The Psychological Quirks of Complicity Theorists

R. M. Allen, 2022

Abstract

Given the high level of compliance with official narratives advocated by the state and the mainstream media, it is worth analysing the psychological basis for such beliefs. There are several reasons why people may be psychologically prone to believing in these complicity theories. These fall under the categories of economic motivations, a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, and high levels of mainstream media consumption.

Introduction

According to polling data, 25% of Americans believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman in the assassination of President Kennedy (Jensen, 2013). Furthermore, 16% of Americans believe that elite pedophile Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide (Shamsian, 2019). These are examples of complicity theories – “a theory that unquestionably accepts the standard explanation for an event offered by the political, religious, social or economic apparatus of the time or the main stream media” (Urban Dictionary, 2020). This article will examine the psychological basis of these beliefs. Many articles – both popular and academic – have been written regarding psychological motivations for belief in so called ‘conspiracy theories’ (for example, Cichocka, Douglas, and Sutton 2017). However, much less critical work has been done analysing complicity theories. Nevertheless, there are important hints in the literature on conspiracy theories that elucidate the psychology of complicity theorists.

Economic Reasons

Economic and educational factors are a key driver in complicity theory belief. Evidence indicates that more highly educated and economically well off people are more likely to be complicity theorists (Zitelman, 2020; Pierre, 2019). There are important psychological reasons for this. Being economically well off discourages criticism of the current political and economic system, as one is not inclined to criticise a system one is personally benefiting from. This drives those better off financially to be more accepting of the latest narrative from the government and mainstream media. Economic gain can also drive some groups – particularly those such as journalists, politicians and bureaucrats – to believe complicity theories. For example, journalists who bring forward evidence of conspiracy are much less likely to be published in the mainstream media, meaning that they will lose out financially. Higher levels of education also predispose one to complicity theories, partly for the economic reasons outlined above, but also because it gives one a longer period of exposure to official government narratives, therefore ingraining those narratives more closely into the individual psyche.

Levels of Mainstream Media Consumption

The mainstream media is the main disseminator of complicity theories in Western societies. The function of the mainstream media in Western society is to provide effective ‘narrative control’ for the current rulers (Johnstone, 2022). Furthermore, mainstream media serves as an effective echo chamber, with only a very narrow range of debate allowed. For example, in March 2020, questioning of lockdowns was practically non existent in the mainstream media. High levels of consumption of this complicity theory content will have the psychological effect of reinforcing belief in complicity theories, as well as the belief that everyone else believes in complicity theories (Seong, 2021).

A Need to Believe

A need to believe in the fundamental goodness and worthiness of the state and nation that they have been taught to believe in is a key influence on the complicity theorist. Entertaining the notion of conspiracy – such as, for example, that the CIA had John F. Kennedy assassinated – causes cognitive dissonance in the complicity theorist (Cherry, 2022). The complicity theorist cannot both hold that the American state is democratic and free and that a deep state exists that is capable of murdering the President. The underlying needs of the complicity theorist to both maintain their belief in the generally good (if imperfect) nature of the current state of affairs and to avoid cognitive dissonance causes them to unfairly dismiss evidence of conspiracy.

When do Complicity Theorists Become Conspiracy Theorists?

Nevertheless, there are certain conditions under which a complicity theorist will consider an explanation that could be classed as a conspiracy theory by any reasonable definition. These cases usually occur when the complicity theory supports one side of the ‘two party illusion’, that is, one side of the false paradigm that has been set up within the extremely limited debate allowed within the mainstream media (Cristian, 2020). Another circumstance under which conspiracy may be considered is when it involves another country constructed as an ‘enemy nation’ by the mainstream media – for example Russia, Iran, or Venezuela. For example, the idea that Donald Trump colluded with Russia to get elected in 2016 is an excellent example of these phenomena. By definition, this claim, if true, involved a conspiracy. Yet a large number of people who are usually complicity theorists believed in this conspiracy wholeheartedly, despite the fact that many other conspiracies they reject are backed by far more evidence.

Conclusion

The topic of complicity theories and the kind of individuals that believe them requires much more research to draw substantive conclusions. Nevertheless some preliminary conclusions can be drawn from the literature which suggest important reasons for beliefs in complicity theories separate from their truth.

Declaration of Conflicts of Interest

The author received no pay for this article and therefore has no conflicts of interest to declare.

Sources

Cherry, K. (2022) ‘What Is Cognitive Dissonance?’, VeryWell Mind, at https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-dissonance-2795012, accessed 29th May 2022.

Cichocka, A., Douglas, K., and Sutton, R. (2017) ‘The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26 (6), pp. 538-42, at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5724570/, accessed 29th May 2022.

Cristian, R. (2020) ‘Jimmy Dore Interview – Voting In A Broken System, The Two-Party Illusion & Tulsi Gabbard’, The Last American Vagabond, at https://www.thelastamericanvagabond.com/jimmy-dore-interview-voting-in-a-broken-system-the-two-party-illusion-tulsi-gabbard/, accessed 2nd June 2022.

Jensen, T. (2013) ‘Democrats and Republicans Differ on Conspiracy Theory Beliefs’ Public Policy Polling, at https://www.publicpolicypolling.com/polls/democrats-and-republicans-differ-on-conspiracy-theory-beliefs/, accessed 29th May 2022.

Johnstone, C. (2022) ‘They’re Worried About The Spread Of Information, Not Disinformation’ at https://caitlinjohnstone.substack.com/p/theyre-worried-about-the-spread-of?s=r, accessed 30th May 2022.

Mantik, D. (2022) ‘Gagné Desperately Dispenses CPR for the Lone Gunman (Part 1)’, Kennedys and King, at https://www.kennedysandking.com/john-f-kennedy-reviews/gagne-desperately-dispenses-cpr-for-the-lone-gunman-part-1, accessed 29th May 2022.

Pierre, J. (2019) ‘What Makes People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?’, Psychology Today, at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psych-unseen/201904/what-makes-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories, accessed 29th May 2022.

Seong, J. M. (2021) ‘Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories? Network Diversity, Political Discussion, and Conservative Conspiracy Theories on Social Media’, American Politics Research, 49 (5), pp. 415-31, at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353352480_Who_Believes_in_Conspiracy_Theories_Network_Diversity_Political_Discussion_and_Conservative_Conspiracy_Theories_on_Social_Media

Shamsian, J. (2019) ‘Almost half of Americans now believe the conspiracy theory that sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was murdered’, Business Insider, at https://www.businessinsider.com/jeffrey-epstein-kill-himself-poll-2019-11?op=1&r=US&IR=T, accessed 29th May 2022.

‘UtterSpace’ (2020) ‘Urban Dictionary: Complicity Theory’, Urban Dictionary, at https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Complicity%20Theory, accessed 29th May 2022.

Zitelman, R. (2020) ‘How Many Americans Believe In Conspiracy Theories?’ Forbes, at https://www.forbes.com/sites/rainerzitelmann/2020/06/29/how-many-americans-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/?sh=41be9a255e94, accessed 29th May 2022.

Tinfoil Lizards: An Essay on Conspiracy

The concept of conspiracy is much maligned by the mainstream media, the government, and random liberals on social media. The phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ is used to dismiss people who are cynical about the motivations of government and corporations.

The Concept of Conspiracy

As stated by leftist analyst Michael Parenti:

Conspiracy is a legitimate concept in law: the collusion of two or more people pursuing illegal means to effect some illegal or immoral end. People go to jail for committing conspiratorial acts. Conspiracies are a matter of public record, and some are of real political significance.

There would be no reason for this to be a concept in law if it was a non-existent phenomenon.

We know that people from all groups and all walks of life can conspire. Everyone is aware of this, as even things like petty office politics can inspire people to get together and plot against each other. To dismiss the idea of conspiracy prima facie is an unwarranted bias. If ordinary people can conspire on a small scale than politicians, bureaucrats, and military intelligence are clearly capable of conspiring on a large scale.

I will address three points that are often invoked by anti-conspiracy analysts, who dismiss the notion of conspiracy as a relevant mode of analysis. I will argue that these arguments are flawed as a reason to reject conspiracy as a relevant factor when examining the operation of government power.

The Invocation of the Ridiculous

The first argument against conspiracy is the ‘Invocation of the Ridiculous’. This involves the anti-conspiracy theorist picking a theory that is absurd, but that has at some point been suggested seriously by a ‘conspiracy theorist’. For example, Alex Jones once suggested that 87-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, supreme court justice, died as a ‘blood sacrifice’ to help the Democratic party get the vote out and to enhance their ‘Satanic energy’.

Anti-conspiracy theorists like to invoke these sorts of examples to dismiss well-reasoned and well evidenced examples of conspiracies, or even critical questions about official narratives. This is a fallacious argument, as it involves attempting to marry the ridiculous to the reasonable in order to dismiss the reasonable.

The Psychological Analysis

Psychological analysis is used as a tool to subtly undermine the concept of conspiracy. I am not trying to argue that analysing why someone believes something, and possible psychological motivations for that belief that stem from other motivations than the factual nature of the belief, is always invalid.  

However, these ‘why people believe in conspiracy theories’ articles are generally framed in a particular way. The articles start by dismissing the idea of the ‘conspiracy theory’ prima facie, leaving only possible psychological motives for belief. This is not the same as demonstrating why a belief is incorrect or flawed, and then putting forward suggestions as to why people believe it anyway.  

In some cases, they will employ the invocation of the ridiculous in their introduction, by providing a list of conspiracy theories that includes the reasonable with the bizarre.

For example, this article:

When people encounter disparate information, it is only natural to look for explanations that connect the dots. Conspiracy theories offer explanations that provide this connection. They also suggest that the underlying causes are hidden from public view. When confusing things happen, believers can then assume that it is because they are being intentionally deceived by outside forces.

The framing of this paragraph implies that explanations are just confusing because life is confusing. The idea of government manipulators is implicitly dismissed, as is the idea of ‘intentional deception’. The role of deception in government, however, is extremely relevant, the best examples being the lies that drove Western intervention in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

There is also often a tinge of middle-class smugness about such articles. The above article is also quoted as saying:

Lower educational status tends to be associated with higher levels of conspiracy belief.

The most plausible explanation for this is that middle-class people who are doing well out of a particular system have less material reason to question that system.

Such articles also argue that the need to feel special drives a belief in conspiracy theories. For example, this article:

Big events attract conspiracies because the knowledge the theorist possesses wouldn’t be special otherwise. If the knowledge isn’t special, then they aren’t special for possessing it. The suggestion is therefore that a conspiracy theorist wants to feel special, and this desire emerges from self-worth based insecurities.

This argument would suggest that conspiracy theorists would keep their special knowledge to themselves, rather than trying to convince other people. After all, the conspiracist would no longer be special if he or she convinces others to believe in the conspiracy.

(If I were engaging in my own pop psychology argument here, I would suggest the need to feel special is not observable so much in conspiracy theorists as it is in obnoxious middle-class liberals. In their case, a sense of superiority stems from their faith in government. After all, how could any of us be so stupid as to question the authorities?)

The ‘irrelevancy’ argument

This is an argument that has been made by Noam Chomsky. On this issue he is generally compared with Michael Parenti, another left-wing scholar who believes in the relevance and importance of analysing conspiracy.  

Chomsky states that:

Take for example all this frenzy about the JFK assassination. I mean I don’t know who assassinated him and I don’t care, but what difference does it make? It’s not an issue of any general political interest. And there’s a huge amount of energy and effort going into that.

He believes that a discussion of issues such as the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11 are a distraction:

[Conspiracy theories] draw enormous amounts of time and energy away from serious activism on urgent matters (and may well be welcome to those in power for that reason, as the JFK assassination investigations have been, so internal government documents indicate).

I believe that on this issue, Parenti has by far the superior case. Chomsky is fairly hostile to the idea of high-level conspiracies, believing that they do not play an important role in government and that structural factors matter more when analysing the actions of capitalist states. Parenti rightly argues that this is a false distinction, as institutions such as the CIA are “an institutionalized conspiracy.”

As for such issues being a distraction, this argument is a weak one, because the evidence behind such conspiracies can demonstrate the true nature of power. As Parenti states:

To know the truth about the assassination of John Kennedy is to call into question the state security system and the entire politico-economic order it protects.

The Ulterior Motive for Anti-Conspiracy Thinking

Even an anti-conspiracist would have to acknowledge that certain conspiracies happened because they were exposed. Nixon conspired with his aides to cover up the burglary of the Watergate building. In that case we have extensive evidence of conspiracy due to the existence of recordings made by Nixon. We know that there was a conspiracy to undermine the candidate Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primary election due to the emails that were leaked to Wikileaks.

Why, given these proven cases, is it considered illegitimate to speculate about other events such as 9/11, JFK assassination, or the Skripal affair, where the full facts are not available but where evidence and reasoning can lead to reasonable inferences?

The reason is that the anti-conspiracist wants to keep certain topics off limits. According to the anti-conspiracist, criticism of government narratives can only go so far. When it comes to the current capitalist and imperialist system and the players within it, the reality is that no question should be taken off the table and evidence for all forms of evil should be critically considered.

Conclusion

The consideration of the conspiracy when it comes to analysing the function of governments is a valid approach that is unfairly criticised through the label ‘conspiracy theory’. Rather than reject the concept of conspiracy, we need to critically assess the evidence and motives for a conspiracy on a case-by-case basis. While there are some conspiracies that are not grounded in reality, there are many more that have strong evidence to support them. I will end with a quote from this article comparing Chomsky and Parenti, which is recommended to the reader:

Ultimately, the average conspiracy theorist has a better grasp of how the world works than the average liberal.