Prof. Karen Douglas is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent. Karen studies the psychology of conspiracy theories and the social consequences of conspiracism.
Dr David Archibald is Senior Lecturer in Theatre, Film and Television Studies at University of Glasgow.
Karen Douglas shared her research and that of other psychologists and social scientists working in the area, while David Archibald spoke about the ways in which conspiracy theories have been treated by cinema, and how we respond to these stories. Below is an edited transcript of some of the discussion. A fuller audio recording can be listened to at the bottom of this post, where we also list links for further reading on the topic.
Karen, can you tell us about your area of research?
KD: I’m a psychologist, so I come at things from an empirical and usually experimental angle. I am really interested in why people believe conspiracy theories, why they resonate with so many people. Of course conspiracies do happen but nevertheless people vary a lot in how much they believe conspiratorial explanations as opposed to official explanations for events.
I am also interested in how influential conspiracy theories are, so how much they can change people’s opinions about events, and also what some of the social consequences of belief in conspiracy theories might be, especially when they relate to things like climate change, vaccination and trust in the government.
How would you define a conspiracy theory?
KD: In the literature I read it is usually defined as a secret plot by powerful groups to cover something up. Usually these alleged conspirators don’t have positive motivations. They’re not doing things for good, they’re doing things for evil, sinister purposes.
Is there a personality type that is more drawn to belief in these theories?
KD: Research has suggested that there are certain personal characteristics that might attract people to conspiracy theories. I am moving away from that in my own research because I tend to think it can pathologize people who believe in conspiracy theories a little too much. There are characteristics that have been linked to heightened conspiracy belief – things like paranoia, mistrust, low agreeableness, highly Machiavellian people…. but this paints quite a negative picture and I think maybe we need to think a bit more about positive characteristics about people that might attract them to conspiracy theories as well…
One of the things that you do come across is that the explanations for things that happen tend to become so nebulous that they can become closed off from any evidence from the official account or other perspectives – so it can become a closed mindset.
David, do you think this is reflected in conspiracy cinema?
DA: I’m going to start by mentioning a film I watched last night by a Chilean filmmaker called Patricio Guzmán. The film was called The Pearl Button. He also made famous films Nostalgia For the Light and the trilogy Battle for Chile about the Chilean coup by Pinochet that overthrew the Allende government. That’s a conspiracy film about how the CIA backed the forces that overthrew a democratically elected government. In cinema there’s lots of films that look at issues like that. And it surfaces in the United States in 1982 when a non-American filmmaker, Costa-Gavras, makes a film called Missing, where Jack Lemmon plays a man who is trying to find his son and is up against the Powers That Be to try and get to the truth of things. So I suppose my starting point is that power definitely camouflages what it does, and bad shit happens. What’s interesting is why these points emerge at certain moments historically. In the ‘70s and ‘80s in the United States there is a plethora of these films, asking questions of truth and trust. This film [The Parallax View] is really Kafka-esque. What’s interesting is why this moment arrives in a place which is regarded as a democracy. And I think that’s to do with how we understand truth and whether we trust the people we elect – for instance in the ’70s, on the back of Vietnam and post-JFK.
The film JFK, directed by Oliver Stone in ’91, is a really fragmented film. It uses footage of the actors playing out what’s going on, archive footage of what happened, footage which looks like archive but is actually actors… it looks at the past and depicts the past by saying that the past is all these different assemblages of different formats. It’s hard to get to the truth of the past… the film deliberately plays around with what’s real and what’s not.
Karen, do you think that the idea of getting a complete story with a beginning, middle and end might have something to do with why we are drawn to conspiracy narratives?
KD: I think so… some psychological research would suggest that a state of uncertainty is a very aversive state – nobody wants to be unsure. Conditions of uncertainty, and people who are predisposed to feel generally uncertain, tend lean more toward conspiratorial explanations because they do at least provide an explanation.
DA: I think there is a breakdown in how we, and history, understands truth. In the last 30 years there has been a critique by academic historians of the idea that we can have objective accounts of the past. And there is a prevalence of the idea that all we can get by looking at the past is subjective accounts.
So if you present someone with a counter-narrative which disproves a conspiracy theory, people can just say “well that’s just another story… all accounts of the past are just stories and one doesn’t have primacy over the other.” And in the philosophy of history that idea has quite a bit of currency. So these ideas which circulate in philosophy can have an impact on why people support ideas which don’t appear to be substantiated by evidence.
Audience question: The film portrays the High State assassinating political leaders. But if you look at the history of the last 30 years here, there is a whole raft of conspiracy and collusion between the state, corporations, the police etc… the Saville case is a great example of it. Maybe the film isn’t conspiratorial enough, because looking at recent history people are now thinking that the state is just utterly corrupt with regard to its delivery of justice.
DA: There’s a very interesting film called Hidden Agenda directed by Ken Loach, about collusion between British secret services and Loyalist paramilitaries. And at the time [of release] that was ridiculed for being a conspiracy. It’s now recognized that it is pretty accurate, though fictionalized… in the last year the story is that there was also collusion between British paramilitaries and the IRA. I think there is a breakdown of in trust in politicians in Britain… so that’s another reason why people are prepared to accept the counternarratives.
Audience comment: The term ‘conspiracy theory’ has negative connotations. Some people would regard me as a conspiracy theorist, but I’d regard myself more as a critical thinker. So if you’re presented with something, you question it. A conspiracy theory is only a conspiracy theory until it becomes the truth.
KD: I agree that the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ is quite pejorative and unfairly so. One of the main problems is that anyone who believes in any kind of conspiracy tends to be lumped in with the David Icke, lizard people, extreme sort of thing.
One interesting thing psychologically is that if someone is inclined to believe in one conspiracy, they’re also inclined to believe in others. I think this is one of the reasons why research has been pointing the finger at certain individuals who might be quite likely to opt for the conspiracy theory – the image of strange, paranoid type who will believe anything. I do think that is unfair and more research needs to be done to focus on more positive aspects, such as critical thinking and creativity, which might lead to people entertaining conspiracy theories.
Another factor is that on some level we are all predisposed to think that conspiracies happen, because from an evolutionary perspective it’s not very adaptive just to blindly trust and not to think that there are threats in the environment – that people are against us. If you see a predator but don’t imagine its intentions might be to kill you, you might not be able to run away and save yourself. So from a psychological perspective, being sensitive to the idea that there is agency out there and things happen is not an entirely irrational way to think about the environment – and people who show a tendency to over-attribute agency tend to go for conspiracy theories as well.
DA: I think there is something potentially paralyzing, faced with the idea of the Kafka-esque ‘dark state’, because you can’t beat it. If the Crusading White Journalist [in The Parallax View] can’t do it, that kind of closes down dissent. That would be my critique of the film. Although it shines a light on something it also says that the machine is impossible to defeat – step out of line and you’ll be crushed. So you feel more powerless. You narrativize it, get a handle on it but say “nothing can be done because the powers that be are too well organized”.
There’s no shortage of organised conspiracy. Until 1970 the kids in Spain were taught, in the state education system, that Guernica was the work of Spanish anarchists. So organized power definitely does stuff that we don’t know about. History tells us that. But for me it’s nothing like on the all-encompassing scale that is presented in this film.
Audience question: Do you think that when popular figures like JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana – people who people identify with – die, that this helps conspiracy theories to snowball?
KD: Possibly. Definitely with the death of someone very important to people, if the explanation for their death is not proportional to the event itself it can seem insufficient. For instance if Princess Diana got in a car, the driver was drunk, he drove to fast, the car crashed – that’s very mundane. And the sheer volume of people who loved her won’t necessarily accept that. And you could match that up with various types of conspiracy theories. In the 9/11 attacks the official explanation is, while not mundane, fairly simple. The conspiracy theories aren’t, and sometimes people find them more satisfying. And I guess that’s due to the proportionality of the event.
Audience question: I’d like to ask about gender and conspiracy theory. The Parallax View felt like a very male film.
DA: You’re right, the film is totally male. It’s not only that there are lots of men in it doing Western-type fighting, but I’d argue that even its form is masculine – dark shadows, those beautiful elevator shots. I wonder whether men are more attracted towards conspiracy theories?
KD: I don’t know that they are. If you think about the prototypical person who believes in conspiracy theories, you tend to think of American middle-aged men, and if you read conspiracy discussions, those are the people that tend to appear. But in my research I have participants of both gender and I don’t find a great deal of difference between the genders in terms of how much they believe standard conspiracy theories. We usually give them a scale to rate agreement with a variety of different, quite well-known conspiracy theories and don’t really find gender differences. If anything, women tend to go for conspiracy theories more than men. Not necessarily significantly so, but that’s the trend – so that goes against the stereotype of the conspiracy-thinking male.
Audience question: Are there any differences socio-economically?
KD: Older people tend to believe conspiracy theories less than younger people, people with higher levels of education tend to believe conspiracy theories less. I’m not so sure about socio-economic status. Religiosity predicts conspiracy belief. This is just a standard system of getting people to answer on a 1-7 scale, and it’s all correlation, so it doesn’t mean for instance that religiosity causes conspiracy belief. But those relationships are there.
The way that psychologists and political scientists tend to quantitatively measure belief in conspiracy theories is by asking participants to rate agreement with certain well-known conspiracy theories. Other scales rate a more general tendency to believe in conspiratorial explanations, so you might say ‘governments act behind the scenes against the best interests of citizens’ or ‘powerful corporations hide information from the public’. And you tend to find that people who score high on one of those types of scale also score high on the other, so a lot of people feel it’s more of a general mindset.
Is there other research that people can look at if they want to know more about the psychology behind conspiracy theories?
KD: Yes, there’s a book called Suspicious Minds by researcher Rob Brotherton about the psychology of conspiracy, which is really accessible and gives a very broad overview of what we know so far. There are other disciplines that study conspiracy theory belief as well – quite a few people in political science study conspiracy theories in a quantitative way like a psychologist would do, including Oliver & Wood and Joe Uscinski. But it’s also dealt with in all sorts of other disciplines: cultural studies, sociology, film studies, literature.
David, what are your top conspiracy theory films?
DA: JFK may be the most interesting. People like it for all sorts of different reasons: for its impact, because it questions, because it suggestions that the past is complicated and fragmented, not a closed world. Missing is a good film. It’s an interesting film because it’s the United States dissenting against its own foreign policy. If you look at the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s there is no shortage. Hidden Agenda, the Loach one, is slightly different and it’s a bit of a thriller.
Another point is that one of the reasons that conspiracy theories circulate is because they’re stories. We understand the world we inhabit through the use of stories. Conspiracy theories lend themselves to good cinema because, whether or not you agree with the politics, it’s a good story. Hollywood excels at stories of an individual up against powers. In classical Hollywood they tend to overcome them, following the classical path of antiquity in terms of drama. Someone is faced with a series of obstacles, overcomes them and lives happily ever after. Conspiracy stories often don’t follow that narrative. They’re interesting because they unsettle the traditional Hollywood triumph over adversity narrative. But there’s something there that gives us another kind of satisfactory story, even if you come away thinking “that’s really unsettling, but I understand it”.
Audience question: Could you talk about how cross-cultural conspiracy theories are? We’ve mostly talked about Europe and America.
KD: Absolutely, different countries have different conspiracy theories for different reasons. It’s a real flaw in terms of the type of research that I do that it’s mostly done in countries like Britain, the United States, Australia. I’m working with a Macedonian student at the moment who argues that things are really different over there, it’s a different political climate and that people who are very left wing would be more likely to believe conspiracy theories against their government than you would expect to be the case here. So we’re looking at a possible cross-cultural difference between a British and Macedonian sample in terms of the psychological factors that predict conspiracy belief. But there isn’t a lot of that research done yet.
Historically is this tendency to see and believe conspiracy theories new or does it go back throughout history?
KD: I think some psychologists would say that it’s a general tendency and people are wired to believe in conspiracy theories, it’s something that has always been with us and always will be. There was an analysis done fairly recently in which Joe Uscinski looked at letters to the New York Times from the 1800s to now, looking for instances of the word ‘conspiracy’ and various related words. He expected to find great big peaks at crucial times in history, but didn’t find this. So he argues that conspiracy theorizing is something we have always done and will always do.
DA: That’s interesting – so you might argue that there’s a constant in terms of what people believe, but you can certainly detect trends in culture where this seems to have prevalence, to surface and have more purchase.
KD: Another thing is that a lot of people assume conspiracy theorizing is on the rise because of the fact that people use the Internet now. But again people aren’t find a great deal of evidence to suggest that the Internet is entirely responsible for any spike in conspiracy theorizing. Nevertheless it is easy for people to share ideas, so maybe it changes the way that people think and talk about alleged conspiracies.
DA: It’s also created the conditions where someone can cut up footage from the news and put an alternative account of the past on the Internet. So people have got the capacity to construct a narrative and put it out in the public domain, which has got the potential to reach everybody on the planet – even if in reality it might get four hits.
Is it possible that film, with its impression of indexical, recorded truth-telling and it’s huge potential for manipulation of footage and meaning, isn’t a reliable format for getting to real truths anyway?
DA: I’m not sure about that. The Chilean films directed by Guzmán are canonical works of truth-telling about what happened in Chile in 1973 – unquestionably useful for countering the narrative presented by those in power, through the use of archive footage. Of course Hollywood is a dream machine which constructs lies, but nevertheless there is some kind of truth we can get, certainly in documentary and non-fiction cinema, and sometimes even in fiction.
Further reading links
- Suspicious Minds by Rob Brotherton;
- The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories – A blog by four academic psychologists examining the psychology of conspiracy theories;
- Joe Uscinski’s Conspiracy & Politics blog.
This event was presented with the support of a Wellcome Trust People Award.