- Unravelling the mindset of conspiracy theorists
Like all mobile technologies, 5G uses radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic energy to communicate between mobile phones and base stations. This energy is a form of non-ionising radiation similar to FM radio waves and heat. Non-ionising radiation does not damage DNA, unlike cancer-causing ionising radiation such as ultra violet light. There is no scientific basis whatsoever that supports that 5G causes brain cancer yet millions were prepared to believe that it did. This feature explores why increasing numbers of people are prepared to believe in invented stories or conspiracies as they have rather loosely been termed.
Why is this important? The social costs to society of undermining trust can be heavy, trust is a key component in the way we build our social relationships as well as in social behaviours we engage in, ranging from voting for a political party, reading a specific newspaper or getting vaccinated. Moreover, the association between mistrust and paranoia is well established in the literature. For those responsible for decision making in society, a better understanding of the causes of conspiracy theories is highly desirable.
What are the common characteristics of conspiracists? People who are uncomfortable with uncertainty may be more prone to conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories can offer seemingly clear and simplistic explanations for complex events, providing a sense of order and control in uncertain times. Conspiracists’ beliefs can arise from a feeling of losing control over one’s life or society. Conspiracy theories may provide a way to assign blame for perceived negative changes and to regain a sense of control through believing in secret forces or groups. Some individuals have a natural resistance to change and may be more inclined to view new ideas, policies, or technologies with suspicion. Conspiracy theories can reinforce their resistance by framing change as part of a malevolent agenda. For those whose identity is closely tied to traditional values or ideologies, societal change can be perceived as a threat. Conspiracy theories can serve as a way to protect and reinforce one’s identity by attributing change to nefarious actors.
People with a reactionary mindset may actively seek out and interpret information that confirms their belief that change is undesirable or harmful. This confirmation bias can make them more receptive to conspiracy narratives that align with their views. Conspiracy theories can offer a sense of stability in a rapidly changing world. They suggest that a hidden order exists behind the chaos, which can be comforting to those who fear change and unpredictability.
Strong emotional responses
Scientific findings on certain topics, such as climate change or vaccines, can evoke strong emotional responses. When people feel threatened or emotionally uncomfortable with scientific conclusions, they may reject them in favour of beliefs that provide emotional comfort. Science is sometimes viewed through a political or ideological lens. People may reject scientific findings if they perceive them as conflicting with their political or ideological identity, leading to polarization.
Mistrust in government agencies, corporations, and academic institutions can erode confidence in scientific research, especially when it’s perceived as influenced by vested interests or biases. Some scientific topics are inherently complex and nuanced. That the prevalence of excessive amounts of certain gasses in the atmosphere traps the Earths heat and clauses temperatures to rise is hard to comprehend.
Individuals with limited scientific literacy may find it challenging to understand or accept complex scientific concepts, leading to scepticism. When scientific issues seem distant or unrelated to an individual’s daily life, they may not prioritize scientific understanding. For example, climate change might seem less pressing if its impacts are not immediately visible. Anecdotal experiences can sometimes override scientific evidence. If someone has personally witnessed an exception to a scientific principle, they may discount the broader scientific consensus. Peer groups and social networks can exert significant influence on individuals’ beliefs. If a person’s social circle rejects certain scientific findings, they may conform to avoid social isolation. Some media outlets may downplay or sensationalize scientific findings, creating a perception that science is uncertain or unreliable.
Believing in a conspiracy theory can provide psychological rewards, such as a sense of superiority or empowerment. These individuals may feel that they have access to secret information that gives them an advantage over others. Rebellion and Nonconformity: For some, adopting conspiracy theories is an act of rebellion against established authority and accepted norms. It’s a way to reject the mainstream narrative and assert their independence of thought. Community and Belonging: Believers in conspiracy theories often form online or offline communities with like-minded individuals. This sense of belonging to a unique and exclusive group reinforces their need for uniqueness and provides a supportive social environment.
The danger of conspiracy theories and conspiracists is their influence on real-world issues and events in various ways. Here are a few examples, the anti-vaccine movement, fuelled by conspiracy theories that falsely link vaccines to autism and other health issues, has contributed to vaccine hesitancy in some communities. This hesitancy has led to lower vaccination rates, resulting in outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles.
Climate change denial is often rooted in conspiracy theories that question the legitimacy of climate science and accuse scientists of conspiring for political or financial gain. This has hindered global efforts to address climate change. Conspiracy theories about election fraud and the integrity of election processes have gained traction in some cases. These unfounded claims have led to political polarization, mistrust in the electoral system, and, in extreme cases, instances of election-related violence. Conspiracist beliefs have contributed to the spread of health misinformation, particularly during public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. False claims about the virus’s origin, treatments, and prevention have undermined public health efforts and led to avoidable illness and death. Conspiracy theories that allege false flag operations, where events are staged or manipulated by powerful entities, can divert attention and resources away from genuine investigations. For example, some conspiracy theories surrounding mass shootings have falsely accused victims of being crisis actors. Belief in government conspiracy theories can lead to resistance against government policies and actions. For instance, some conspiracy theories have fuelled opposition to measures like gun control, public health mandates, or environmental regulations.
Social and cultural divisions
Conspiracist beliefs can deepen social and cultural divisions by promoting mistrust and polarization. This can hinder constructive dialogue and cooperation on critical issues. In extreme cases, conspiracy theories have motivated individuals to commit acts of violence or terrorism. Belief in conspiracy theories that promote extremist ideologies can radicalize individuals and pose security threats. It’s important to note that while conspiracy theories can influence and shape public opinion, their claims are often unfounded and lack credible evidence.
It’s important to recognize that not all conspiracy theorists fit this profile, and conspiracy beliefs can span a wide range of topics and motivations. Addressing conspiracy theories often requires a nuanced approach that considers the underlying psychological, social, and emotional factors that drive individuals to embrace these beliefs.
How to beat conspiracists? Encourage individuals to reflect on their beliefs and acknowledge when cognitive dissonance is at play. Encouraging self-awareness can be a powerful tool in reducing the impact of dissonance. Teach people how to critically assess information sources and evaluate evidence objectively, helping them make more informed and rational decisions. Foster environments where individuals feel safe discussing conflicting beliefs and engaging in constructive conversations with others who hold differing views. Promote critical thinking skills, including the ability to question one’s own beliefs and consider alternative explanations. Encourage empathy towards individuals experiencing cognitive dissonance and be patient in helping them explore alternative perspectives. Understanding how cognitive dissonance can lead to belief in conspiracy theories is crucial for addressing the spread of such beliefs and promoting a more rational and informed society.
Here are some further strategies to minimise conspiracy theories; promote critical thinking skills that help individuals evaluate the credibility of information and claims before accepting them. Foster inclusivity by creating environments where individuals feel valued and included, reducing the appeal of conspiracy theories as a means of feeling unique or special. Encourage open, rational, and respectful discussions that allow individuals to express their ideas and concerns without the need to embrace extreme beliefs for uniqueness. Help individuals find positive sources of identity and uniqueness through achievements, hobbies, or shared interests that are not rooted in conspiracy beliefs. Understanding the need for uniqueness as a driver of belief in conspiracy theories underscores the importance of addressing underlying psychological factors when combating the spread of such beliefs.
By offering alternative ways for individuals to feel special and unique, we can reduce the appeal of conspiracy theories. As we hold our 5G enabled cell phones a few centimetres from our brains and for several hours each day, remember that millions believed it would kill us, well it appears that humanity is as bright eyed and bushy tailed as ever, go in peace.