Social psychologist Pia Lamberty researches why so many people are so ready to believe in conspiracy theories – and how best to deal with them
BRIGITTE: What are conspiracy theories from a scientific point of view?
Pia Lamberty: The assumption that groups perceived as powerful have a secret plan to harm society. My co-author Katharina Nocun and I prefer to speak of “conspiracy narrative” in our book because “conspiracy theory” gives the wrong impression that there are similarities to a verifiable scientific theory. Alleged conspiracies are now not even proven with alleged facts, but simply alleged.
Your team also came up with one: the smoke alarm conspiracy.
Yes, as part of a scientific experiment, we told American test subjects that smoke alarms were installed in Germany to make people sick – an engineer found that out. Some even believed the lie after we cleared it up.
How do you explain that?
Many of us have a tendency to believe in conspiracies. It is pronounced in about a third of the population, we speak of a conspiracy mentality: The people maintain a worldview structured by prejudices, are suspicious of everyone who is perceived as powerful, trust them to do everything. There is an approach that this is a relatively stable personality trait regardless of what is happening in the world, regardless of facts.
Why is this belief so attractive?
Conspiracy narratives occur increasingly in times of uncertainty, triggered by events that we perceive as great, such as pandemics, terror, natural disasters, accidents. They offer a supposed explanation. And they satisfy social needs: You can upgrade yourself through it, you are the person who apparently knows the truth, while everyone else is just naive sleep sheep. Such a worldview is also ordered, you have someone you can blame, coincidence does not exist.
What’s wrong with chance?
We can handle it badly. When something big happens in the world, it creates a feeling of loss of control. Counter-narratives immediately follow.
Something big like a pandemic …
There are effects on many levels. People who believe in it are less likely to be vaccinated, they are more likely to say goodbye to democracy, are less likely to vote or vote for parties on the far-right. With the AfD, we have a party that uses conspiracy narratives to change the political climate, to usurp interpretative sovereignty.
Will this will remain to be believed when the pandemic is over?
The pandemic can also result in economic crises, which in turn are a breeding ground for conspiracy narratives. And then there is the challenge of climate change, which is also charged with conspiracy ideology. There are institutes in Germany that are primarily there to spread disinformation about it.
So what to do
We as a society with all our institutions such as politics, media or justice must position ourselves clearly and set limits when disinformation or misanthropic stories are spread, for example by consistently applying the laws against hate speech. Private individuals can also show moral courage. By standing in front of people who are being attacked, or at least writing to those affected so that they do not feel alone.
They differentiate between conspiracy narratives and disinformation. What is the difference for you?
In the case of disinformation, someone is deliberately making false claims, for example about climate change. This can be refuted with the help of facts. But a conspiracy tale is often just a murmur: They up there have a plan. That also makes dealing with them so difficult: Even if that doesn’t seem plausible to me, I’m often helpless. How am I supposed to refute, for example, that Angela Merkel controls the press? Instead of getting tangled up in factual discussions, you can ask someone: Why do you think that? And don’t go into the content level at all. Often there is a personal crisis behind it that can be talked about.
Do I have to counter it at all?
If the utterance is misanthropic, one should always say: This is the limit. Otherwise, you can think about which battles you want to fight. If a person says something like this a lot, it will go a long way. It is important to pay attention to your own strength. Often people spend all of their energy trying to change someone’s mind, then at some point they are no longer able to do so and break off contact. But that’s also okay if you feel too stressed.
Difficult with family members …
People whose relatives believe such things often suffer, are ashamed of the other or are afraid, for example because a vaccination is refused. Here you can say: “I know you don’t believe in it, but that worries me. I think it’s important that you vaccinate yourself.” But not every day – that creates rejection. You can also try to avoid the topic for a while, there may be other similarities.
Pia Lamberty, 37, is a social psychologist and doctoral candidate at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. Together with the network activist and publicist Katharina Nocun, she wrote the book “Fake facts“(Quadriga) written. Because of her research, she is repeatedly attacked and threatened online.
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