R. M. Allen, 2022
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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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.