Project Workshop One
Are Conspiratorial Beliefs Pathological?
The first workshop of the project focused on whether we should understand conspiratorial beliefs as pathological. It was held at the University of Birmingham on 24th and 25th April 2022, and featured seven talks from researchers in philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry.
Karen Douglas (Psychology, Kent)
Anna Ichino (Philosophy, Milan)
Stephan Lewandowsky (Psychology, Bristol)
Miriam Schleifer McCormick (Philosophy, Richmond)
Kengo Miyazono (Philosophy, Hokkaido)
Kathleen Murphy-Hollies (Philosophy, Birmingham)
Joseph Pierre (Psychiatry, UCLA)
Ema Sullivan-Bissett (Philosophy, Birmingham)
For updates on the project, follow us on twitter @Cons_Path.
09:45 Karen Douglas: 'The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories'
11:30 Kathleen Murphy-Hollies: 'Are Conspiracy Theorists Confabulating?'
14:30 Stephan Lewandowsky: 'Conspiracy Theories and Democracy'
16:15 Miriam McCormick: 'How to Engage with a Conspiracy Theorist'
18:30 Dinner at The Plough
09:15 Anna Ichino and Ema Sullivan-Bissett: 'Conspiracy Attitudes, Monothematic Delusions, and Psychopathology'
11:00 Kengo Miyazono: 'Delusions, Conspiracy Theories, and Testimony'
13:30 Joseph Pierre: 'Conspiracy Theory Beliefs: A Sane Response to an Insane World?'
Karen Douglas: 'The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories'
Conspiracy theories are abundant in social and political discourse and have serious consequences for individuals, groups and societies. However, psychological scientists have only started paying them close attention in the past 20 years. In this talk, I will underscore the importance of conspiracy theories as a topic of research in psychology. I will overview the literature on the psychology of conspiracy theories, using examples from my own research. I will showcase what psychologists know about why people believe in conspiracy theories, what their consequences are, and why people share them.
Stephan Lewandowsky: 'Conspiracy Theories and Democracy'
There has been much recent concern about “democratic backsliding”: even countries that have been considered stable and long-standing democracies, such as the U.S. and UK, have experienced events that cast a dark shadow on the health of their democracies. For example, the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th2021 is irreconcilable with democratic governance. A common element of such anti-democratic events or trends is the articulation and spread of conspiracy theories, such as the QAnon cult among anti-democratic forces in the U.S. It is however unclear whether such conspiracy theories are incidental by-products of democratic backsliding or represent a deeper structural element that is inextricably linked to extremist movements. I present evidence from survey research suggesting that the endorsement of conspiracy theories is associated with anti-democratic attitudes including the propensity to engage in political violence.
Kathleen Murphy-Hollies: 'Are Conspiracy Theorists Confabulating?'
In this talk I suggest that understanding the claims of conspiracy theorists as confabulations can illuminate what those claims are really about, and what underlies reason-giving for those claims. It also makes sense of some of their most bizarre features. In seeking to justify rather than causally explain, we can start to understand the ‘chopping and changing’ nature of defences of conspiracy theories, even to the extent even that agents simultaneously endorse contradictory conspiracy theories. For example, believing both that the coronavirus is a hoax but also a weapon released by China. In confabulation too we see overall inconsistent statements employed in justifying one’s convictions. These statements are understood as secondary confabulations and are ‘based off’ each other in aid of portraying a certain image or narrative of the agent, not in aid of painting an accurate causal picture. Importantly, confabulations and conspiracist claims both draw on values, as opportunities to embody them and to signal them to others, and in this way we can avoid talk of pathologies. I therefore also discuss some ways to think about tackling conspiracist claims which relate to how people regulate and embody their values.
Miriam McCormick: 'How to Engage with a Conspiracy Theorist'
I argue that in many cases, there are good reasons to engage with people who believe in clearly false, debunked conspiracy theories. I (1) discuss reasons for engaging with such believers; (2) discuss the conditions that need to be met for engagement to be worthwhile; (3) consider the question of how to engage with such beliefs, and defend what Jeremy Fantl has called “closed-minded engagement" and (4) address worries that such closed-minded engagement involves problematic deception or manipulation. Thinking about how we engage with irrational emotions offers a way of responding to these concerns. Reflection on engagement with conspiracy theorists has wider implications for two distinct philosophical discussions. First, it can help illuminate the nature of beliefs, lending support to the view that not all states which are deeply resistant to evidence thereby fail to be beliefs. Second, an implication of the view I put forth is that it need not constitute a lack of respect to adopt what Peter Strawson called “the objective stance” in relationships.
Anna Ichino and Ema Sullivan-Bissett: 'Conspiracy Attitudes, Monothematic Delusions, and Psychopathology'
Delusions and beliefs in conspiracy theories share some important features: they both have bizarre contents and are resistant to counterevidence. Yet conspiracy beliefs are generally taken to be a normal range phenomenon, whilst monothematic delusions are typically considered pathological. In this paper we ask whether this difference in treatment is warranted. We argue that it is not. We identify three reasons which could justify taking monothematic delusions to be instances of pathology whilst not treating conspiracy beliefs in such terms. First, we consider what have been identified as initial provoking conditions in delusional beliefs (anomalous experience) and conspiracy beliefs (epistemic mistrust). Second, we consider the role of cognitive biases or deficits in these phenomena. And third, we consider the different roles played by testimony and one’s social environment in the formation and maintenance of delusional beliefs and conspiracy beliefs. We argue that there are no grounds from any of these quarters for the different approaches taken to monothematic delusions and conspiracy beliefs with respect to the question of pathology.
Kengo Miyazono: 'Delusions, Conspiracy Theories, and Testimony'
Are beliefs in conspiracy theories pathological? It would be useful to start with a comparison between conspiracy beliefs and delusions, which are usually regarded as pathological (Miyazono 2015, 2018). Both delusions and conspiracy beliefs are often described as being insensitive to evidence, but they (fail to) respond to evidence slightly differently. In particular, delusions (in schizophrenia) are pathologically insensitive to testimonial evidence (Miyazono & Salice 2021), while conspiratory beliefs are often transmitted and shared by testimony. I will discuss the role of group identification (Turner 1982, Brewer 1991, Pacherie, 2013, Salice & Miyazono 2020) and its pathology in accounting for this difference between delusions and conspiracy beliefs.
Joseph Pierre: 'Conspiracy Theory Beliefs: A Sane Response to an Insane World?'
Are conspiracy theory beliefs pathological? That depends on what we mean by "pathological" and, for that matter, what we mean by "belief." This talk will highlight linguistic and nosological challenges that thwart efforts to describe and categorize human experiences and behavior in value-neutral terms. It will then take a phenomenological, experiential, and clinically pragmatic perspective to argue that paranoid delusions and conspiracy theory beliefs can be distinguished based on prevalence, belief conviction, shareability, self-referentiality, and rationale while still acknowledging the inherently fuzzy borders of categorical definitions and examples of potential overlap. Recognizing that both paranoid delusions and conspiracy theory beliefs can be associated with problematic behavior including violence, the respective self-referentiality and self-relevant consequentiality of such beliefs will be discussed as they relate to behavioral activation. Finally, the differentiation of the root causes of delusions and conspiracy theory beliefs will be used to argue for distinct interventions.