Conspiracy theories seem to be taking over the world. This is not a good thing. As with all unconscious projective processes, if they continue to be identified with and indulged, the negative consequences increase, until hopefully, at some point, reality impinges. They flow from the same fragile place that allows people to get sucked into cults along with all the difficulties involved in breaking free from the “mind control” that takes over the personality. As research has shown, those caught up in conspiracy theories are more likely to get carried away into violence and destructive behaviour (The Inquiry – BBC Radio 4 – 01.08.20) because of the huge amount of energy that gets caught up in the identification. When this energy gets confronted by difference, or reality, it is like an ordinary wave hitting a submerged shelf, it can get huge.

Behind every projective process there is trauma that has remained unconscious. If I have been overly criticised in childhood, I am going to be far more reactive to criticism as an adult. Anger is often an instant defence mechanism triggered to protect some unfaced and unconscious hurt. But what is the wound behind this projective process of conspiracy theories?

I think it is a very deep level of anxiety, which is projected out, latching onto some story which reinforces the anxiety in a self-feeding vicious circle. Looking at those who get involved with this process I often see a typical lack of balance, a sense that they come from backgrounds, like mine, that, either or both, lacked love and had a surfeit of criticism and punishment. People with lots of anger and blame are struggling with unconscious hurt. People who have had enough love and support tend to be more creative and positive in their outlook and relationship to life.

When any of us are caught by and identified with our victim hurt place, the world seems like a negative and threatening place. I think however, that the anxiety feeding conspiracy theories probably comes from a pre-verbal age. When difficulties happen so early in life that they disrupt “healthy attachment”, it makes it difficult as an adult to integrate them. Bringing such experiences to consciousness is not easy, there are no memories or frameworks available that would enable the anxiety to be seen, recognised and integrated. A baby not getting its needs met has no understanding of what is going on, there is just “wrongness” and this gets internalised and stuck inside. So, understanding what is being struggled with is hard, there is just this force of unease, of anxiety, of feeling that the world is bad, predatory, or malevolent in some way. Such anxiety is one stage away from paranoia.  

All this this fits with a recent “Crowdscience” BBC World service piece about why people become conspiracy theorists . In one section they look at the neuroscience of this phenomena and how we are programmed to see meaning in patterns in all aspects of our experience, as part of our defensive alarm system. Those people who go in for conspiracy theories because of the anxiety mentioned above have over sensitive alarm systems, they are seeing connections that do not exist. This goes along with holding onto rigid thought patterns, which are the obviously consequence of insecurity. My wife can testify to my stubbornness and arrogance.

All this is not to say that there are no hidden processes of control and manipulation going on in the world by those with enormous wealth and power. Obviously, there are. All governments desperately spin everything in the attempt to look good and avoid criticism and hang onto power. We know that many companies fight for decades funding huge dis-information campaigns to serve their greed. The key here is that all these have obvious, common-sense, levels of motivation. So, to me, one clear sign of conspiracy theories being projections of anxiety, is when the common-sense obviousness of the motivations gets stretched.

Personally, I am much more orientated towards the “cock-up” theory of life. It fits with my understanding of how people are largely un-consciously floundering around in a sea of chaos with unintended consequences playing out, left, right and centre. Even Rupert Murdoch’s youngest son has apparently gone “native”, giving money to the Democrats. I agree with Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, life is inherently uncontrollable, chaotic and with an unstoppable creativity. The rich and powerful are no more “enlightened” or “in control”, than the rest of us.

It is the attachment to threat that is such a powerful aspect of all this. Our fight/flight/freeze responses get triggered and fed so effectively by conspiracy theories. This also connects with the current intensity of our “culture wars” (let alone the actual wars) which are being played out across the world. Covid 19 has raised the stakes and brought the intensity of emergency to so many aspects of our relationships.

How to respond to this? For myself I want to keep my heart open, which means allowing and suffering and trying to integrate the fear. This allows me to connect to the love behind it, to the vulnerability and fragility of love. We also need to support each other in love, love is after all just as infectious as fear, and in the end, eventually, surely more powerful.

P.S. 03/08

Questioning agendas and motivations around everything, is of course essential. But I see the tell-tale signs of anxiety’s involvement in the energy that sweeps people up into conspiracy theories. Their thinking is controlled by emotion not reason, with so much energy and attention being used there are obviously deep needs involved. It feels useful to ask “what does it matter that certain things are being manipulated to some ends? After all this has always been the case and what can I do about it anyway?” In many ways projecting our problems onto the outside world only distracts us from our practice of “self-enquiry”.

This led me to questioning my own motivation for writing this and engaging in dialogue around it and I could see that my fear was around not wanting sanity to be defeated the madness of conspiracy theories. They feel to me like a road to hell where human development towards Consciousness and Love are in danger of being defeated by the regressive forces of fear, hate and magical thinking. But this is surely one of the hooks for conspiracy theorists as well though, getting caught into an unconscious rebellion against the deep wounds of having been defeated with all the attendant feelings of powerlessness.

There is also another level of this, I have felt anger towards conspiracy theorists, and when I really looked at this it was about judging them for their “narcissistic arrogant need to be right”. Reflecting on this, I could see that I was rejecting this shadow aspect of myself. As humiliating as it was, I needed to face my projection, that was still emerging from my wounds of “not being good enough”. Seeing this has helped me forgive myself and conspiracy theorists. I still think they are “mad” though!

It is the negative and destructive impact of this “madness” that worries me most. It may start out as a legitimate questioning of what is presented as mainstream accepted facts, which is perfectly fine, after all challenging science with science is how knowledge is developed. The problems start when our anxiety attaches to the idea that there are “dark malevolent forces” involved. Obviously, this is difficult because sometimes this is sort of the case. But the danger of this identification comes from how slippery the slope is towards “magical thinking”, which is where the trouble starts.

It seems unfortunately common that many people who are open and connected to the “spiritual”, “humanistic” or “transpersonal” level of life get caught into rejecting science. (I think because it has not yet reached its maturity and is therefore unable to speak to these areas of life). They “chuck the baby out with the bathwater” and then attach to conspiracy theories. Energetically, it is so attractive to go with our compulsive and compensatory self-justificatory ways of being. As above, Covid has accentuated our fear, and this exacerbates the regressive, archaic default ways of being that we desperately need to resist.

Conspiracy theories are narcissistic, they put the person “in the know”, make them feel “special” and “in control”. Narcissism is always there when we have been deeply wounded. We know that the power of the mind to reinforce its “rightness” by selectively seeing the patterns in the data its wants to, is huge. Especially for us narcissists. This is why I feel better when I am standing on the ground of uncertainty, of not knowing. But this is the dilemma, it feels important to resist a world filled with the “dark forces” of conspiracy theories.

As Charles Eisenstein puts it, at the extreme, ” … they say, everything we are told is a lie, and the world is in the grip of evil.” This only helps to deepen our anxiety and drive us further towards madness. He does though usefully articulate how conspiracy theories are a myth that expresses the loss of trust in science, experts, and authority. But how do we know what is true? This is the great cry of our “Postmodern” age, and it’s there because we have needed to challenge the anchors that science and rationality provide. Ken Wilber explains how this is an inevitable aspect of working through our “Postmodern” age. Our “culture wars” reflect the real struggle that goes with this developmental stage.

Science, the Enlightenment, Modernity, Rationality, however you name it, was really hard won over several centuries, and the battles are still been fought. Wilber emphasises how this vital stage in human development must not be lost by some massive regression into the magical and superstitious ways of being of previous eras. So, the rejection of “experts” and “science” worldwide has its positive side, but it is also deeply dangerous. We need better science, not no science.

As Wilber puts it, each stage of development needs to “transcend and include” the previous one. After “Modernism” comes our current “Postmodernism” which is deeply anti-hierarchical, it understands the relativity of everything, all of which is wonderful and necessary, but it has this troubling tendency of wanting to destroy and reject science and rationality. It is a stage that is proving very tricky to navigate (as many “developmental level” transitions are). The leading edge of our current development is into our next stage, which Wilber calls “Integral”.

Jim Robinson – August 2020

One thought on “Psychology of Conspiracy Theorists

Comments are closed.