Why do insecure people disapprove of you
"The pandemic is a prime example of loss of control" : A psychologist explains - that's behind the corona conspiracy theories
Ms. Lamberty, you are researching the spread of conspiracy theories. Why are these booming right now in the Corona crisis?
When people feel out of control, they seek strategies to deal with it. One strategy is to see patterns where there are none. A conspiracy tale structures the world. Therefore, threats and uncertainties go hand in hand with an increased susceptibility to conspiracy theories. You can see that after terrorist attacks, for example. However, experimental studies also show that people with insecure work relationships see more conspiracies.
And is there just a lot of uncertainty right now?
The current pandemic is a prime example of loss of control. This is a climate in which conspiracy theories flourish. That could already be observed with AIDS, Zika or even the Spanish flu. And the current conspiracy theories also fall on fertile ground. In the last Mitte study, 50 percent of Germans said that they would rather trust their feelings than experts. That is a worryingly high number.
You have looked at two central corona conspiracy theories and how your followers behave in the corona crisis. What was the result?
One of the narratives in the Corona crisis is that people believe that the virus does not exist or is hardly dangerous and that it is being exploited by politics. Others believe the virus was created by dark forces to harm the population. People who believe that the virus does not exist or that it is presented in an exaggerated manner adhere less to hygiene measures. Those who believe in some kind of bioweapon rush to personal preparation - such as stocking up excessively, withdrawing large amounts of cash, acquiring weapons.
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They also assume that there are quite a few conspiracy theorists who believe in both narratives at the same time. In fact, these do not actually fit together.
Previous research has shown that people believe in conspiracy theories that are logically mutually exclusive. People who believed that Lady Diana was killed by the secret service tended to believe that she was still alive. That doesn't bother these people. There is such a thing as a conspiracy mentality. It is a generalized skepticism towards people who are perceived as powerful. They are then assumed to have evil in mind.
But if you believe something like that, it doesn't exactly make you feel safe.
A conspiracy theory structures the world in ominous ways. But it supposedly provides support because you think you know how things work. Studies show that when great events happen - like the death of Lady Diana, for example - people believe that there must be great causes. The conspiracy narrative can give meaning to things. This makes events more manageable than if they just happened by chance. A second point is also interesting: Belief in conspiracies also satisfies the need to be unique.
You feel like you're one of the few who know what's going on - while everyone else is chasing after the government. In an experiment, people with a high conspiracy mentality were more willing to believe the invented theory that smoke alarms are installed to make people sick - if they learned that only a minority of their fellow human beings believed that too. That made the narrative more believable in their eyes.
There are many conspiracy stories about the subject of health. What impact can this have?
People who believe in conspiracy theories are also more likely to reject conventional medicine. This can be proven experimentally. My colleague Roland Imhoff and I introduced people to a fictitious drug and said that one variant was made by a pharmaceutical company and another by a small consortium. People with low conspiracy mentalities mostly took this from the drug company. Those with a high conspiracy mentality are more like that of the small, alternative consortium. Anyone who suspects conspiracies everywhere is less likely to be vaccinated or not using conventional treatment methods. In times like these, you may not only harm yourself, but also endanger others.
Background to the coronavirus:
Often conspiracy theorists are ridiculed. But the Hanau and Halle assassins tackled conspiracy theories. And currently 5G cell towers are being set alight in several countries because the story is spread that there is a connection between the coronavirus outbreak and the expansion of the latest 5G cellular standard. Has the danger of conspiracy theories been underestimated for too long?
Conspiracy theories go hand in hand with hostility against certain groups. You can see, for example, that anti-Semitic models of world explanation are currently playing an increasingly important role, which either George Soros or Israel suspect behind the virus. Such conspiracy theories have always existed: In the Middle Ages Jews were suspected to be behind the plague, National Socialism worked through conspiracy theories. In contemporary society, however, they have long been played down. It was only after the last attacks that it became clear how big the problem is and what it can lead to. We were also able to prove the danger in our studies. It was found that people who believe in conspiracies are more likely to turn to political alternatives outside the democratic spectrum and see violence as an option for political action.
What can the government do in the Corona crisis to counter the spread of conspiracy theories?
It is important that the government is transparent about it. Otherwise it will fuel mistrust and insecurity. This applies, for example, to the contradicting information that was initially given about face masks or also with regard to the relaxation of measures. Belief in conspiracies always also has a social component. When people feel that they are excluded from the democratic process, this can have an even greater effect. Nevertheless, one must not make the mistake of understanding the people who fuel such ideologies as being driven by circumstances. Very often this ideology goes hand in hand with anti-Semitism, racism and sexism, which must be clearly contradicted.
Pia Lamberty is a social psychologist at the University of Mainz and researches the spread of conspiracy theories. The book "Fake Facts: How Conspiracy Theories Determine Our Thinking", which Lamberty wrote together with the network activist Katharina Nocun, is due to appear in May.
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