The following is excerpted with permission from Emotions Don’t Think: Emotional Contagion in a Time of Turmoil, ($32.95, 332 pgs, Crossfield Publishing, ISBN: 9781990326004, Fall 2021)
Conspiracy theories flourish in a time of crisis. There is massive distrust spread through emotional contagion. People need control and predictability, and they can get it by making up ideas and events.
Emotional contagion is rampant as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Conspiracy theories have been around for decades, but recently they have become more plentiful. Suspicion of legitimacy is high and easily spreads to susceptible people through emotional contagion. It becomes contagious as trust falters. If a person is already suspicious of the government’s motivations, it is easy to catch more suspicion from others. This happens if a person hears suspicious comments, and the distrustful emotion in their tone. They are likely to feel then validated and accepted by their like-minded peers. As a result, many people may believe their suspicion is legitimate, and that feeling builds a little more, creating “proof” that they must be right. This is the effect of emotional contagion: the positive feelings from having others validate a suspicion leads to emotional infection which infects the reasoning processes. It may then spread to a greater number of people who are susceptible to catching it.
A few people being suspicious of the same thing can indicate some weak justification. Corruption among the powerful exists and justifies some suspicion. The effect of contagious emotion, however, makes the suspicion much stronger than it should be. Then it spreads to produce suspicion among people in ways that can become dangerous and lead to conspiracy theories. Confirmation bias tells us that many people will fit the facts to their beliefs, rather than the other way around. This can be emotionally satisfying, especially to those who feel relatively powerless. Confirmation bias is “the tendency to gather evidence that confirms pre-existing expectations, typically by emphasizing or pursuing supporting evidence while dismissing or failing to seek contradictory evidence.”1 Confirming pre-existing expectations is so satisfying to many people that they would let it overrule their logical mind to the point of dismissing contradictory evidence. This may be because the emotional need to be suspicious is especially meaningful to those people who like to take control and cannot tolerate anxiety from ambiguity.
If there are greater numbers of people who feel suspicious about something, it is not proof. There is no proof in numbers. It is the impact of the buildup of emotional and social contagion among suggestible people, often over the internet, that ends up in a conspiracy theory. People can share those cynical feelings together socially, commiserate together, and even organize plans of action, even if ineffective. It is easy to take concrete action and blame something tangible and visible, like a 5G cellphone tower. Among people who think this way, it is almost as if someone is not cynical then something is wrong with them. For example, some people believe that it should be obvious to everyone that all governments and corporations are corrupt, and that we shouldn’t listen to them. This is a very toxic, infectious belief, resulting in the public defying recommendations, distrusting their government, and gathering in public places without masks and without keeping social distance. A few months into the pandemic, about many people reportedly thought the coronavirus was being used as a cover to install tracking devices inside their bodies. Later, rumors spread online that a tracking microchip planted by the government to surveil the movements of Americans was an ingredient in Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.2 Coronavirus denial was still rampant in some spots late in 2020.
This seems to be caused by a need to rebel against authority and might be true for those people who have felt a loss of control of their lives. They are having difficulty understanding how this happened, so they find a reason in fantasy. There may be a cynical, anti-social assumption that all governments and politicians are corrupt, so it is smart to realize this and rebel. They see the coronavirus pandemic as a hoax, and proof that the government is corrupt and has caused this pandemic for their own selfish interests at the expense of the people.
It is hard, though, to dispute that the government and companies might be corrupt these days.3, 4 It is easy to see how these theories can be calming for people who correctly feel much distress about the loss of control occurring in society. It can be tempting to believe them when they bring relief, since relief brings positive affect which is reinforcing. That positive affect is scarce these days, as we don’t get a lot of good news. This is so even in the medical area. Jodi Vittori, writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discussed a study that had been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “[estimating] that $98 billion were lost to fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid in 2011 alone.”5 So it is natural, reading these stories of corruption, to develop the idea that we have lost control and people cannot be trusted. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an expert on conspiracy theories, says that “the tendency to perceive conspiracies is universal.” He adds that “not all conspiracy theories are irrational. Sometimes corruption does happen. It’s natural for people to be on their guard for that.”6
During a tough time, that attitude seems to harden. Conspiracy theories seem to blossom when danger is perceived. They give us a feeling of control to quell our anxiety by feeling that we can predict when something will happen. When people talk about it in unison, over social media, it feels good and that good feeling spreads and bonds tighten. That is important for some people, especially when they are anxious, distrustful, and looking for a solution and control. Unfortunately, it is false control.
The anxiety and uncertainty that people feel seem to be contagious and spread like wildfire at a time of turmoil. Even without the pandemic there is a myriad of issues, like racism, unstable leadership, police brutality, and economic uncertainty that produce anxieties. Then the anxiety felt by individuals seems to be contagious and connects with anxiety in other individuals, again reinforcing and magnifying it. Emotions beget other emotions in new people. For those individuals who do not tolerate feeling anxious, they pick up the feelings of anxiety from others and convert it into other emotions such as insecurity, suspicion, and mistrust, or treat it with various types of substances.
The conspiracy theorists seem to take this and run with it, exaggerating the problem to the point that they see it as rampant throughout the system, a classic case of vast overgeneralization. They may think that if some people are corrupt, then everyone must be corrupt. If there is anxiety, some people may think, “I will solve this issue. I will tell them who is really causing this anxiety so they will not have to squirm anymore.” Subconsciously they may want to become a hero. They are thinking with emotion mind. They may think if they state that someone like Bill Gates is causing the pandemic, or that the Chinese wanted to create it, they will be a hero. It is really a feeling, not a thought, as the emotion has likely affected their thought processes. Other emotions such as hurt, anger, and cynicism will also enter the fray, as individuals have different emotional makeups, but have enough in common for there to be a significant overlap. These feelings can dominate any ability to think rationally.
These feelings probably come from a previous time in someone’s life when they have been abused, hurt, or wronged, losing their trust. Emotions, including suppressed and implicit emotion, seem to have overpowered the rational mind. They may think that if they don’t view the government as having caused this pandemic, they are part of the problem. Their motivation is admirable, since they seem to have a “save the country” complex, pointing out what seems obvious to them.
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