“The dark side of social movements: Social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories
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 . 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 . 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 . In contrast, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job . 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.”