How does a conspiracy theory begin

06/14/2020 | 12:49 p.m. Social psychologist: "Conspiracy theories can also apply"

Are conspiracy theories more widespread than they used to be?

This has not yet been adequately proven scientifically. There is simply a lack of studies to cover a wide range.

You justify the attraction of conspiracy stories with the so-called "chance aversion". This means that people tend to want to read out a meaning or reason in events. What role does the dwindling importance of the great religions play here?

That is an important factor indeed. Studies have shown that religious people are less prone to conspiracy than non-religious people. Humans find it difficult to cope with the chaos and complexity of the world. And you don't want to believe that some things just happen by chance - look for an explanation behind them. Religions offer explanations and thus have a similar function to conspiracy beliefs. That means, those who have no religion, but still look for meaning, intention and will behind things, may fall into a conspiracy theory. That gives a sense of control.

Suspecting the intention and culprit behind things at least gives one the illusion of control. God or gods can be worshiped, one can try to appease them. And in the case of conspiracy theorists, human actors can in principle be more influenced than chance. But only apparently. On the one hand, of course, because the theory of conspiracies really rarely applies; on the other hand, these groups are imagined as so omnipotent that effective control by a small group of conspiracy believers would not be very promising. Why should an all-powerful world government be impressed by the pullers of youtube videos and Attila Hildmann in front of the Reichstag? Therefore one gives oneself to an illusion.

East Germany is considered to be a region that is particularly prone to conspiracy theories. Is one of the reasons for this because of the lower religious affiliation?

There is still no numerical evidence that East Germany is more attached to this. Here, too, there is really a lack of reliable data. But there are clues that can explain why the breeding ground in this country could be particularly good. This also includes the high number of non-religious people. But the fact that conspiracy beliefs are particularly well represented on the political fringes also plays a major role. Left as well as right. And since the margins are particularly strong in the east, that would be plausible.

It can also be assumed that certain traumas - before and after the fall of the Wall - lead to people being particularly suspicious of political elites and institutions. For example, the external determination by the Treuhand, which was perceived as unjust, was decisive.

How can one capture a development towards conspiracy beliefs?

I'm pessimistic about already die-hard conspiracy believers. But often at the beginning there is a feeling of injustice or the feeling of not being able to have a say in things. Here you could take a closer look at the cause and change something about it. There are many so-called fence sitters (from English: Undecided, Note d. Red.). These are people who flirt with a conspiracy theory, but at the same time also consider the scientific consensus on the subject to be plausible. Not laughing at people in their mistrust but taking them seriously can open half-closed doors again. Vaccination is a good example here. Those undecided are also available for other arguments.

But it is also important to realize that we are all struggling to find our own path, a middle ground, between skepticism and trust. For example, when we read a newspaper. I don't think it's justified to believe every word in a newspaper unconditionally, nor to mistrust everything in principle. That is always a challenge and also requires a certain willingness to deal with ambivalences.

Is media arrogance - a certain sole claim to truth that is expressed in some publications - a problem?

At least one can say that leaving out uncertainties or gaps is counterproductive. The media often want to provide quick and compact information and generate a certain amount of attention. And hand on heart: Who of us readers or viewers likes to deal with an uncertain and unclear initial situation, to hear restrictions and considerations again and again.

But the result of a pretended-clear situation is not necessarily a convinced reader. The ironing out of doubts sometimes creates mistrust, which in extreme cases paves the way for a conspiracy belief.

By the way, an example for me that it can succeed in communicating uncertainties is Professor Drosten. Precisely because he clearly states where he or his colleagues are still groping in the dark, he enjoys special trust from many people.

Thank you for the interview!

The social psychologist came to the research area of ​​conspiracy theories through his preoccupation with anti-Semitism. In these worldviews, enemy images are not the weak and inferior, but the powerful and strong, who - according to the theory - constantly cheat the rest of the world. Imhoff teaches at the University of Mainz.