From "pizzagate" to 9/11, conspiracy theories are everywhere—and research shows they could be linked to things like stress or isolationby James McMahon / August 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
If you’ve suffered with a mental illness for long enough, chances are that at some point, you’ll begin to recognise patterns to your health.
When I am well, I am enthusiastic about the world. I like the world. I like myself.
When I’m not, I want to know everything there is to know about Chemtrails. The suspicious death of Kurt Cobain. I fear my extensive knowledge of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 would not be a hit at parties, even if I felt well enough to attend them.
Over twenty-plus years of zigzagging between relative happiness and obsessively Googling “why did the third tower collapse?,” I’ve come to wonder whether there’s a link between the two states of mind.
A recent study suggests that may be so. Early last year, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published a report that suggests such interests, as well as superstition, may well be caused by ostracization.
A study was conducted in which subjects were asked to write about a falling out with a friend, as well as their search for meaning within their life. They were also asked to rate how excluded they felt.
Then, the participants were asked to rate their belief in two conspiracies: that drug companies withhold cures and that subliminal messages were used by the government to control its population.
Subjects were also asked if they believed in the pseudo-scientific theory that paranormal activity was rife in the western area of the north Atlantic Ocean known as the Bermuda Triangle.
The results showed that the more lonely people felt, the more they believed in both the conspiracies and in the idea of the supernatural.
In recent years it’s been suggested that stress plays its part in leading people to fringe beliefs, too. Professor Viren Swami, from Anglia Ruskin University, performed studies in 2016 that took 400 participants between 20 and 78 and asked whether they believed the 1969 moon landings had been faked.
Professor Swami also polled subjects as to whether they believed that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated by the American government. He then assessed subjects’ stress levels—most significantly, stressful situations that might have occurred within their lives in the last six months.
The results showed that the more stressed a person was, the more likely they were to believe in conspiracy.
“Stressful situations increase the tendency to think less analytically,” says Professor Swami. “An individual experiencing a stressful life event may begin to engage in a particular way of thinking, such as seeing patterns that don’t exist.”
“In the aftermath of distressing events,” he continued, “it is possible that some individuals may seek out conspiracist explanations that reinstall a sense of order or control.”
Last year, the Collins dictionary declared ‘Fake News’ their word of the year, thanks to its “ubiquitous presence” within the preceding twelve months. We unquestionably live in times of mass distrust. And here’s where things get dangerous.
If you’re unlucky enough to be aware of the now comprehensively debunked conspiracy theory known as ‘Pizzagate’, you will know that during the 2016 United States presidential election cycle, the personal email of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, was hacked. The contents were then released to the public via WikiLeaks.
Turns out that John really likes pizza. He orders a lot of it.
Yet on the forums of 4chan, the internet’s notorious meeting point for conspiracy theory, it was decided that these pizza orders were actually code for not only human-trafficking but a child-sex ring run by members of the Democratic Party.
A Washington DC pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong was implicated. A man from North Carolina went there and fired three rounds into the shop with a semi-automatic rifle.
Incredibly, nobody was hurt.
It’s fair to say that scientific studies establishing connectivity between mental health and belief in conspiracy is a developing field. More plentiful are a variety of surveys which seek to establish links between various social and psychological factors and a belief in conspiracy.
One of the most significant of these, reported by Psychology Today in April 2017, involved mining data from one of the largest surveys of mental health ever carried out: the US National Comorbidity Survey-Replication conducted between 2001 and 2003.
Subjects were asked the consider the statement; “I’m convinced there’s a conspiracy behind many things in the world.” More than a quarter of subjects believed that to be true.
Digging into the data, there were a number of commonalities. Those who agreed with that statement tended to be male, unmarried, with above-average levels of social disadvantages, such as having relatively low income and education levels. They were more likely to be from an ethnic minority. They were more likely to carry a weapon. And they tended to report lower levels of physical and psychological wellbeing. Many had considered suicide.
Think of the mass murders committed by ‘Incels’ just this year—young, heterosexual men who through a combination of isolation and misanthropy believe their lack of sexual activity is in fact a conspiracy.
“[More] psychological models of conspiracy theories need testing” concludes Psychology Today. ”Indeed, we don’t know enough about conspiracy theories full stop. But given the current socio-political climate has this kind of research ever been more necessary?”
Conspiracy theories aren’t a creation of modern times. Within the medieval era, the anti-semitic belief that Jews were poisoning water supplies in order to kill Christians was rife. The term “conspiracy theory” itself appears as early as 1909, in an article published in The American Historical Review.
There’s some dispute as to whether the term always held negative connotations. Some, like Bob Blaskiewicz, Professor of Critical Thinking at Stockton University, believe so. Others, like the lexicographer John Ayto, suggest that the phrase only really became a slur in the 1960’s.
This view is backed up by Lance deHaven-Smith, professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University, who believes the term was adopted and popularized by the CIA to discredit John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.
Either way, the word is now so tainted by association that few who do believe in fringe theories would ever describe themselves thus. Instead, they prefer the term “Truth Seeker.” (Case in point: you can’t get this twitter handle now unless you want to add a lot of digits to the end.)
We know conspiracy theorists. They’re silly. They wear tinfoil hats in movies to protect them against alien death rays. But “truth seekers”? That’s a hell of a rebrand.