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.
In early 2015, a public debate about a perceptual phenomenon that impressively demonstrated the subjective nature of human perception was running round the globe: the debate about #TheDress, a poorly lit photograph of a lace dress that was perceived as white–gold by some, but as blue–black by others. In the present research (N¼48), we found that the perceptual difference between white–gold perceivers (n1¼24, 12 women, Mage¼25.4 years) and blue–black perceivers (n2¼24, 12 women, Mage¼24.3 years) decreased significantly when the illumination information provided by the original digital photo was reduced by means of image scrambling (Experiment 1). This indicates that the illumination information is one potentially important factor contributing to the color ambiguity of #TheDress—possibly by amplification of a slight principal difference in psychophysics of color perception which the two observer groups showed for abstract uniformly colored fields displaying a white–blue ambiguity (Experiment 2).
The folded paper-size illusion is as easy to demonstrate as it is powerful in generating insights into perceptual processing: First take two A4 sheets of paper, one original sized, another halved by folding, then compare them in terms of area size by centering the halved sheet on the center of the original one! We perceive the larger sheet as far less than double (i.e., 100%) the size of the small one, typically only being about two thirds larger—this illusion is preserved by rotating the inner sheet and even by aligning it to one or two sides, but is dissolved by aligning both sheets to three sides, here documented by 88 participants’ data. A potential explanation might be the general incapability of accurately comparing more than one geometrical dimension at once—in everyday life, we solve this perceptual-cognitive bottleneck by reducing the complexity of such a task via aligning parts with same lengths.