This article by Graeme Trayner, Vice President and head of GQR's Brand and Communications Practice, originally appeared on The Association for Qualitative Research website.
Conspiracy thinking is nothing new, but increasingly it's helping us to make sense of lives which are spiralling out of our control.
The term ‘conspiracy theorist’ can conjure up the picture of an obsessive crank — intent on promulgating the ‘truth’ about what really happened to Princess Diana or whether aircraft fumes are actually ‘chemtrails’ laced with mind controlling substances. As anyone who has spent too long reading online comments knows, these theories can pop out of nowhere, and are animated by a fear of a menacing threat.
But the conspiracy mindset has become increasingly prevalent, and informs discourse on politics and business around the world. Causes on the right and left — whether that is Donald Trump and the Tea Party in the US, the Corbynites and UKIP alike in Britain, or Podemos and Syriza in Spain and Greece — are energised by a sense of conspiracy. Anti-corporate sentiment is often shaped, too, by a fear of all-powerful big business. What may start as a healthy scepticism of power morphs into a never-ending desire to take on an enemy who is intent on undermining a way of life, whether the threat is immigrants, bankers, the EU or global brands.
As Richard Hofstadter in his prophetic book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, argued in the 1960s, conspiracies connect as they have a strongly emotive feel — it’s an all or nothing battle against a force intent on destroying the life we hold dear. They also resonate as they fit with our desire to look for simple solutions. Our intrinsic inclination to want to put things into neat narratives, rather than deal with the randomness of life, means we are often tempted — wittingly or not — to mistakenly connect the dots, and mislead ourselves. In response to change, we are tempted to look for beguilingly easy, and deceptively coherent, stories to explain away our powerlessness.
Much has been written about the loss of trust in leaders and institutions to explain public cynicism, but trust as a concept is increasingly worn out, and not hugely illuminating. Looking at how people see issues through the lens of conspiracy thinking unlocks far more about the impulses at work, and the environment organisations are grappling with. It reveals the feeling we bring to how we look at politics and business, and the emotionality seen in much debate, particularly on social media. As qualitative researchers, we need to understand why conspiracies of all kinds take root:
They’re strangely reassuring
Believing the state and big business are all-knowing is in fact quite comforting in the face of change. As David Aaronovitch argues in his superb book, Voodoo Histories, advocating for the ‘hidden hand theory’ of history — where malevolent, secret cabals are controlling what happens is reassuring. Citing the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, Aaronovitch argues that paranoia is often a “defence against indifference” — much better to believe institutions are out to get you, than to resign ourselves to our relative unimportance.
They’re an outlet for our collective anxieties
Conspiracies often take root among those losing out from political and economic change. Their attachment to symbols being undermined— whether it’s the Confederate flag in the American South or Imperial measurements among Eurosceptics — can be seen as, to use writer Tony Horwitz’s phrase, a “talisman against modernity” or emotional levers against change. Indeed, polling shows a correlation between believing in conspiracies and that others are colluding against you with alienation from mainstream politics, and low-self-esteem.
They’re our way of reclaiming power
In response to change, we also need to see believing in cover-ups as a way of reclaiming control. By advocating these positions, we elevate ourselves — we are the smart ones who can see behind the curtain, the wise one among the much pitied ‘sheeple’ of conspiracy lore. It is much more satisfying to be the knowing sceptic, than the mug who has fallen for the official line.
Many of us will see this in qualitative research when participants are reluctant to back a message or point of view for fear of being duped, and when facts are never taken at face value. By being the sceptic, we increase our self-esteem, and re-assert our individuality. Being mistrustful is an act of empowerment, rather than a sign of weakness.
This is why exploring what people see as excess or excessive is a powerful route into understanding motivations. As the psychoanalyst Adam Philips argues, what we see as excess reveals something about our own fears and longings. Being appalled at something — the lifestyles of the rich, poor treatment of those we see as vulnerable, offensive marketing — reveals where we feel the rules are in society, and gives us, in Philips’ words, the thrill of “righteous indignation” and moral superiority. It reveals what fears motivate us, and allows us to feel part of the moral many against the transgressive few.
Drawing on what he saw in 1960’s America, Hofstadter argued that we project both the acceptable and unacceptable aspects of the self onto the enemy — as demonstrated by the most virulent conspiracists, such as the KKK emulating the robes and rituals of a Catholicism they outwardly despised, or the right-wing John Birch Society replicating the cell-like structure of the Communism they saw as a menace. These are extreme situations, but when looking at the objects and groups people may loathe, we should look, too, at what they may be in awe of.
From an outside-in perspective, it’s also why we need to understand the role dystopias play in culture. From George Orwell’s 1984 to films such as The Hunger Games and Elysium, dystopias — apocalyptic and extreme visions of the future — shed light on our current preoccupations. As the academic Lucy Sargisson highlights, dystopias start with a core discontent with the present, which is then extrapolated into the 'worst possible scenario' imaginable. By working back to the original source of a dystopia — for example, fear of surveillance, concern about income inequality — we can pinpoint what drives present-day anxieties.
We need to understand the potency and impact of conspiracy thinking. We may express bemusement at some of the more outlandish theories, but attachment to conspiracies has real consequences. Theories around the MMR jab resulted in a drop in vaccinations and the re-emergence of measles. As a first step to overcoming these myths, we need to look for the hidden impulses driving such opinions.