This dissertation will explore conspiracy theories from a psychological viewpoint—both theoretically and empirically. Conspiracy theories are introduced here as a phenomenon relevant for many aspects of entertainment, history, popular culture, society, politics, and ideology. The phenomenon is defined and discussed, with its epistemic characteristics and ramifications, from a philosophical viewpoint. It is argued that there is no standard practice for the judgement of conspiracy theories, and that a case-by-case consideration is a pragmatic resolution for this epistemic problem. Along with proposing and implementing a new means of measurement for the belief in conspiracy theories in Raab, Ortlieb, Auer, Guthmann, and Carbon (2013) called narrative construction, it is argued that nearly everyone will construct a conspiracy theory for an important event (exemplified with the 9/11 attacks), which is probably
not a sign of delusion, but of identity construction and management. However, the genesis of such beliefs is prone to distortions. The mere presence of extreme (in terms of conspiratorial value) information might foster the construction of narrations significantly more extreme—without people noticing it. In Raab, Auer, Ortlieb, and Carbon (2013), we have called this the Sarrazin effect. To better understand why conspiratorial narrations are so widespread, powerful and possibly dangerous, psychological and philosophical theories are applied; for example, narrations (and thus conspiracy theories) can be considered cognitive simulations of possible states of the world. Here, it would also be desirable to understand why a given person adheres to a specific narrative content, so the link between personal values (in a psychological sense) and conspiracy belief was analysed empirically. The results were reported in a conference paper (Raab, Kammerl, & Carbon, 2015). Also, a current research question is if people automatically begin to elaborate conspiracy beliefs for a new event, or if it takes psychological triggers to start this process. We found empirical evidence in Gebauer, Raab, and Carbon (2016) that
information has to include testimony of causation (someone causing an event directly) and purpose (someone causing this deliberately), so that people begin to assume a conspiracy at work. To make the knowledge presented here, as well as the results gathered by researchers in the past years and decades, available to a larger audience, a work-in-progress project for a popular science book on conspiracy theories is presented. The conspiracy theory is the message then (speaking with Marshall McLuhan), as those theories extend our realm of human affairs. To integrate the findings of this thesis, a construction kit for conspiracy theories is proposed; and dangers as well as chances of such narrations are discussed with regard to societal progress.
This dissertation presents research projects which investigated dynamics in the perception and appreciation of ambiguous and indeterminate art. It examines how semantical instability in art can induce pleasure in the perceiver although defying an easy consumption. The idea pursued within this thesis is that insights gained during an elaboration of such objects lead to an increase in appreciation (Aesthetic Aha effect, Muth & Carbon, 2013)—the creation of meaning itself being rewarding. The comprised research projects examine such dynamics in perception and appreciation of visual artworks which are semantically instable. A crucial quality of these objects might be that they confront the perceiver with semantical instability as well as opportunity for insight: for instance, we like Cubist artworks more the better we are able to discern identifiable objects in them—still they never dissolve into an easy recognizable interpretation (Muth, Pepperell, & Carbon, 2013a). Also the solvability of ambiguity in another set of visual artworks did not have positive effects on liking, interest, and affect. Instead, the strength of insights gained during their elaboration predicted appreciation positively (Muth, Hesslinger, & Carbon, 2015). In line with the Aesthetic Aha effect (Muth & Carbon, 2013) also the sudden emergence of Gestalt within indeterminate artistic movies elicited an increase in liking. Interest—in contrast –already increased prior to these moments of insight (Muth, Raab, & Carbon, 2015). The presented findings highlight that art perception does not equal a kind of problem solving process in which semantical instability needs to be resolved for the artwork to appeal. Instead appreciation might benefit from rewarding insights into the instable.