For the past three months, street protests have erupted around Thailand with the aim of toppling the military-backed government of Prayut Chan-ocha and ending the role of the military in Thai politics. It has engendered numerous conversations about the nature of the protest, the nature of governments in general and also spawned an apathetic silent group that has come to hate both sides of the political divide.
This third party has, oftentimes, blamed both sides for the ills of Thailand and has questioned the source of funding for the protesters and who may be backing them in their fight for democracy.
To this group of people, they are sure of several things. The powerful, ill-intentioned people are behind these protests. The kids are being brainwashed. They’re scapegoats. They’re getting paid. The US is backing them. Nothing is real anymore! Is it the Illuminati?
What a catchphrase to justify anything that doesn’t go your way these days.
Instead of engaging in a healthy dialogue or debate, we all seem much more comfortable at pointing fingers and looking the other way. Instead of finding common ground or creating substantial solutions together, we would much rather accuse and delegitimize one another. As this recent piece points out.
But it has not just been limited to Thailand, worldwide it seems that superfluous conspiracy theories have run rampant and have dominated news cycle after news cycle.
Asians around the world, for instance, have been the victims of racial attacks, harassment, and discrimination with the rest of the world blaming Asians for the coronavirus pandemic. In May, a significant number of the global population truly believed that the coronavirus was actually a laboratory-manipulated virus deployed to wreak havoc so that a vaccine could be used for profit.
Sounds pretty bleak and apocalyptic, don’t you think?
The world and Thailand are not new to cooked-up conspiracy theories, but we must admit that they are ever so visible – and quite damaging – now.
Fortunately, there’s been a lot of work in the world of science and psychology in attempting to explain this phenomenon.
It can happen to all of us
First and foremost, let’s debunk a common myth most people seem to hold true; it’s not just the older generations who are more susceptible to conspiracy theories. In fact, it’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories, and no one is safe from it – not even you, or me!
“Conspiracy theories resonate with us all, to some extent,” says Rob Brotherton, a psychologist who’s written two books on conspiracy theories and fake news. Although you might think that you are smarter than your parents, uncles, or aunts who share fake news on LINE or Facebook, the truth is that none of us is perfectly immune to them.
No single demographic is most prone to conspiracy theories, either, according to website MIT Technology Review. No single ethnicity, country, political leaning, gender, or social class.
Thais are all a little superstitious, but that’s also a bit different
Take Thailand’s long-held rituals and superstitions, for example. Why did we need a ceremony to commemorate our new plaque under a prayer? Why do Buddhist Thais don themselves with amulets of Buddha images with gold or silver plating around their necks? Or why do – and I am also guilty of this – some of us knock on wood three times after hearing the chirping sounds of a house lizard to drive away bad luck?
But superstitions, while similar to conspiracy theories in many ways, is quite contrary to conspiracy theories as the latter “differ from other worldviews in that they are fundamentally gloomy,” according to Joshua Hart, associate professor of psychology at Union College.
“This sets them apart from the typically uplifting messages conveyed by, say, religious and spiritual beliefs. At first blush this is a conundrum,” Hart said. “However, if you are the type of person who looks out at the world and sees a chaotic, malevolent landscape full of senseless injustice and suffering, then perhaps there is a modicum of comfort to be found in the notion that there is someone, or some small group of people, responsible for it all. If ‘there’s something going on,’ then at least there is something that could be done about it.”
But maybe there’s also a link here, as researchers have also found a “prevalence of superstition and conspiracy theories among people who seek meaning and patterns in the environment, and who possess a low tolerance for uncertainty.”
A matter of personality
In Joshua Hart’s 2018 research, which was published in the Journal of Individual Differences, it is suggested that people with “certain personality traits and cognitive styles are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.”
“These people tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place,” he said. “They are also more likely to detect meaningful patterns where they might not exist. People who are reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories tend to have the opposite qualities.”
Thai citizens, shaped by authoritarian rule and raised under a culture primarily of fear, seem prone to such symptoms. Whatever stands against our inherent sacred belief systems and long-held traditions are mostly viewed as malevolent and dangerous.
Another research study has found that those who gravitate towards conspiracy theories tend to have a greater need for cognitive closure and to be unique. According to Joseph M. Pierre M.D., a health sciences clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Chief of the Hospital Psychiatry Division for the VA Greater LA Healthcare Center, they’re also more likely to have a cognitive bias called hypersensitive agency detection or teleological thinking, whereby “events are overattributed to hidden forces, purposes, and motives.”
Other studies have also found that conspiracy beliefs are associated with lower levels of education and analytic thinking, according to Pierre.
This especially comes as no surprise to Thailand, as our education lacks any proper infrastructure that promotes independent or critical thinking.
It is also linked to insecurity, narcissism, and search for social connection
According to current scientific literature in the psychology of conspiracy theories, these beliefs may appeal to “people trying to make sense in a world that leaves them feeling disempowered, alienated, and confused.”
And if you think about it, this makes a whole lot of sense for people to be feeling this way in 2020. Better yet, for other generations in Thailand to feel a certain tinge of isolation when it comes to political beliefs and nationhood during this whole ordeal under the current pro-democracy protests.
The researchers have identified the psychological motives that drive conspiracy beliefs: epistemic (a way to make sense of chaos and random events); existential (the pursuit of safety, security, and empowerment and social desire to belong in a group with a shared belief system).
Conspiracy believers are also associated with the concept known as collective narcissism – that is a belief that one’s own social group is superior but unappreciated by others.
The article also pointed out that groups who feel they have been victimized are more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories and are more likely to distrust governments as a whole.
The Internet and social media aren’t making it any better either
With the ever-rising use of social media, Instagram posts, and Twitter hashtags, everyone can be an influencer. People are able to use their platforms to endorse views and promote a certain narrative that could be biased, unsubstantial, and superficial – with little research or understanding.
In the old days, people sought information from books, print newspapers, television, or experts. Now everyone can claim to be an expert.
“One result has been that expertise is now devalued and knowledge has been democratized,” says Joseph Pierre.
People are now more susceptible to confirmation bias. It is now much easier for people to go down the rabbit hole and be stuck in an echo chamber, reinforcing their preexisting notions and views of the world, which is also exacerbated by search algorithms.
So now that we know, what can we do?
First of all, it’s ridiculous, futile, and actually pretty mean to mock people who believe in conspiracy theories – like research shows, it can happen to all of us.
Ridicule and argument don’t appear to be “effective strategies if you’re trying to change hearts and minds,” either, according to Pierre. “At their core, conspiracy beliefs are often rooted in lack of trust in institutions.”
The most effective way, according to countless research, is empathetic listening – after all, the root of conspiracy theories lies in the fact that people are feeling marginalized, isolated, attacked, and misunderstood. All they are really looking for is answers, closure, and a sense of belonging, and isn’t that all of us?
In a world that is always ready to fight and bring others down, it’s also important to try to engage and listen to both sides of the story – they both hold a certain amount of truth.