If you’ve spent enough time on the Internet (or read the New York Times yesterday), you might have come across the phenomenon of gang stalking – the alleged stalking of particular individuals by organized groups. It might seem like gang stalking is a sort of conspiracy theory, and that we can maybe understand it in the same way that we think about things like the 9/11 Truth Movement and beliefs in UFO coverups. I’m not sure about this. There are some pretty major psychological differences between the two. It’s probably not helpful to conflate run-of-the-mill conspiracy theories, which are not considered to be an indicator of psychopathology, with gang stalking, which is widely considered to be the product of delusional thinking.
In gang stalking, large gangs of perpetrators will (allegedly) use subtle methods of manipulation and harassment – muttering hurtful phrases or insults while passing their target on the street, repeatedly driving past the target’s house, preventing them from sleeping by making loud noises at odd hours, and so on. Many people who claim to be victims of gang stalking (search YouTube for a reasonably representative sample) allege more exotic stalking methods – in particular, “electronic harassment,” the use of advanced technology to torture, annoy, or even control the mind of the target from afar.
If you think this sounds pretty far-fetched, you’re not wrong. Stalking is real, of course – there’s no denying that. And there are situations where multiple people participate in bullying or even stalking – often close friends or family members. But “gang stalking” – the type that involves muttered insults, dozens of strangers working together, electronic harrassment, secret hand signals – is not really an accepted thing. In fact, suspicions of gang stalking are considered to be markers of delusional disorders like paranoid schizophrenia. In a 2015 study, Sheridan and James examined 128 reports of group (gang) stalking in an online questionnaire and found that all of them – every single one – exhibited delusional qualities.
I’ve posted here before about why measuring belief in conspiracy theories can be tricky. Recently I was invited to visit University of Cambridge’s Conspiracy and Democracy project and the issue of measuring belief came up again, particularly the question of what it means when somebody indicates on a survey that they “believe” (or don’t “believe”) a conspiracist claim. I wrote a blog post for the Conspiracy and Democracy project about the idea, which I’m reposting in full below. You can also watch the full public talk I gave at Cambridge at the bottom of this post.
Psychologists love to measure things, and psychologists who study conspiracy theories are no exception. To understand where conspiracy theories come from, we need to be able to measure the extent to which people believe them. But measuring things is often trickier than it first appears. Continue reading
I wrote a post over at Psychology Today on the psychology behind conspiracy theories about airline disasters like the disappearance of MH370, and more recently, MS804. Part of the appeal, according to a handful of recent studies, may be how conspiracy theories resonate with our brain’s intentionality bias.
When ambiguous events happen, we automatically assume that they were intended, rather than accidental. The bias is easy to spot in kids. When young children see somebody sneeze of fall over, they think that the person must have meant to sneeze or fall over. As we grow older, of course, we realize that people don’t always intend to do everything they do, and we can override our automatic judgment of intent. But the bias stays with us. One study found that having people drink a few shots of alcohol made them more likely to interpret ambiguous events as intentional—which might explain why so many fights start in bars when somebody interprets an innocent comment as an aggressive affront.
To read more about how this helps us understand conspiracy theories, click over to Psychology Today.
I wrote an op ed, published today on LATimes.com, on the topic of dismissing conspiracy theories (and theorists) as “crazy.” Pithy insults like crazy, delusional, irrational, wacky have become a common refrain, at least among click-baiting headline-writers and over-zealous pundits. But, as I explain in my article, these pseudo-psychological labels are misguided.
Here’s an excerpt:
Some pundits took the start of the new year as an excuse to aggregate, and denigrate, recent conspiracy theories. Alternet published “The 5 Craziest Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories of 2015” (subtitle: “The indefatigable right-wing loony factory pumped out some doozies this year.”). Bustle collected “The Most Bizarre Conspiracy Theories of 2015” and National Memo offered “This Year in Crazy: 2015 Belonged to the Wingnuts.” The Guardian’s film critic, Peter Bradshaw, wished for fewer “smug” conspiracy theories in 2016. “Nowadays,” he lamented, “there is always a malign pseudo-sophisticate dunce who can be relied upon to appear out of the online thicket, darkly insisting on a ‘provocateur’ conspiracy behind everything.”
When major news breaks, it doesn’t take long for people to come up with conspiracy theories, and it doesn’t take much longer for other people to call the conspiracy theorists wacky, delusional and other unkind adjectives. Confirmation bias kicks in; both sides double down on the inflammatory rhetoric.
Who’s “smugger,” really — to borrow Bradshaw’s word — the theorists or the anti-theorists? The antis should not be so quick to assert their superiority.
Click here to read the article on LATimes.com.