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19 April 2024

& Education

Populist worldview almost inevitably spawns conspiracy theories

‘What you believe determines how you act’, says social psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen. With the news that many people believe Covid-19 is being spread by a foreign power, should we be worried?

According to a Gallup International survey, the Netherlands is fourth on a list of countries in which many people believe that the Covid-19 virus is being spread by a ‘foreign regime or other power’. Gallup’s findings were reported by The Economist in early June. Jan-Willem van Prooijen is both a social psychologist and an expert on conspiracy theories. What does he think is going on?

Fourth place! Whatever happened to good old Dutch common sense?
“I must say, I was surprised too. Normally, we have a reputation for being relatively rational. In most studies on coronavirus conspiracy theories we score a good deal lower. I don’t have an explanation. However, I can say that results like this often fluctuate depending on the exact wording of the question.”

According to The Economist, people on the populist right are particularly susceptible to these kinds of ideas.
“People with right-wing views do tend to score higher, but there are comparable theories on the left. Views of this kind relate to extreme positions in political ideology. Research shows that the voting preferences of people who think Covid-19 has been developed in a lab tend towards the two most populist parties in the Netherlands: FvD and PVV. People who blame Covid on 5G phone masts are more likely to vote for the Socialist Party.”

Expert on the ‘dark side’
Jan-Willem van Prooijen is Associate Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at VU Amsterdam and senior researcher at NSCR, the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement. He is particularly interested in the ‘dark side’ of humankind, exploring areas such as conspiracy theories, unethical behaviour and racial ideologies. He is often consulted by the media, and his book The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories was published in 2018.

So these notions are linked to people’s world views?
“Right-wing conspiracy theorists are more likely to associate their ideas with ethnic minorities, while for those on the left the multinationals and the US are the bad guys. Only bankers are despised equally by the left and the right. Conspiracy theories appeal to people who believe there are simple solutions to complex problems. In a populist worldview, it’s all about the people fighting against a corrupt elite. If that’s your mindset, then conspiracy theories almost inevitably come into play.”

Is belief in conspiracy theories on the rise?
“Not really. Conspiracy theories crop up throughout history: take the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, for example. These kinds of ideas thrive when a country is beset by problems: oppression, economic crisis, a pandemic. If there is a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future, people start to think there must be some evil force behind it all. It’s hardwired into our brains as humans, to some extent at least. When things start to improve again, belief in these theories also declines. It’s a bit like the peaks and troughs in an economic cycle.”

What is the definition of a conspiracy theory?
“It has to centre on a group of people secretly conspiring to pursue evil ends. Causal links between elusive phenomena and intentionality play an important part.”

That’s not unlike what a reader expects from a good story…
“Exactly! The appeal of these theories lies in the fact that they are fascinating and gripping stories. In some cases they even have their roots in popular fiction. Ever since the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, there are people who genuinely believe that Jesus was married and had children. The alien lizard theory propagated by David Icke stems directly from the 1980s science fiction series V. Aliens that look like humans, but are actually scary reptiles.”

Is it new for governments to make use of conspiracy theories? Russian troll factories, denouncing journalism as fake news…
“Not really. As president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki halted the use of HIV inhibitors from the West because they were said to be toxic. And what about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, for which no evidence was ever found? That said, with Trump we do seem to have reached a new level of state-propagated conspiracy theories the likes of which we have not seen in recent memory.”

In your professional capacity, you encounter a lot of theories. Don’t they ever make you laugh?
“Oh, definitely. The Flat Earth movement, for example. They dream up all kinds of experiments to prove that the Earth is flat, which inevitably fail because the Earth is round. But conspiracy theories are a serious matter and can have serious consequences. What you believe determines how you act. A little boy who is convinced there’s a monster under his bed won’t be able to sleep. If you think the pharmaceutical industry wants to put a chip in your body, you will refuse vaccinations and that will impact public health. The same applies to climate change and the treatment of minorities. Conspiracy theories can have a destabilizing effect on societies and become a source of conflict.”


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