The illusion of control: danger and favor of conspiracy theories
Looking for big explanations for big events is a craving of many people. The appearance of the novel corona virus has brought a number of such theorists to the scene. Especially in the health sector, they are widespread, increasing distrust in medical professionals. Medinlive took a deeper look on conspirancy theories - how they can be generated, debunked and also made beneficial.
"Often the people who tend to believe in conspiracy theories are those who feel they have little control over their lives," psychologist Roland Imhoff explained.
In moments of threat, the rich, powerful and influential join to work in secret on lifting the world off its hinges - is a common story told by conspiracy theorists and spread among the population on a large scale.
Number of believers on the rise
The effect is evident: According to surveys, almost 30 percent of the population in the U.S. believe in conspiracy theories. The research is still sparse, but a similar trend is emerging in Austria: a Statista survey conducted last year (among 501 people) found that around 30 percent of Austrians believe that conspiracy theories usually have a grain of truth to them. A whopping 62.7 percent of respondents acknowledged some truth to the belief that the Corona virus was developed and released as a biological weapon.
About half of interviewees could imagine the Corona crisis being used to permanently restrict civil liberties. An equal number could also see some truth in the idea that the pandemic was using secret societies to establish an authoritarian world order. Another Statista survey conducted at the same timespan found that about 32 percent of the 1,000 respondents believe that the anti-pandemic measures are installed for a very different matter than what politicians and the media claim.
Illusion of control
Belief in conspiracy theories, also called conspiracy mentality, is considered a stable personality trait among psychologists. People with this attribute would have a strong tendency to believe in conspiracy theories and think that the world is controlled by secret forces. "Often the people who tend to believe in conspiracy theories are those who feel they have little control over their lives," psychologist Roland Imhoff explained to "spektrum." Conspiracy theories would compensate for this feeling and provide a certain amount of control. After all, one could change something about a conspiracy - one would only have to put a few villains out of the game. According to Imhoff, age or intelligence do not play a role in this personality type, but education does - not "because educated people are more immune per se, but because low education is often associated with fewer opportunities to actively control the course of one's life," says the German psychologist.
Crises (like the Corona pandemic) can represent a loss of control for many people. "A conspiracy narrative provides structure here," social scientist Pia Lamberty told DIE ZEIT. "Those who believe in it have an image of the enemy onto which they can project their fears. That removes the perceived threat of the situation, at least seemingly," says Lamberty.
Impact on healthcare decisions
It is striking that a particularly large number of conspiracy theories circulate in the health sector, where they can have an impact on fundamental decisions. Several studies have verified a link between conspiracy mentality and preference for alternative healing methods. In the case of the Corona pandemic, belief in conspiracy theories is also linked to rejection of COVID-19 vaccine and compliance with imposed behaviors, such as wearing masks, researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center found.
Meanwhile, German researchers led by Lamberty and Roland Imhoff of the Institute of Psychology at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, found that a conspiracy mentality can influence what patients consider to be the real cause of an illness, what they consider to be the initial symptom and physiological response, and who or what they choose for treatment.
Distrust towards authority
Moreover, the German researchers identified that a general distrust of power structures also influences medical decisions. "Anything associated with power, such as the pharmaceutical industry, is viewed very skeptically by conspiracy theorists," Lamberty explains in an article for the journal Social Psychology. This includes medical professionals and the health care system as a whole. In everyday practice, this can be a challenge. In addition, experts complain that there are no official recommendations for dealing with this problem. There is also a lack of scientifically proven information on how to deal with conspiracy theorists.
In general, it is often advised to ask many questions when dealing with people who believe in conspiracy theories, such as the trustworthyness of the source. Since there is often not enough time for such detailed conversations in the day-to-day medical practice, experts advise using consistent information to influence patients' beliefs over the course of several meetings.
The situation can be particularly challenging for physicians, if parents adhere to a conspiracy myth and therefore do not allow their children to be treated properly. In such cases, physicians should try to understand what the conspiracy belief means to the parents and what fears may be behind it, psychologists advise.
However, conspiracy theories can lead to other risks as well. According to the study by the German scientists mentioned earlier, political extremism and willingness to use violence go hand in hand with belief in conspiracies. And: the stronger someone believes in conspiracy theories, the less able the person is to evaluate the quality of information sources. This means that for conspiracy theorists, information on YouTube has just as much value as the pronouncements of the Robert Koch Institute, according to Imhoff.
It also becomes difficult when medical experts themselves fall into the conspiracy trap. Indeed, the medical profession runs the risk of instrumentalization in the process. "If doctors spread conspiracy narratives or misinformation, they are readily accepted as useful supporters of the scene. Again and again, explicit reference is then made to medical qualifications - of course, only in the case of those physicians who represent their own opinion in each case," says Lamberty. The doctor thus becomes an authoritative authority, while experts who have been working intensively on the subject for years and hold an opposing opinion become the enemy image.
Similar mechanisms as faith
The fact that conspiracy theories are often difficult to debunk is also due to the fact that they reinterpret every argument in the sense of their belief system in a similar way to religious beliefs (as in the case of cults, for example). In this sense, the German physician Thomas Grüter speaks of "conspiracy belief". His theory: In the beginning there is a suspicion, which is confirmed by events and thus becomes a conspiracy theory. In most cases, conspiracy theories also relate to something that can be linked to reality - this makes them credible.
Relating events is inborn to humans. "We are evolutionarily wired to recognize patterns and draw connections. If someone eats a fruit and dies a day later, it makes sense to establish a causal connection, even if you can't prove it yet," cultural scientist Michael Butter recently described in "circero."
In general, conspiracy theories often have similar features: besides the prevalence of a supposed secret conspiracy, it is commonly proposed that there are no coincidences, that everything has a causal relationship, which is supported by "evidence." Black-and-white thinking prevails, the world is divided into good and evil, and certain people or groups are named as culprits.
Search for monocausal explanation
The search for culprits is almost as old as humanity itself. Especially in times of pandemics it is very common. When the plague was raging in Europe, people were looking for someone to blame for the crisis. At that time, the Jews were the target, later also the Freemasons, who were accused of striving to take over power. At that time, too, it was a question of the bigger the phenomenon, the bigger the explanation. In the case of the Corona pandemic: the fact that a single bat in a distant country can plunge the entire world into a global crisis can seem frightening or irritating to many.
Originating in Europe, the concept of the conspiracy theory was carried from there to all corners of the world. In the 20th century, conspiracy myths increasingly arrived from the United States. The myth of the moon landing, which is said to have been staged in a film studio, as well as the motives behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, are some of the most famous. With the Internet, the spread of conspiracy theories really took off.
The positive spin of crude theories
But why are theories spread in the first place? Not all, but most, creators and spreaders are interested in achieving political or economic power, some are just interested in attention. Not only money rules the world, but also publicity, to put it bluntly. One motivation for spreading conspiracy narratives is probably an increased need for uniqueness. One apparently possesses a kind of secret knowledge - while others are belittled as "sleeper sheep," "systemlings," or outright part of the conspiracy, Lamberty describes in the "medical tribune." In our experience, conspiracy belief is found more strongly in men.
However, conspiracy theories also have good sides: Some researchers attribute a positive influence to them because the constant questioning of an official statement forces those in charge to be more transparent.
The art of debunking
Disproving a conspiracy theory can have a trick feel to it. One suggestion for debunking might be this procedure:
Emphasize the facts (not the hoax) first, and in doing so, don't overload the other person with information - a few arguments are stronger than many.
When you mention the rumor to be debunked, place a warning beforehand so the counterpart knows clearly that what follows next is false information.
Since a dispelled rumor leaves a gap, an alternative explanation must be provided, so present an alternative.
"We are evolutionarily wired to recognize patterns and draw connections. If someone eats a fruit and dies a day later, it makes sense to establish a causal connection, even if you can't prove it yet," cultural scientist Michael Butter recently described in "circero."