“For what man had rather were true he more readily believes
.…numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding” (Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620).
Thinking that suggests a covert plan to do something unlawful or harmful is called conspiratorial thinking. Conspiracy theories have been around forever. However, in 2020 they seem to be on the rise. Why?
Conspiratorial thinking appears to be some combination of motivated reasoning along with personal and systemic bias. Motivated reasoning is when we are motivated to find the reasons we are looking for, or our ideology.
Personal bias is any preconceived or unreasoned trend, inclination, feeling or opinion. Systemic or institutional bias tends to add to motivated reasoning and personal bias through the inherent tendency of a process to support particular outcomes, a preconceived agenda.
“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” ― Jonathan Swift
In the event of a perceived discrepancy between a reported reality and one’s biased perception of reality, the potential for conspiratorial thinking will be inclined to increase. Being torn by two different realities, an uncomfortable ambiguity, creates a need for structure. Conspiracy theorists are given life through a consuming desire to resolve their ambiguity. Spreading conspiracy theories allows one’s belief/ideology to be reinforced by others.
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” ― Albert Einstein
Individuals are compromised even further by the fact that institutional bias also benefits from conspiratorial thinking. Institutional agendas are at times set and met via disinformation, which creates mistrust and suspicion of those institutions, whether they are political, religious, or corporate. Mistrust feeds conspiratorial thinking and the need to validate that thinking through others.
“I'm telling you a lie in a vicious effort that you will repeat my lie over and over until it becomes true” ― Lady Gaga
In 2020, there appears to be a coalescence of disinformation and conspiratorial thinking. Mistrust of political leaders, mass media, and special interests has reached critical mass. Conspiracy theorists have a plethora of opportunistic situations to spread their agendas. Greater philosophical disparity and polarization has only increased the potential for utilizing conspiracy to create artificial and simplistic answers to complex issues.
“If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we'd be so simple that we couldn't.” ― Ian Stewart, The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World
Social media and mass media have the capacity to spread conspiratorial thinking in nanoseconds. Never before in our history has there been a vehicle to disseminate and nurture a contagion of thinking, feeling and expression. The deleterious ramifications of not challenging conspiratorial thinking, based on current trends, will inevitably lead to even greater amounts of disinformation in the future.
Bruce Wilson, PhD has been a registered psychologist in Australia and New Zealand for over 20 years and is currently in private practice at Mind Health Care in Geelong, Victoria, Australia.