“Collective narcissism nourishes conspiracy beliefs”

“Collective narcissism nourishes conspiracy beliefs”

Conspiracy thinking happens by degrees

11-10-2021 · Science

After 9/11, conspiracy theorists went looking for concrete proof. Today, people claim that government leaders are a bunch of blood-drinking child rapists without a shred of evidence. Conspiracists are less and less concerned with proof, observes Jan-Willem van Prooijen, endowed professor of Radicalisation, Extremism and Conspiracy Thinking at UM since September.

He has already seen a great deal of far-fetched theories in his work as a researcher. Still, Van Prooijen sometimes can’t believe his ears. “In August, I was flabbergasted when NASA went on record to say that they aren’t kidnapping children and shipping them to Mars to work as sex slaves.”

He also finds it difficult to get his head around the fact that there are people who, eighteen months into the pandemic, still claim that COVID-19 is a hoax or no worse than the flu. How can they possibly believe that, after everything that has happened and despite all the evidence to the contrary? “I’m not sure if it says anything about the personalities of conspiracy theorists, but it does indicate closed-mindedness, a relative indifference to counterarguments when it comes to COVID-19.” 

How do you go about researching conspiracy theories? Conspiracy theorists aren’t exactly eager to participate.

“I do a lot of survey research, sometimes sending out thousands of surveys at once. In the Netherlands, but also online in the US or in China, through my Chinese PhD students. We ask people to what extent they believe in, for example, the theory that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned, and try to relate the results to, say, their willingness to comply with social distancing measures, or to be vaccinated.”

So conspiracy theorists do participate in research.

“Conspiracy thinking happens by degrees. Our sample doesn’t include the hardcore conspiracists who send extreme theories out into the world through their blogs, but it does include people who believe there is a degree of truth to a certain theory. Few Dutch people are flat-earthers, but 15 per cent of the population believes that COVID-19 was created in a lab as a bioweapon.”

That’s a lot of people.

“Not really, actually. Nearly 30 per cent of people in the United States and Canada believe this. Compared to them – and to the rest of Europe, by the way – the Dutch are quite down to earth.”

Are crises the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories?

“Conspiracy theories thrive when people feel like the world has changed. That’s the case today, but it was also the case after 9/11. Then again, conspiracy theories can also spread widely without a crisis. Take the moon landing, for example. Stories soon started popping up that the whole thing had been staged in a film studio.”

Some people still believe that. Do conspiracy theories have an expiration date? 

“QAnon, the conspiracy theory that a global elite is drinking the blood of children subjected to satanic rituals, is at least a thousand years old. It was originally an anti-Semitic story in which Jewish people kidnapped Christian children and ritually sacrificed them. We see this kind of recycling of old theories quite often. The rumour of a man-made virus developed in a lab also circulated during the Spanish flu pandemic. We don’t know where that virus first appeared, but it wasn’t in Spain. It may have originated in the trenches of World War I, or in the US, or in China. Either way: many Americans believed that it had been created in a lab by the Germans and then spread through aspirin by the pharmaceutical company Bayer, which had patented the drug in the late 19th century. Like NASA, Bayer felt forced to declare that it had nothing to do with this, and that its factories in the US were under American management.” 

What kind of people are prone to believing in conspiracy theories?

“There is no such thing as ‘the conspiracy theorist’. They can be found in all layers of society. People with less education are a little more susceptible, but more highly educated people are certainly not immune. For example, Nobel laureate Kary Mullis, the inventor of the PCR technique, claimed that HIV had nothing to do with AIDS, but had been made up by pharmaceutical companies trying to sell more drugs.”

So educational level is not a strong predictor of conspiracy beliefs. What is?

“To begin with, political extremism. Right-wing extremism in particular. [Right-wing populist party] Forum voor Democratie is clearly a party of conspiracies, as is [right-wing populist party] PVV, to a lesser degree. And so is [socialist party] SP, as conspiracy theories are popular among left-wing extremists as well. Another predictor is collective narcissism, or a national sense of superiority. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of the Netherlands, but people who believe that the Netherlands is a superior country that deserves special rights in the EU, for example, are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. A good example is Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan.”

How is collective narcissism linked to conspiracy beliefs?

“An inherent feature of conspiracy theories is that they emphasise how evil other groups are. The others are pulling strings behind the scenes and plotting evil schemes. ‘They’re bad people, and we aren’t.’ That’s how conspiracy theorists emphasise that they’re better than others.”

Conspiracy theorists claimed that the Democratic Party was running a satanic paedophilia ring from the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. But the restaurant had no basement. Does such a revelation deal a death blow to a conspiracy theory?

“You might think so, but in the case of ‘Pizzagate’ it didn’t. QAnon adherents still believe that ‘pizza’ is a code word used to order children for sexual abuse. Besides, it’s easy to deny a revelation like that: they had the wrong place, it was cleaned up in a hurry, the authorities are lying about it…”

So hard evidence against a conspiracy theory doesn’t actually matter much.

“I have the impression that evidence has become less and less important over the past years. I recently read somewhere that we’re seeing more and more conspiracies without theories. You can say what you want about the 9/11 for Truth movement [which claims that the US government was behind the attack on the Twin Towers], but those people did go looking for evidence, looking up the melting point of steel. Today, people claim that government leaders are a bunch of blood-drinking child rapists without a shred of evidence.”

How is that possible?

“It’s the effect of social media. I don’t think the number of conspiracy theorists has increased. But they are increasingly coming together in semi-closed groups, especially on Telegram, where no one really contradicts them. It soon seems like everyone agrees, and then consensus is seen as proof: ‘Everyone believes it, so it must be true.’”

What is the role of distrust of the establishment?

“Distrust of the establishment is also inherent in conspiracy thinking and often occurs in disadvantaged groups. So far, it has only been observed in ethnic minority groups. I’m curious as to whether it also occurs in the LGBT community, for example. We’d have to research it sometime. And there are many more questions, such as: what happens in the brains of people who believe in conspiracy theories? Very few neuropsychological studies have been conducted. There’s a close relationship between conspiracy beliefs and fear, so I imagine that we would see high levels of activation in parts of the limbic system, where fear responses are generated. But that is pure speculation on my part. It has to be empirically tested.”

Are there any examples of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true?

“Well, a conspiracy theory is not by definition untrue, but unproven. Most have been debunked, but a few haven’t. Take the Watergate scandal in the US, in which Republicans broke into the Democratic Party headquarters in 1972 to collect incriminating material for the upcoming election campaign. In 1973, a survey of the American public included the question: ‘Do you believe that President Nixon was personally involved in Watergate?’ Many people answered ‘Yes’, but at the time, Watergate was still seen as a conspiracy theory. A year later, taped conversations between the president and his campaign staff were leaked, everything turned out to be true and Nixon resigned.”


Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: covid_19,conspiracy theories,flat earthers,research,instagram

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