Conspiracy theories

with Mattias Lundberg

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About Mattias Lundberg
Mattias Lundberg is a psychologist, Associate Professor and senior lecturer at Umeå University. He is a public speaker and the author of the books Den Lyckliga Pessimisten (2014) and
Mamma ljuger så bra – Sanningen om din uppväxt (2019).

Mattias Lundberg, psychologist and Associate Professor at Umeå University.
Photo: Mattias Pettersson, Umeå.

What is the background to your knowledge in conspiracy theories?
– I’m not an expert in conspiracy theories, but I’m pretty good in people and how people function, especially our minds. That is really where the root of conspiracy theories lies. Conspiracy thinking is a part of the thinking we have, so that’s my entrance to the subject. As a psychologist I have the privilege of getting paid to think about how people think and act.

How would you define a conspiracy theory?
– It’s a theory based on the notion that someone has a hidden or partly hidden agenda with something they put forward. They use something else as the official reason but there are actually other secret purposes that the public doesn’t know about. These secret purposes are for someone to benefit from, someone else than the effected public. Conspiracy theorists are often referred to as tin foil hats, but there’s nothing saying that they are less gifted or less developed than others in any way. That is absolutely not the case. They are no idiots, but more or less like everybody else!

Many of the conspiracy theories seem to point out CIA, NASA, Big Pharma or the Jews as the ones with a hidden agenda, why is it so?
– Well, several of those you mention have something in common. They have a position of power compared to the individual citizen. CIA and similar organizations have a mandate from society to operate under somewhat secret circumstances, which of course creates a hotbed for speculations and assumptions from skeptical individuals. Many conspiracy theorists are skeptical towards society in general, especially towards authorities and people of power.

Why are some people attracted to conspiration theories, and are there any personality traits these people have in common?
– Conspiration theorists have a need, just like all people, to identify with others. They have a need to be part of a group, a need of affinity and affiliation. People generally prefer to be with like-minded rather than with people who they don’t agree with. It’s completely normal to look for groups where the members have a similar world view as yourself. Nowadays, we have even bigger possibilities to find these groups, with social media. With just a few clicks we can create a ”We who don’t believe…” or “We who think that…” group on Facebook, where we can have all our thoughts and theories confirmed by people who share them. There are interesting studies concluding that these people have an ability to find patterns in a different way than the rest of us. Patterns are interesting, as it is something that we all create and use in our daily lives. We depend a lot on schedules and seeing how things are connected. These studies are showing that people with a higher tendency towards conspiracy theories have a different way to build these patterns.

Is it reasonable to believe that people inherit conspiracy tendencies from their parents?
– Biology is not my home ground, I’m no geneticist. But what we have learned from genetics in general is that more is genetically inherited that we used to believe. Needless to say, we all pick up things from people who are close to us, and that’s nothing unique about conspiracy theories. If you look at political views, you can see that a lot of people vote just like their parents. It’s highly probable you carry thoughts of conspiracy with you if you have heard a lot about it at home. It’s also affected by education and what way you go in life, but to say that we are affected by our close ones is absolutely correct.

Is it true that people who are religious, believe in magic or higher powers have increased probability to be attracted by conspiracy theories?
Yes, there are studies confirming that. I do believe though, that it needs to be taken a part and analyzed further. It might not be because of the fact that they believe in supernatural powers, but rather that they have an openness for alternative explanations. Furthermore, I think about the fact that religious people often are part of larger, well-defined associations. The more we believe in things in a well-defined group, the bigger the chances that others will confirm those believes. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with believing in god, but rather the tendency to seeing alternative explanations.

In science it is encouraged to question believes and find alternative explanations. Do you see any clear border between a conspiracy theory and general healthy skepticism?
– The difference is the objective evidences, i.e. the objectivity in how to find these alternative explanations. The conspiracy theories are highly subjective while science is always striving for objectivity, so that independent of who’s observing the results should be the same. That’s the scientific method. As soon as subjectivity comes into the picture, there are many other factors that have to be considered. I don’t think there is any clear border defined. One thing to have in mind is that there has to be a creator to each conspiracy theory; they can’t come into existence by themselves. There has to be someone with an agenda behind it. There has to be a motivation for someone to put forward a message that is misleading. That’s a criterion for conspiracy theories. When it comes to normal skepticism it’s more about the will to find the truth when weird things occur that we can’t explain. There’s a substantial difference.

Is it possible to convince a conspiracy theorist with the help of evidence and facts?
– Well, the problem is that every piece of evidence against the conspiracy theory will be considered a part of the conspiracy. Especially if these pieces of evidence come from the organizations that these people are skeptical about, like the research community or Big Pharma. A huge study was published just a few weeks ago, concluding that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. No matter how much you present these facts, I’m sure the conspiracy theorists who are anti-vaxxers will not be convinced. That’s the core of the problem, that every word against the conspiracy theory is viewed as a part of the conspiracy.

It can sometimes be tricky to even imagine what the conspiracy agenda could be, for example with the flat earth theory. Is there any common idea among the conspiracy theorists of why the bad guys want to deceive the world?
– No, it’s hard to say that there is. But the reason is in most cases not what’s important, but just the fact that there is a hidden agenda. Some theories stay alive by the fact that the agenda is hidden, because that opens up the possibilities for speculations. If we had a clear agenda, it would first of all not be hidden and second, the more things that are clear, the less interesting it is for conspiracy theorists.

Conspiracies have obviously existed throughout history, so maybe it’s natural that these theories draw attention?
– Absolutely! The paranoid might actually be followed, and the conspiracy theorists might actually be right. That’s my point about not patronizing these people, just because they have conspiratorial tendencies. There’s nothing saying that they would be less intelligent or gifted because of that. Of course, conspiracies could exist.

Do you see any problems with conspiracy theories? Could they be dangerous?
– Not really. Not from society’s perspective, in my opinion. But they can cause problems, there’s no doubt about that. If we keep our children home from school because we’re afraid of a conspiracy of some kind, then there are direct consequences for the individual. If you believe in a conspiracy led by Big Pharma with vaccines, then we will see effects on the society, like the measles outbreaks recently. But you still have to put it in relation to other problems in the world, and then I see it as quite a small issue.

There is a conspiracy theory with high popularity among extreme right-wingers, called the Eurabia theory, based on the idea that Arabs are coming to take over Europe. This idea has inspired terrorists, like Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. It seems like at least some theories can lead to very serious consequences?
– Correct, that is possible when people go from thinking and believing to acting. What I’m saying is that someone just believing in a theory isn’t a big issue. But as soon as people act in some way, then there are consequences. I don’t see a big problem if people just believe that vaccines cause autism, but still vaccinate their children. But as soon as they act, and don’t allow the children the get vaccinated, we have a problem.

You mentioned social media. Can you elaborate the effects it has had on conspiracy theories?
– Well, I grew up in a small village in the north of Sweden called Älvsbyn. If I would have believed in a conspiracy theory when living there in early 1970s, it would have taken a long time before I would have run in to anyone with similar ideas, confirming my beliefs. But now I can basically reach the entire world with a few clicks. It’s so easy to find a group on Facebook supporting the theory I have, and when I’m in the group I will see the evidence I need to see, and thus becoming even more conspiratorial. You won’t choose to join the group who speaks against your theory, and therefore the counter arguments won’t reach you.

Could it be true that conspiracy theorists consider themselves to be smarter than others, as they have been able to see through the conspiracy unlike the rest of society?
– It’s possible, even if I haven’t seen any studies showing that they consider themselves more gifted or talented then others. But I would say it’s about curiosity. We all like to discover things. If the aforementioned pattern theory is correct, it means that it’s not a conscious process, to look for a truth that nobody else has discovered. To handle pattern in a different way is done subconsciously and discovering something feels interesting and exciting as it does for everybody.

Do you have any favorites among the more established conspiracy theories?
– When it comes to the flat earth theory, I wouldn’t really say it qualifies as a conspiracy theory, all though I don’t know much about it. I can’t see what the agenda behind it would be, what someone is trying to cover up, what the people in power is trying to achieve by falsely claiming that the earth is spherical. A theory that is very interesting for people from my generation in Sweden is the murder of prime minister Olof Palme in 1986. The fact that the case still isn’t solved, and probably won’t be solved, just adds to the level of interest. The most relevant theory today is probably the climate conspiracy, which seems to be immensely popular in social media, where the claim is that the whole climate crisis is a hoax and is actually about somebody trying to get rich. Despite a united science community with clear evidence of the crisis, these people chose to deny it and believe the conspiracy theory.