Conspiracy Theories 28.04.2021

Conspiracy Theories - Why do we believe them?

Terrorist attacks, the pandemic, natural disasters, disappearing celebrities, technological innovations… Nowadays every major event gives rise to theories which differ from the official account. In the light of studies in psychology, Pascal Wagner-Egger, a researcher at the University of Fribourg, has published a new book exploring the reasons why we are all able to be attracted by these stories and why some of us believe them more than others.

Pascal Wagner-Egger’s research demonstrates that there are three reasons why conspiracy theories are a symptom of our times. Firstly, because they are related to an increasing verticalisation of our societies brought on by globalisation: the coming into being of numerous international bodies (European Union, NATO, UNO, etc.), as well as the marked economic gap between the very rich and the very poor, give people in our democracies the impression of no longer being in charge of their own destiny and foster feelings of anomie (lack of control, hatred of the elite, etc.). Secondly, the extraordinary power of Internet communication favours the spread of conspiracy theories in a way which was as yet unimaginable only a few years ago. And finally, conspiracy theories are the modern echo of the most ancient of homo sapiens’ ways of thinking, such as those involved in religious or paranormal belief systems.

In his book Psychologie des croyances aux théories du complot (Psychology of belief in conspiracy theories) the author examines the rationality of these theories: are they credible or not to be trusted? Are they true or false? He focuses on identifying the weaknesses in the conspiracy arguments and offers the intellectual keys to arguing against them. Using the philosophy of science applied to belief, he puts a similar stress on the boundaries between science and belief, making it possible to establish a clear difference between investigations and theories of conspiracy. Finally, this book enables us to reflect on the scientific method, the concept of excessive doubt and its effect on democracy.

Focus on the pandemic

The pandemic has been and still is a feast for conspiracy theories which, like all rumours or false beliefs, flourish in times of uncertainty and anxiety, such as wars, terrorist attacks, the death of celebrities, etc. “The pandemic affects our lives dramatically and is here for the long haul, which accentuates the impulse to resort to alternative forms of certainty, while science moves ahead surrounded by uncertainty,” explains Pascal Wagner-Egger. “Moreover, numerous features of the pandemic offer fertile ground for conspiracy theories: the origin of the virus, vaccines, masks, temporary restrictions on personal liberty, etc.”

Psychologie des croyances aux théories du complot, Presses universitaires de Grenoble,, ISBN 978?2?7061?4982?5

Pascal Wagner-Egger teaches and researches in social psychology and statistics at the University of Fribourg. He is co-director of the Psycholinguistics and Applied Social Psychology Unit. Where these two domains interact, he is more particularly interested in everyday beliefs and reasoning, his research combines cognitive psychology and social psychology. This book is an expanded version of his venia legendi dissertation written towards the end of 2019 before the pandemic.

There will be a book signing on Monday 10 May from 2:00pm in the garden of the Institute of Psychology, Regina Mundi, route de Faucigny 2, 1700 Fribourg. Registration.