Conspiracy theories have long gone beyond chamber forums on the Web and conversations in kitchens - today you can read about them in newspapers and hear on TV. Their supporters believe that the Earth is flat, the first persons of states are reptilian aliens, and HIV was invented by pharmaceutical companies. Let's figure out what features of our perception make conspiracy so attractive and whether belief in a world conspiracy can do real damage.
Who believes in conspiracy
Conspiracy theories are concepts according to which a conspiracy of a small but extremely influential group of people is behind certain events and events that are significant for society. It is not difficult to recognize such a theory (for example, on the Internet). The authors of the texts rarely give references to scientific literature, but they constantly refer to the emotions of the reader: his fears, anxiety, uncertainty.
The emergence of such ideas is associated with many features of the human psyche. In 2016, a group of British psychologists came to the conclusion that people undergoing severe stress are more likely to turn to conspiracy theories. 420 American adults took part in the polls - they were asked to rate their level of anxiety and to tell how much stressful situations they had experienced over the past six months. Then the respondents were offered a list of conspiracy concepts popular in the United States: from the "lunar conspiracy" (that supposedly people had never been on a satellite of the Earth, and all the documentary footage was filmed in Hollywood pavilions) to the idea that the assassination of Martin Luther King was planned by the secret services. The more a person worried about stressful events in life, the more likely they were to be a supporter of one or more conspiracy theories. This relationship was not influenced by either gender or the wealth of the respondents. According to the authors of the work, stress hits our ability to think analytically. In difficult times, a person is more inclined to look for patterns where they do not exist - this contributes to belief in conspiracy theories.
The authors of a 2002 study published in the journal Political Psychology highlight other qualities of conspiracy theorists. Scientists have found that students who believe in conspiracy theories have lower self-esteem and are more likely to feel helpless. Childhood psychological trauma can also influence the fascination with such ideas, psychologists from the University of Kent reported in 2018.
At first, it seems that higher education and general erudition reliably protect against the possibility of believing in the reptilian conspiracy. However, studies show that there are many intelligent people among conspiracy fans. According to a 2014 study by VTsIOM, 45% of Russians surveyed believe in the existence of a secret world government, and among respondents with higher and incomplete higher education, this figure is 51%.
Why conspiracy theories are so attractive
Scientists believe that belief in a conspiracy theory may be a side effect of some of the mental features that allowed us to survive in the distant past. One of these features is the tendency to look for patterns in everything around us. It is still vividly manifested in visual illusions (pareidolias) when we see the outlines of faces in the clouds or patterns on the wallpaper.Once this skill saved the lives of our ancestors: those survived who were able to notice in time the slightest signs of impending disaster - say, the approach of the enemy.
Experience has shown that "it is better to overdo it than not to miss it" - and such peculiarities of perception were entrenched in people for a long time. However, modern man deals with huge amounts of information every day - something his cautious ancestor could not have imagined. Therefore, perception can malfunction and look for connections where there are none. This is how many conspiracy theories work, based on a logical fallacy known as "after does not mean due": for example, the idea that vaccines can cause autism.
Another reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories is the distortion of proportionality. This is a feature of perception, by virtue of which we believe that global causes are invariably behind important events, and not the actions of individuals or a chain of accidents. The distortion of proportionality is clearly visible in theories according to which some events were rigged by real politicians or fictitious "world government".
For example, this theory grew around the 2012 Sandy Hook Primary School massacre. The Connecticut attorney, after examining the case, concluded that the murderer of 20 children and seven adults (including his own mother) planned the crime alone. However, one of the conspiracy theories surrounding the event states that there was no shooting at the school at all: allegedly, all reports, photographs and testimonies of witnesses were falsified by the American government in order to tighten control over the owners of the weapons.
Confirmation bias (confirmation bias) leads many to believe in conspiracy theories: people give more weight to evidence that confirms what they already believe. This distortion is sometimes combined with collective pressure. If a person's loved ones adhere to certain ideas, he may share them, even if deep down he does not quite agree. We do so so as not to jeopardize our relationships with family and not harm our status in society.
In addition, it is known that belief in conspiracy theories gives a person a sense of their own significance and uniqueness. A supporter of this concept believes that he has secret knowledge inaccessible to others. In 2016, British psychologists found that conspiracy theories are especially attractive to people who are prone to manifestations of narcissism.
Does conspiracy killing?
It may seem that conspiracy theories today are just an innocent hobby, and its fans cannot seriously affect the life of society. But is she so harmless?
The harms of conspiracy theories associated with medicine are perhaps the easiest to spot. In recent years, several lawsuits have taken place in Russia against parents who did not agree to treat their HIV-positive children, believing that the virus was an invention of doctors and pharmaceutical companies. In January 2018, the court sentenced a Tyumen resident who refused therapy for her HIV-positive daughter (the girl died at the age of three). In the fall of 2017, a similar case was considered in the Perm Territory: the mother of a deceased eight-year-old boy was sentenced to one and a half years in prison. It is known that both women shared the ideas of HIV dissidents - supporters of the conspiracy theory that the human immunodeficiency virus does not exist.
Another dangerous "medical" conspiracy theory is anti-vaccination campaigns. Opponents of vaccinations believe that they are capable of causing some dangerous diseases (here the logical error "after - does not mean" due to "appears). Scientists associate, for example, measles outbreaks, which were registered in many countries in 2015-2017, with the activity of antivaccinators. Doctors in the USA, Great Britain, Germany, France and Japan are talking about an increase in the incidence.At the same time, there are no drugs for the specific treatment of measles today; you can only fight with the symptoms of the disease: pain and fever. The main way to avoid measles is through prophylaxis with a vaccine. According to the World Health Organization, unvaccinated children are at highest risk.
The authors of the paper, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics in 2015, believe that it was the failure to vaccinate that led to the outbreak of measles, which began in California Disneyland and spread to 14 states. Most likely, the disease was brought to the amusement park from the Philippines - later the virus turned out to be genetically close to the one that caused an outbreak in the Asian islands in 2014. Scientists explain that measles is highly contagious, so 96-99% of the population must receive the vaccine to be reliably protected from outbreaks of the disease. According to researchers, in California only 50-85% of people were vaccinated, so the disease was able to spread.
The conspiracy epidemic
Psychologists conclude that like diseases, conspiracy theories can be contagious. This was confirmed by an experiment by scientists from the University of Kent with the participation of 246 Americans. They were given different texts to read: in some the author supported the idea of the danger of vaccines, in others he denied it. Then the volunteers were asked to imagine the situation: the doctor recommended that their imaginary 8-month-old daughter Sophie be vaccinated against a fictional viral disease that can cause fever and vomiting. Participants told how likely they would agree to vaccinate Sophie.
Those who read the text about the dangers of vaccinations were much less likely to agree to vaccinate the girl. This was also the reaction of those who initially did not believe in the conspiracy theory of pharmaceutical companies. In 2012, the same psychologists found that reading articles about conspiracy theories reduced volunteers' desire to vote in fictional elections.
And what about Russia?
One of the most influential channels for disseminating information about conspiracy theories today is through the media, both classical and online. They are especially convenient for tracking how conspiracy ideas circulate. At the beginning of 2018, analysts of the Medialogia company, together with the journalists of the Vedomosti newspaper, conducted a study of references to popular conspiracy theories in modern Russian media.
Experts analyzed references to 36 conspiracy theories in the materials of 43 thousand media: TV channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines (both paper and online). The rating of popular theories was compiled taking into account the status and size of the audience of each media: for example, one story with a reference to conspiracy on a federal TV channel "weighed" more than several articles in small regional newspapers. As a result of the calculations, each concept was assigned a certain number of "popularity points".
The most popular conspiracy theory in Russia turned out to be the “conspiracy of historians”. He leads by a wide margin, gaining 15,730 points: while the rating of the next candidate - about the existence of a "secret world government" - was only 4,249 points. Supporters of the "conspiracy of historians" believe that unscrupulous scientists deliberately distort and falsify facts in order to "harm Russia and belittle its greatness." This concept became a leader not only because of its popularity, but also because the top officials of the country often speak about it. Their speeches on federal TV channels and in the largest media are cited by many media, so the frequency of references is growing.
The ten most popular concepts included denial of HIV, views on the dangers of GMOs and vaccinations, and the theory that space aliens rule the planet. Analysts compared the frequency of mentions in 2011 and 2017 and found out which ideas are gaining popularity in Russia the fastest. This is the theory of a flat earth (the number of references increased 44.6 times) and the doubt about the reality of HIV and AIDS (the frequency increased 36 times).On average, the top 10 theories have been talked about six to nine times more often since 2011.
The Vedomosti journalists believe that these statistics are unlikely to fully reflect the real sentiments of Russian society. It should be borne in mind that the mention of conspiracy theories, like any hot topic, helps TV channels and newspapers to attract an audience and, as a result, earn money. Appealing to conspiracy theories can be a personal feature of a speaker - for example, a well-known politician whose speeches will be covered by the media in any case. Circumstances are partly to blame: according to polls by the Levada Center, the number of those who believe in the concept of a conspiracy always increases slightly during economic and social crises. This was the case in the early 1990s and 2010s.
What can be opposed to belief in secret societies, besides knowledge of the concepts of modern science? First, information about how the media work. In 2017, American media theorists found that understanding the way journalists work can help lessen the passion for finding conspirators.
Scientists surveyed 397 young Americans to find out how knowledgeable they are about modern media. The volunteers answered questions about how they thought newsrooms in the United States are funded and about the characteristics of political press coverage. Then people were asked to rate how much they believed in certain conspiracy theories - for example, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Those who knew better about how the media worked were less likely to trust conspiracy theorists. "Immunity" worked even if the theory fit well with the respondent's political views.
In addition, keeping secrets is not easy, and the more people enter a hypothetical conspiracy, the faster it will unfold. In 2016, British mathematician David Robert Grimes came up with a formula for calculating the likelihood of a certain conspiracy being revealed, given the number of participants. To do this, the scientist used data on already disclosed secret operations. Grimes then applied his formula to a hypothetical "lunar conspiracy." It turned out that the coordinated efforts of at least 411 thousand people were needed to fake footage from the Moon - and such a conspiracy would not last longer than four years.
Asking questions, doubting and thinking critically is really important. But it should be borne in mind: those who play on the audience's alarm, asking the question "who benefits from this?", May not act unselfishly themselves.