News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Conspiracy theory and psychology

Our shared imaginations that establish cultures require trust. Conspiracy theories erode trust. What are the variables that promote conspiracy theories? David Hundsness, a Silicon Valley educator with credentials in psychology, has uploaded several videos on the what, how, and why conspiracy theories grow. He concludes there are four reasons with the fourth being the most important.

One reason is the lack of information or the ability to understand the information. The rate of technical change today makes it nearly impossible for the average person to understand how our world works. A conspiracy theory fills in that gap of understandable information.

The second cause is anxiety. Anxiety is a fact of life. Hollis wrote that a person’s ability to live with anxiety is the mark of a mature person. But what if a person is hindered by an arrested development or simply the lack of the ability to make sense of it all? This causes an overload of anxiety. A conspiracy theory helps predict where a threat is coming from in simple terms that are easier to understand.

The third cause is the Sapiens’ tendency to follow your in-group. So if your ideological brethren believe the conspiracy, you will. We are social animals. COVID-19 has shown us that the simple contact of everyday life is extremely important. Being a member of a group is built into us.

The fourth and most important cause of the spread of a conspiracy theory is ego. People who subscribe to a conspiracy theory believe they are a member of a special group of independent thinkers who have discovered the hidden truth and have a superior knowledge, while the rest of us are just sheep (Who doesn’t want to feel special?).

Examples of the ego factor are easy to describe.

Take a person who didn’t do particularly well in school or work; so deep down they fell inferior, undervalued, and unappreciated.

But if they believe in conspiracy theories, they feel they are smarter than the “experts,” and a small group of people will tell them so.

Joe Rogan, the well-known podcaster and college dropout, with very little education and steroid-induced bellicosity, has spread numerous falsehoods about the pandemic.

He either has deluded himself into believing he has superior knowledge compared to the most highly educated experts in the medicine of immunology, or he is just lying.

His 11 million podcast followers have made him wealthy.

Another example is someone who has a substantial academic credential, but is not recognized by his peers as successful.

A doctor takes a fringe position and all of a sudden, they get a huge amount of attention from a fringe group who claims the doctor is brilliant.

The doctor’s ego is boosted.

This is so valued, it’s worth the criticism they receive from his peers.

The doctor has become a member of Peter Turchin’s counter-elite.

The Hundsness description of the psychology of conspiracy fits nicely with game theory predictions involving Suckers, Grudgers, and Cheaters as well as Turchin’s counter-elites.

The Fox “News” staff of credentialed nobodies is evidence that Cheaters can be very successful feeding on Suckers.

But Game Theory predicts things will sort themselves out and eventually, after much success, Cheaters will approach near extinction and the Grudgers will prevail.

But then the cycle will repeat itself.

The survival strategies of the members of the great cultures of the past oscillated, became stronger, and then died out. When cultures survive an extended period, they are said to have achieved Evolutionary Stable Strategies. We are not there now. We seem to have reached, or are approaching, a peak population of Cheaters. Turchin believes we are in for a rough ride for at least the next five years.

What comes next?


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