“The dark side of social movements: Social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories” – Anni Sternisko, Aleksandra Cichocka & Jay J. Van Bavel [Current Opinion in Psychology]

“The dark side of social movements: Social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories

Anni Sternisko
Aleksandra Cichocka
Jay J. Van Bavel

Current Opinion in Psychology

Available online 21 February 2020



• Conspiracy theories claim that a powerful group is secretly pursuing an evil goal.

• Conspiracy theories can foster anti-democratic social movements.

• Conspiracy theories attract people with both their content and qualities.

• Content and qualities appeal to people differently based on their motivations.

Social change does not always equal social progress–there is a dark side of social movements. We discuss conspiracy theory beliefs –beliefs that a powerful group of people are secretly working towards a malicious goal–as one contributor to destructive social movements. Research has linked conspiracy theory beliefs to anti-democratic attitudes, prejudice and non-normative political behavior. We propose a framework to understand the motivational processes behind conspiracy theories and associated social identities and collective action. We argue that conspiracy theories comprise at least two components – content and qualities— that appeal to people differently based on their motivations. Social identity motives draw people foremost to contents of conspiracy theories while uniqueness motives draw people to qualities of conspiracy theories.


What motivates social movements that threaten social health, economic prosperity, and democratic principles? We argue that conspiracy theories — theories that a powerful group of people are secretly working towards a malevolent or unlawful goal [8**] can be one reason. Though not all conspiracy theories are wrong, irrational, or harmful for society, many of them are in fact closely intertwined with some of today’s most powerful, destructive social movements.


Recent reviews [30,8**] distilled three main motivators behind conspiracy theory beliefs: conspiracy beliefs are higher when people want to (1) feel good about themselves and the groups they belong to [31,32, 21], (2) make sense of their environment [33–35], or (3) feel safe and in control [36–38].


Conspiracy theories can be understood as a genre of belief systems that is defined by certain qualities. Each individual conspiracy theory is a film with a unique content. Content refers to the unique narrative elements of each conspiracy theory. While conspiracy theories all share the premise that a nefarious group is secretly working towards a malicious or unlawful goal, individual conspiracy theories vary in the specific group (e.g., Illuminati; government), which goal is pursued (e.g., New World Order, war) and which events can be explained (e.g., 2008 financial crisis, 9/11 terrorist attacks). This is similar to the contents of specific movies that people find appealing, like your favorite actor.


… the belief in a flat earth might primarily emerge from the psychological benefits of holding contrarian beliefs rather than compelling physical arguments. This is consistent with findings that participants who believed in one conspiracy theory were also more likely to believe in others, even when they were contradictory [42, 43]. We illustrate our argument by the means of discussing two motives behind conspiracy theory beliefs in more detail: social identity motives and uniqueness motives.

2.1. Content drawn motives: Social identity motives

People are prone to form social identities in which group membership becomes part of the self. Social identities are connected with different motives including the need to hold positive beliefs about ingroups and negative beliefs about outgroups [44]. We argue that these motives draw people primarily to certain contents of conspiracy theories.


In these cases, conspiracy theory beliefs psychologically greatly overlap with other kinds of false beliefs and can be explained by affiliated psychological models. For instance, in line with the identity-based model of political beliefs [46**], social identity motives increased participants ’likelihood to believe in fake news that represented their own political party as moral [47]. Likewise, participants were more likely to believe conspiracy theories that aligned with their party’s political stances and vilified the opposite party [39–41,48,49,50]. Sometimes people may be predominantly drawn to conspiracy theories because their content allows them to legitimize and enforce pre-existing beliefs and attitudes.


”Indeed, research suggests that people who believe in their group’s superiority but are anxious about its recognition are drawn to conspiracy theories about outgroup members [21, see also 22,23*].


For instance, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to endorse Qanon – the far-right theory that a Deep State is conspiring against President Trump [53]. In contrast, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job [54]. These differences might emerge from motivations to defend one’s ingroup from external threats and represent outgroups as morally inferior. Together with evidence that conspiracy theories that implicate outgroups can further prejudices, discrimination, and inter-group hostility [23,25–29] social identity motives might foster a vicious cycle where conspiracy theories intensify inter-group conflict and inter-group conflict fosters conspiracy theories.”

“In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism” By Zoey Reeve [The Evolution Institute]

“In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism

By Zoey Reeve

Zoey Reeve has a background in Psychology, Terrorism Studies and Political Science, and is a VOX-Pol Fellow.  Her research focuses on the social-evolutionary psychology of radicalization and terrorism in both online and offline spheres.

In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism


However, this stance inhibits our capacity to understand the radicalization process because it exceptionalizes people on the basis of what can be, admittedly, a set of rather exceptional behaviors (i.e. suicide terrorism), though often also increasingly includes unexceptional behaviors (i.e. providing funding, logistics, or even just online support for certain groups). Radicalization and extremism are thus little more than labels. The ‘in the eye of the beholder’ philosophy is a luxury that some cannot afford, and perhaps many are unable to stomach. But it leaves us better equipped to understand why (some) people may engage in what we currently think of as extremism and violent extremism because it looks to normal psychological processes and mechanisms that are involved in the radicalization process, rather focusing on the qualities that we have labeled as exceptional.

One such psychological mechanism is Parochial Altruism. Parochial altruism is the propensity for humans to engage in costly-to-self behavior to protect group members from non-group members.2 One (of many) causes of death in ancestral times was outgroups. Whether due to resource encroachment, the spread of disease and parasites, or overt aggression, the mere presence of outgroups would have been enough to trigger parochial altruism. Parochial altruistic responses include fear, withdrawal or fleeing, withholding benefits/resources, and overt hostility and aggression. Presuming that an individual belongs to a sufficiently important group, perceptions of threat to that group will stir parochial altruism in modern humans, despite these conditions being unlikely to manifest in the potential existential threat that may have occurred during ancestral times. This is known as mismatch.3″

“The Evolutionary Psychology of Mass Mobilization: How Disinformation and Demagogues Coordinate Rather Than Manipulate by Michael Bang Petersen [Current Opinion in Psychology, 20 February 2020]

“The Evolutionary Psychology of Mass Mobilization: How Disinformation and Demagogues Coordinate Rather Than Manipulate

Michael Bang Petersen

Current Opinion in Psychology

Available online 20 February 2020



• Violent mobilization is often attributed to manipulation from, for example, demagogues.

• The human mind contains psychological defenses against manipulation, also in politics.

• Mass mobilization requires that the attention of group members is coordinated.

• Demagogues and disinformation can be explained as tools for achieving coordination.

• Mobilized individuals are predisposed for conflict rather than manipulated into conflict.

Large-scale mobilization is often accompanied by the emergence of demagogic leaders and the circulation of unverified rumors, especially if the mobilization happens in support of violent or disruptive projects. In those circumstances, researchers and commentators frequently explain the mobilization as a result of mass manipulation. Against this view, evolutionary psychologists have provided evidence that human psychology contains mechanisms for avoiding manipulation and new studies suggest that political manipulation attempts are, in general, ineffective. Instead, we can understand decisions to follow demagogic leaders and circulate fringe rumors as attempts to solve a social problem inherent to mobilization processes: The coordination problem. Essentially, these decisions reflect attempts to align the attention of individuals already disposed for conflict.


In this review, I ask: What are the psychological processes underlying large-scale mobilization of individuals for conflict-oriented projects? The focus is on the specific psychological role fulfilled by (a) strong leaders, (b) propaganda and (c) fringe beliefs in the context of successful mobilization processes. Understanding this role is of essential importance in current political climates where we witness a combination of political conflict, the emergence of populist leaders and concerns about the circulation of “fake news” on social media platforms.

A frequently-cited perspective is that large-scale mobilization for conflict-oriented projects reflects the use of propaganda by demagogues to manipulate the opinions of lay individuals by exploiting their reasoning deficiencies. Here, I review the emerging evidence for an alternative perspective, promoted especially within evolutionary psychology, which suggests that the primary function of leaders and information-circulation is to coordinate individuals already predisposed for conflict (1, 2**, 3). As reviewed below, human psychology contains sophisticated defenses against manipulation (4**) and, hence, it is extremely difficult to attain large-scale mobilization without the widespread existence of prior beliefs that such mobilization is beneficially. Furthermore, a range of counter-intuitive features about demagogues, disinformation and distorted beliefs is readily explained by a coordination perspective.


In general, leadership and followership evolved to solve coordination problems (21, 27) and there are reasons to expect that authoritarian leaders will solve these coordination problems to the benefit of those who seek aggression (19). Authoritarian leaders often have aggressive personalities themselves and, hence, are more likely to choose this focal point rather than others. Also, authoritarian leaders are more likely to aggressively enforce collection action, thereby also providing a solution to the free-rider problem. Consistent with this coordination-for-aggression perspective on preferences for dominant leaders, such leader preferences are specifically predicted by feelings of anger rather than, for example, fear (28, 29, 30), suggesting that people decide to follow dominant leaders to commit to an offensive strategy against the target group (28).

This perspective also explains highly counter-intuitive features of the appeal of demagogues. If followers search for the optimal leader to solve conflict-related problems of coordination, they will seek out candidates who are willing to violate normative expectations by engaging in obvious lying (31**) and who displays a personality oriented towards conflict, even if such personalities under other circumstances would be considered unappealing (2**).


Another propaganda tactic is moralistic in nature. Thus, in less violent forms of groupbased conflict, including in the context of modern social media discussions, an often-used tactic is to direct attention towards a group’s or person’s violation of moral principles. Moral principles are effective tools for large-scale coordination because they suggest that the target behavior is universally relevant (1, 34*, 35). Consistent with the coordination perspective, however, recent research suggests that the motivations to broadcast such violations can reflect attempts to mobilize others for self-interested causes. Thus, the airing of such moral principles, referred to as moralgrandstanding, is strongly motivated by status-seeking (36*) and there is increasing evidence that the acceptance of moral principles shifts flexibly with changes in self-interest (37).


Consistent with this, recent evidence shows that political affiliation is a strong predictor of statements of belief in fringe stories such as conspiracy theories and “fake news” (3, 42**).


Overall, the effects of the coordination problem on mobilization processes are dual. On the one hand, the existence of the coordination problem means that groups and societies can be stable even if they contain large minority segments of individuals who share disruptive, violent or prejudiced view. On the other hand, the existence of the coordination problem also implies that this stability can be quickly undermined if suddenly coordination is achieved. Not because people are manipulated; but because a sufficient number of them direct attention to a particular set of preferences simultaneously.”