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How conspiracy theories underscore our susceptibility to thought distortions

Conspiracy theories are more rampant – and often more absurd – than...

How conspiracy theories underscore our susceptibility to thought distortions

Conspiracy theories are more rampant – and often more absurd – than ever.  How do we avoid succumbing to our own, personal versions of these stories?

Is Covid caused by 5G?  Or does it come from genetically modified crops?  Perhaps “big pharma” is behind it?

According to research led by clinical psychologists at the University of Oxford and published in the journal Psychological Medicine, 20.2 per cent of those asked said they agreed a little and 5.5 per cent agreed completely with the theory that coronavirus is a bio-weapon developed by China to destroy the West.  More than a fifth of interviewees (21 per cent), the researchers found, believe that the virus is a hoax.

The recent announcement by police about a new suspect in the case of Madeleine McCann is a reminder of the many conspiracy theories swirling around this tragic case.  Then there’s also the vexed question of whether Diana Princess of Wales was murdered and whether the moon landings were faked.

 

The mainstreaming of conspiracy theories

“The rise of social media, the growth in anti-establishment political movements, the declining levels of trust in institutions, and the rising competition between social groups, have all contributed to the ‘mainstreaming’ of conspiracy theories,” the British Foreign Policy Group, an independent think tank, says in a paper titled Conspiracy Theories in the COVID-19 Crisis and their Social & Geopolitical Consequences.

But, more generally, what is it about conspiracy theories that makes them so appealing to so many people?  One theory is that we find it difficult to accept that bad things happen randomly – a virus emerges and spreads rapidly, a young girl is abducted from a holiday villa or a hugely famous, glamorous woman dies in something so mundane as a car crash caused by a drunk driver.

Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, studies the psychology of conspiracy theories.  She recently told Sky News that we turn to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs are not met.  They are, she explained, “related to the need to feel safe and secure in the world. For example, research shows that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when they feel powerless or are anxious.”  Another driver is social and is: “related to the need to maintain a positive view of the self and the groups we belong to.” 

 

We create our own personal conspiracy theories

In our own lives we’re often tempted to create something like a conspiracy theory when, infuriatingly, things go wrong.  That feeling of powerlessness and anxiety and a need to maintain a positive view of ourselves – especially if it’s under attack from others – is familiar to many of us from time to time as we deal with work colleagues. 

You didn’t get that promotion?  Well, that’s just typical – you’ve never been appreciated in this company and the candidate who did get the job must have some hold on the person making the decision.  You weren’t asked to speak in a meeting?  That must be because whoever was running the meeting has a problem with you.  Just look at the time when…and before you know it, you’ve built up a case against this person and their fiendish plans. 

It’s easy and, in the short term, anyway, it’s reassuring because it provides an answer to the apparently random cruelty of life.  Just as Princess Diana couldn’t have simply been the victim of a drunk driver, we often can’t quite accept the annoying, unfair things that life throws at us too.  But in the longer term this view is damaging.  Conspiracy theories and invented stories can all too soon become facts and assumptions which form the foundations of our world view and guide our behaviour. 

 

Step back and be mindful

As is so often the case, the way to avoid succumbing to conspiracy theories and their unhelpful influence is to take a step back and apply some mindfulness.  Separate the facts from the story.  You didn’t get that promotion or a chance to speak in a meeting.  These are the facts.  The story, on the other hand, might be all about how life and other people conspire to frustrate you and do you down.  Looking purely objectively at the facts, standing outside the box, if you like, can provide some perspective.  Doing so can actually be more reassuring than buying into a conspiracy theory.

Matthieu Ricard, received a PhD in molecular genetics from the Pasteur Institute before becoming a Buddhist writer and teacher.  He suggests that in order to relieve ourselves of some of the suffering we experience when someone offends or annoys us, we need to take look at our self-image and consider our ego. 

 

Conspiracy theories – it’s our choice whether we buy into them

He asks you to imagine that you’re lying in a boat, floating on a lake.  Suddenly another boat hits you.  You leap up in anger.  Who the hell has been so stupid and careless to bang into you like this?  But when you see the other boat, you notice that... it’s empty. Your anger dissipates.  You lie down again.  What’s changed your mood?  “In the first case you’d thought yourself to be the target of someone’s malice, while in the second you realised that you were not a target,” suggests Ricard.

Just as we can read about conspiracy theories regarding Covid and decide whether to buy into them or not, we can observe our own conspiracy theories as they emerge, but just like those wacky stories about the current pandemic it’s up to us whether we buy into our own personal conspiracy theories.  We know, though, that life will be better if we don’t.

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