What is conspiracy? “An ultra-critical mind devoid of a self-critical mind”, writes Pascal Wagner-Egger, researcher at the University of Friborg (Switzerland). In Psychology of beliefs in conspiracy theories (Presses Universitaires de Grenoble), he analyzes the reasons for their growing success and explains how they can deflect legitimate and rational social criticism.
You write that conspiracy theories are attractive because they are “good narrative clients”. That is to say ?
Pascal Wagner-Egger There are three families of explanations that contribute to the success of conspiracy theories: socio-political, psychological and communicational. From a socio-political point of view, these are attractive because it is a speech of revenge against the elites, against the socio-economic system in which we live. It is hardly surprising that we find them, in our research data, more at political extremes, on the extreme left but especially on the extreme right. It is a discourse that also resonates more easily at the bottom of the social ladder, where inequalities are felt most strongly. We observe that the greater the gap between low and high wages in a country, the more beliefs there are in conspiracy theories among the population. But there is also a psychological attraction to revealing an alleged plot: it is not for nothing that the motif of the plot is also present in works of fiction – we think of Matrix or to Truman Show. The erratic data, the anomalies of the official version, have an appeal. On the basis of a few oddities which are not for all that proof, one very quickly begins to believe in a plot which offers an attractive narrative. Finally, there is the impact of the Internet, which spreads rumors at unparalleled speed, stores and archives everything, providing access to a sort of permanent conspiratorial body where rumors tended to fade on their own. .
Can cognitive science explain conspiratorial beliefs?
Pascal Wagner-Egger Partly yes. This is where cognitive biases come in, which obviously concerns us all, not just the conspirators. It is a fast-paced way of thinking in our brain, called intuitive thinking. Our brains deceive us with a number of these biases, such as the proportionality bias. We naturally tend to think that an important event necessarily has an important cause, that it cannot be a trivial cause. We can also cite the intentionality bias, which consists in perceiving human intentions everywhere rather than the result of chance. Or the biased assimilation bias, or confirmation bias, that is to say the tendency to privilege information that goes in the direction of our beliefs to the detriment of others.
Is there a bridge between certain Marxist social critiques and conspiracy?
Pascal Wagner-Egger On the matter, there is an interesting sociological debate between the partisans of Chomsky and those of Bourdieu. Chomsky is criticized for being too intentionalist, for attributing to the media a desire to deceive, for example … For Bourdieusians, it is not a concerted will: it is indeed the effects of social structures that are reproduced. There is not an elite that meets and agrees to reduce humans to slavery, there is an unequal system that benefits actors and actresses who have every interest in perpetuating it. And besides, there is nothing hidden: the rules of the capitalist game are laid down for all to see. The conspiracy then consists precisely in pointing the finger at identified agents – the example of Bill Gates – instead of pointing to social structures. Some people blame anti-conspiracy by saying that it is a way of discrediting all critical thinking. Which may be true: shouting conspiracy can be an argument against any criticism of the system. But this is where it is important to distinguish between conspiracy theory and investigation. By making this critique of conspiracy, of fallacious, irrational or misguided critiques of the system, we improve social criticism. It consists in a way of criticizing the religion of the conspiracy (the conspiracy theories that can be defined as beliefs in conspiracies without sufficient proof) to substitute a science of the conspiracy (investigation, journalistic or sociological).
Have we lost in advance to the conspirators?
Pascal Wagner-Egger The first thing is social remedies, at the structural level. That is to say, strengthen independent checks and balances, the independence of science, the independence of the press, and fight against the inequalities on which conspiracy theories thrive. At the individual level, we can work upstream, develop critical thinking and educate young people about the media, how to verify a source, etc. But it is difficult to dialogue downstream with someone who is fully convinced. If you object to a conspiracy theory, you may still be suspected of being part of the conspiracy … However, in extreme cases where you do not want to lose contact, you can try to initiate a discussion without opposing arguments. rational, without judging but by questioning the person, in an almost Socratic dialogue, by leading him to question himself on the flaws in his theory. For this, we must arm ourselves with patience.