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Are Conspiracy Theories Creative?

With their incredulous claims, conspiracies tend to be surprisingly original.

Key points

  • Conspiracy theories can be thought of as creative products, similar to fictional narratives, according to a recent research paper.
  • The majority of research on conspiracy theories focuses on the people susceptible to believing them, rather than their creative aspects.
  • In a controlled setting, one can use the generation of conspiracy theories to study dark creativity.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several people may have encountered one or many conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus. The most memorable for me was that the outbreak is part of an elaborate population control scheme orchestrated by Bill Gates and the Pirbright Institute in England. More recently, with the advent of the COVID-19 vaccines, the conspiracies have shifted gears just a bit; now theories claim that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant microchips in humans, given that the Gates Foundation has funded a sizable portion of vaccine development efforts.

Conspiracy theories often emerge in the context of seemingly inexplicable events and assume that (supposedly) powerful institutions or individuals are responsible for such happenings. They tread the fine line between plausible belief and outright speculation. Conspiracies surrounding major events like the JFK assassination, 9/11, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and the deaths of prominent figures, are easily accessible if one wants to go down the rabbit hole. A majority of the research in this area has also been done to understand which people are most likely to be susceptible to believing conspiracy theories — ranging from those who are more paranoid and disagreeable, to those more open to new experiences and who seek out unusual ideas.

 Michael Knoll/Pixabay
Source: Michael Knoll/Pixabay

On the other hand, not a lot of progress has been made to understand the kinds of people who come up with conspiracy theories or reframing these theories as creative narratives themselves. A recent paper in the Journal of Creative Behavior attempts to make this conspiracy-creativity link, positioning it within, what else but, the dark side of originality. Conspiracy theories meet both criteria of traditional creative output — most of them are very original (who would have thought of the Denver airport being a base for the Illuminati?) and generate value for those interested in furthering these explanations.

However, they also fit in neatly as dark creative manifestations of thought. Conspiracy theories are interesting and understudied products from the lens of creativity science. So are conspiracy theorists. Researchers in the field can gain a wealth of information by classifying these theories based on their creative characteristics and can even use the hypothetical generation of conspiracies as a methodology to explore the dark side.

Creativity Science May Help Us Better Understand Conspiracy Theories

For instance, consider an item in a hypothetical creativity assessment: Think of as many novel reasons as you can to explain the rise of veganism. Someone with a proclivity to create conspiracy theories (and/or believe them) might say “cows are controlling human beings through the milk we consume, and veganism is a way to break away from their powers.”

If this seems far-fetched, it is — but it’s also original and valuable enough (in the context of conspiracies) to be considered creative. The response also adheres to an important tenet of these theories — that a higher power is responsible for whatever is happening. Moreover, not being able to understand how certain events could just be random is more likely to lead you down a path of theorizing. In a way, conspiracies actually try to help some make meaning of ongoing and past events, even if in a far-fetched sort of way. As with conspiracies, methodologies to study the emergence of the same are only limited by our own ingenuity.

Rhulk G./Pixabay
Meerkats conspiring against us?
Source: Rhulk G./Pixabay

Treating such theories as creative narratives, not very different from fictional stories or literary works, can help us understand the functions they serve and how they come to be. Conspiracies are the creative products. Similarly, conspirators are likely to be persons who may perceive certain events, like COVID-19, as opportunities to further an agenda through the creation of what they consider a reasonable and rational explanation. Conspiracies are also influenced by the context within which they emerge, shaped by potential followers of the theory, and potentially exude anti-establishment sentiments. Finally, the processes that build conspiracies may originate from noble intentions to make the larger public aware of the true reasons behind an event but with little connection to dominant facts.

Conspiracy theories are fertile ground for the study of dark creativity. Their creation, maintenance, and transmission can yield insights into who or what is more likely to be believed in the context of original harm.

References

Bonetto, E., & Arciszewski, T. (2021). The creativity of conspiracy theories. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 0, jocb.497. https://doi.org/10.1002/jocb.497

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