Our culture seems swamped with conspiracy theories these days. A certain, persistent segment of the public is particularly susceptible to believing these unlikely, bizarre and simply odd ideas. In fact, according to the Guardian, people who tend to put stock in “wise-sounding” but nonsensical phrases—that is, bullshit—are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and the paranormal:

Those who are receptive to pseudo-profound, intellectual-sounding ‘bulls***’ are less intelligent, less reflective, and more likely to be believe in conspiracy theories, the paranormal and alternative medicine.

As an example, [the authors of the study] gave the following ‘pseudo-profound’ statement: “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

The paper says: “Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure.”

… In a fairly damning passage from the paper, it says that those who were more receptive to the bulls*** statements and who tended to rate them higher were “less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy) and are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation.”

Conspiracy theories are like rumors on steroids. They live on suspicion and adrenaline. Because the human brain is built to seek patterns in its environment, those who lean toward giving weight to unfounded and outlandish concepts are in danger of falling prey to a sense of paranoid pareidolia.

In fact, those who believe in one conspiracy theory often believe in more. Some folks have wondered why this would be; I posit that the brain sees the umbrella ideas the same way it recognizes brands. So there is no real competition between Bigfoot and the belief that Malaysian Flight 370 was taken up by celestial forces—there is room to accommodate all of that.

How Conspiracy Theories Are Shaped


Conspiracy theories “may be viewed as a particular form of weird beliefs that cover all kinds of distorted views,” according to Włodzisław Duch in “Memetics and Neural Models of Conspiracy Theories.” He warns, “Once a set of distorted memory states is entrenched it becomes a powerful force, attracting and distorting new thoughts associated with them. Deep encoding of information that enhances the memeplex is one of the reasons why conspiracy theories are so persistent.”

“There are many scenarios leading to formation of conspiracy theories,” Włodzisław Duch tells us.

A rather common situation is due to the rapid freezing of high neuroplasticity. Initial uncertainty of important information (there are rumors that something strange or dangerous has happened) leads to confusion and strong anxiety (perhaps the news are not true, who knows what has really happened). High emotions and stress leads to release of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators from the brain stem nuclei, through the ascending pathways, activating serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine systems. In this period of strong arousal increased brain plasticity allows for rapid learning. It is not yet clear what information is worth encoding, so all facts and gossips are memorized.

“Once the uncertain situation is resolved, either in positive or in negative way, there is no need for further learning,” Duch says in sum. “Strong emotions have depleted neurotransmitters, therefore neuroplasticity is rapidly decreased.”

Who Holds These Wild Ideas?

Something that Duch specifically advances is that the propensity to fall for conspiracy theories and related strange, unfounded ideas may stem from elements of an individual’s background, particularly of what we would call demographics.

Predispositions for accepting distorted views of reality may come as a side effect of education and life experiences and therefore are rather hard to investigate. Accepting simple explanations is rewarding, creates pleasant feelings of understanding. Complex explanations [require] a lot of effort to understand and it takes time. It feels better to have a simple (although inadequate) explanation than to have no explanation at all.

Conspiracy theories are often held by those stigmatized by society, but they also can be galvanized by the feeling of an in-group perceiving both their superiority over an outgroup and simultaneously sensing being put under threat by either the same or another outside group, presumably inferior. This superpositioning, this simultaneous possession of a superiority and an inferiority complex, frees a person to persecute their perceived enemies without any moral qualms. This phenomenon is in many ways connected to the in-group’s sense of collective narcissism.

According to Jan-Willem van Proojen and Karen M. Douglas in a paper published in 2018 (with my emphasis):

[E]xperimental studies support the idea that the two key ingredients of intergroup conflict—a strong ingroup identity and a sense of outgroup threat—jointly stimulate belief in conspiracy theories, but only after receiving information that the group is under threat[.] Likewise, self-uncertainty predicts increased conspiracy theory beliefs, but only among people who feel included in a group[.] These studies suggest that a strong ingroup identity increases conspiracy theories but only in conjunction with a sense of threat.

In the U.S., the above describes the White lower middle class and lower class. The “white trash.”

➡ RELATED STORY: QAnon, COVID, cognition, and the concept of white trash

“We are, whether we like it or not, the party of lower-income, lower-education white people,” J.D. Vance confided to a friend in a 2016 text message that has recently surfaced. He was referring to the Republican Party, home of the economically slighted and blighted.

So this means that the GOP cannot afford to turn away from or deny conspiracy theories. In fact, this incentivizes them to keep creating new ones, especially those that play on an underlying sense of threat, a danger of loss.

But key to this in the U.S. is that the White lower and lower-middle classes are both stigmatized minorities (“white trash”, “meth-heads/heroin hillbillies”) and participate in the majority collective narcissism, so they are superpositioned psychologically. Thus they would be particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories.

This also explains the intrinsic dynamics of a persecuting culture. The power assumed by the individual psyche in such a culture is derived from a sense of smiting and retaliation to perceived threat. Rumor can be all that is necessary to stimulate the amygdala, bypass the higher cognitive functions involved in the prefrontal cortex, and cause those mistaken beliefs to fuel reactive violence (or, among some, like the Buffalo shooter, instrumental violence).


Erich Fromm, writing in The Heart of Man (where he coined the term malignant narcissism), had this to say about different forms of violence:

By reactive violence I understand that violence which is employed in the defense of life, freedom, dignity, property—one’s own or that of others. It is rooted in fear, and for this very reason it is probably the most frequent form of violence; the fear can be real or imagined, conscious or unconscious. …

Very often the feeling of being threatened and the resulting reactive violence are not based upon reality, but on the manipulation of man’s mind; political and religious leaders persuade their adherents that they are threatened by an enemy, and thus arouse the subjective response of reactive hostility.


To be sure, some conspiracy theories, such as the existence of an abominable snowman, would probably only lead to bemusement or fascination, not direct fear or violence. But some, such as the overstoking of fears regarding critical race theory, or the abysmal concept of the Great Replacement, would certainly run the risk of such outcomes.

[T]he majority of people, at least in most civilized countries, cannot be made to kill and to die unless they are first convinced that they are doing so in order to defend their lives and freedom; second, it shows that it is not difficult to persuade millions of people that they are in danger of being attacked, and hence that they are called upon to defend themselves. Such persuasion depends most of all on a lack of independent thinking and feeling, and on the emotional dependence of the vast majority of people on their political leaders. Provided there is this dependence, almost anything presented with force and persuasion will be accepted as real. The psychological results of the acceptance of a belief in an alleged threat are, of course, the same as those of a real threat. People feel threatened, and in order to defend themselves are willing to kill and to destroy. In the case of paranoid delusions of persecution we find the same mechanism, only not on a group basis, but on an individual one.

(My emphasis.) Again, this goes to explain why Republican leaders cannot find it within themselves to denounce Fox News or to distance themselves from their former espousals of these terrible paranoid conspiracies. They need those ideas to be operational, precisely in order to manipulate their followers.

Of revengeful violence, which is similar to reactive violence but means to magically undo a past misadventure, Fromm says this:

In severe psychopathology, revenge becomes the dominant aim of [a person’s] life, since without revenge not only self-esteem, but the sense of self and of identity threaten to collapse. Similarly we find that in the most backward groups (in the economic or cultural and emotional aspects) the sense of revenge (for example, for a past national defeat) seems to be strongest. Thus the lower middle classes, which are those most deprived in industrialized nations, are in many countries the focus of revenge feelings, just as they are the focus of racialist and nationalist feelings.

The South will rise again”? Or “The best is yet to come!

He goes on later to say,

The First World War was a severe blow to humanism, and gave rise to an increasing orgy of group narcissism: national hysteria in all the belligerent countries of the First World War, Hitler’s racialism, Stalin’s party idolization, Muslim and Hindu religious fanaticism, Western anti-Communist fanaticism. These various manifestations of group narcissism have brought the world to the abyss of total destruction.

I would offer the suggestion that MAGA / QAnon is all of these things wrapped up in one, all aspects of the same movement. In many ways, it is syncretic (synthesized) social psychopathy.

What This Leads To

This takes us full circle, to the people most likely to believe bullshit if it sounds awe-inspiring but especially if spoken by national leaders solidly and with strength. The ones with chips on their shoulders and with something to lose—if not hard assets then that psychological benefit, the wage of identifying with whiteness. The GOP must stoke that. The energy concocted by such a rage is a real entity, and the Republicans hope to ride that tiger without ending up inside.

Personally, I don’t think they’re that nimble. Eventually, everyone gets eaten.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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