A tendency (shared by myself) has been to evaluate susceptibility to conspiracy theories as a psychological defect. I have begun to realize that serves to immunize the tyrants that cultivate and profit from such theories.
Psychologists see susceptibility to conspiracy theories as rooted in social identity. The power of this dynamic is revealed in studies that ask participants to allocate resources equitably or punitively. What the researchers have learned is that even being sorted by odd and even number assignments results in a tendency to eschew a large, equal reward when offered the opportunity to achieve a comparative advantage against the “out group.” The assumptive goal is to pre-emptively starve the members of the out-group — perhaps under the intuitive expectation that when they are gone, our group will no longer need to compete for the bounty of nature.
For a group in social distress, a conspiracy theory creates a narrative that assigns fault to such an external force. The theory provides a focus that channels the need to respond to suffering. That focus may be defined by race, ethnicity, religion, class — or an arbitrary and amorphous label such as “wokeness.”
In “How Minds Change,” David McRaney reports that argumentation based upon facts will not sway a subscriber to a conspiracy. In fact, such argumentation serves to move us into the category of those under the sway of the conspiracy, actually strengthening belief. The only antidote to conspiracy, apparently, is to be offered membership in an alternative and effectively supportive community.
Of course, from the perspective of sustainable human relationships, we might be right to criticize adherents for failing to understand that they are engaged in a race to the bottom. Any constructive social activity requires the assumption of good will. I think that this lies at the root of my past tendency to see psychological weakness as the cause of susceptibility to conspiracy. To believe is to throw out both the baby of rationality and the bathwater of social cohesion.
But I am beginning to perceive a darker influence in the strength of conspiracy in current political dialog. This is that a conspiracy theory is a tool used by a tyrant to create social pressure that coerces the behavior of his thralls. This is evident in the bizarre competition between Trump and McConnell for control of the GoP — each maintains influence by threatening excommunication of those in dissent. But it also seemed evident in the video from the Tennessee Chamber yesterday, when the Speaker, panicked by the effectiveness of the victims’ oratory, called the question to pre-empt the development of dissent within his caucus.
We think of Russian compromat as a slippery slope greased by money. Certainly, McConnel operates according to this principle. But in Trump and the MAGA movement at large, accession to a conspiratorial lie seems to serve the same end — without the commitment of wealth. The lie is validated by acceptance from the political class, who can expose the lie only at the cost of a career. For the tyrant, a second benefit arises: the constituency, convinced of the need to combat the conspiracy, gratefully fills the tyrant’s money trough.
This shift in understanding leads me to a new prescription for responding to conspiracy theories. Rather than analyzing the traits of the susceptible, I think that we should focus on the propagators and beneficiaries of the conspiracy. This makes them the “out group.” Furthermore, as we are all susceptible by nature, it leaves open the only path to freedom: to open our arms to our fellow victims.