With the Corona pandemic, so-called conspiracy narratives have received increasing public attention. But even if it seems so, they are neither a new phenomenon nor has the number of conspiracy believers increased significantly since the beginning of the pandemic. However, in times of social upheaval, conspiracy beliefs become increasingly visible where they may have previously gone unnoticed. A look at history also shows that conspiracy theory explanations have a long tradition.
Burden on the environment
Conspiracy narratives refer to a wide range of topics and therefore appeal to people from different social and political milieus. According to representative studies, between 20 and 30 percent of the population in Germany believe in conspiracy narratives to varying degrees.
Particularly in the private sphere, the confrontation with conspiracy beliefs can be a great burden and tear deep rifts in family and personal relationships. Often, conversations revolve only around the conspiracy narratives and accompanying missionary attempts by the conspiracy-believing person. In addition, there is the worry about the conspiracy-believing person himself, who – especially in the case of personal crises – is under enormous psychological stress.
Since conspiracy narratives prove to be connectable to anti-human ideas and can become the basis for legitimizing violence, they also endanger social cohesion and democracy in radicalized form.
Explanations for social change
But what exactly do we mean when we speak of "conspiracy narratives"? According to Americanist Prof. Dr. Michael Butter, conspiracy narratives are characterized by "the fact that a group operating in secret, namely the conspirators, seeks to control or destroy an institution, a country, or even the entire world for base motives." In addition to this belief, the scholar finds three other basic assumptions characteristic of conspiracy narratives: Nothing happens by chance. Nothing is as it seems. Everything is interconnected.
Conspiracy narratives thus offer an interpretive pattern into which almost all social developments can be placed. Complex and abstract facts can thus always be traced back to the malicious actions of superior elites and thus personalized. With the help of the question "Cui bono?" – "Who benefits?" – conspiracy believers infer the alleged conspirators: Whoever actually or supposedly benefits from an event, so the assumption goes, must be responsible for it. The conspirators are also believed to be able to deceive large sections of the public.
Unlike real conspiracies, which could be uncovered in the past through fact-based research or whistleblowing, conspiracy narratives lack a factual basis. In this respect, irrational conspiracy belief also differs from a critical attitude toward authorities and media reporting, which is of great value in a democratic society.
Conspiracy narratives fulfill certain needs
Belief in conspiracy narratives has nothing to do with a person's intelligence or psychological makeup. Conspiracy believers are neither "stupid" nor mentally ill. Conspiracy narratives, however, can fulfill needs that arguably many people have. Pia Lamberty and Katharina Nocun distinguish three such needs:
1) Existential needs: the quest for control and security.
2) Epistemic needs: the desire to understand the world around you.
3) Social needs: the striving to be perceived positively by others.
In our counseling work, too, we regularly see that turning to conspiracy narratives can often be traced back to concrete experiences of crisis and powerlessness or an experienced personal or political loss of control. This is because the perception of individual powerlessness can be compensated for by belief in conspiracies and thus a sense of control can be regained.
Connectivity to misanthropic attitudes
Although belief in conspiracy narratives is therefore often based on psychological motives, they also offer great connectivity to anti-human ideologies. They particularly often echo anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Not every conspiracy narrative is anti-Semitic, and by no means every follower of a conspiracy narrative is anti-Semitic, right-wing extremist or potentially violent. But because conspiracy narratives want to identify and name those responsible and guilty, typical anti-Semitic motifs, such as the "string-puller," quickly emerge. The personalized image of the enemy is then filled with Jews, Jewish women, or with people imagined as Jewish. The belief, which at first seems harmless, can then condense into a closed world view in which all social events follow an alleged "Jewish world conspiracy."
Potential for radicalization and violence
Belief in conspiracy narratives has a great potential for radicalization and can thus become not only a burden for the environment, but also a danger for others and ultimately even for the conspiracy-believing individuals themselves. In the work of the veritas counseling center, it is shown again and again that it is therefore important, on the one hand, to take seriously the dangers emanating from conspiracy belief, but also to understand the personal burdens that go hand in hand with it. Only in this way can we adequately counter the phenomenon and support the personal and family environment of conspiracy believers in dealing with it.
Sources & References
Michael Butter (2018): „Nichts ist, wie es scheint“: Über Verschwörungstheorien. Edition Suhrkamp.
Roland Imhoff/ Pia Lamberty (2017): Too special to be Duped: Need for Uniqueness Motivates Conspiracy, in: European Journal of Social Psychology 47, 2017, Nr. 6, S. 724-734.
Nocun, Katharina/ Lamberty, Pia (2021): True Facts: Was gegen Verschwörungserzählungen wirklich hilft. Quadriga.
Skudlarek, Jan (2019): Wahrheit und Verschwörung. Wie wir erkennen, was echt und wirklich ist. Reclam.