

Senior Member
I think most posts on this thread are interesting and relevant. There's no need to stifle a fascinating and largely constructive exchange of ideas which, overall, relates to the topic by always nitpicking on who's perfectly on topic and who's not. If anything is a derailment and a convo-dampener, it's such a perennial metadiscussion and peer-policing on how to properly discuss a given topic. Similarly, if we are to assign a scientific burden of proof on everything that's being claimed on the topic, both the OP and every post that follows falls short of such an overly stringent requirement.

The psychology of a conspiracy theorist and of a skeptic are both important and related themes. They're not widely researched phenomena boasting a vast peer-reviewed literature of great methodological rigour (pun intended to whoever claims psychology is comparable to physics as an exact science). Even if we wanted to, we couldn't pepper every post with credible citations on this topic like mini-dissertations. I understand the requirement of each post being a 'mini-dissertation' backed up by credible references when it comes to specific debunking threads. However, on this topic we're bound to be largely speculative and hypothetical at this point in time. Plus, not all speculation is a waste of breath and I don't think MB should preach such an unscientific stance as a basis of skepticism.

There's a difference between (1) fruitful speculation offered in the spirit of providing sound and plausible rival test hypotheses for further research that are consistent with shared (albeit lay) observations and experience, and (2) opinionated talking points just to voice out one's personal stance on a given matter and to feel heard. I would like to think it's the latter we should try to avoid while allowing some latitude with the former.

A good constructive discussion is one where the participants share a genuine interest in the topic and an openness to learn more. Overall, that's the vibe I'm getting from the substantive posts on this thread. Let's just chill a bit.
 

LilWabbit

Senior Member
The question "Why Conspiracists Psychoanalyze?", in effect, concerns the psychology of the conspiracist prompting them to psychoanalyze. It would therefore be ridiculous to forcibly separate the question from the overall dynamics of conspiracist psychology. Rather, understanding that overall psychology is likely to illuminate this specific question.
 

captancourgette

Active Member
Why people believe in conspiracies?
My opinion, of why for a large chuck do is.
Face it 99.9% of humans are losers :) & yes I consider myself in this category, we are not elon musks, attenboroughs, rihanna's, nobel prize winners, CEOs etc
CT gives them a sense of, see the game of life is rigged against me, I could of been a winner but the deck was stacked.

Note - I do realize we are all not born at the same level, and the circumstances of your birth massively influences your chance of 'winning'
 

jhunsley

Member
I find a common trait amoungst conspiracy theoriest, science deniers and paranormal believers - It is anti-intellectualism. Whenever I confront global warming deniers, ufo believers, Trump supporters and Brexitiers I find the same response when we argue to the point where the cold hard truth comes out. It is a denial that they are wrong and have been wrong all along.
 
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