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We have seen an epidemic of conspiracy theories in the last few years. In no small part this is due to the monetization of “engagement farming”: the exploitation of extremist views as a way of generating advertising revenue. But there is a deeper current involved. “The epidemiological and social crises brought about by COVID-19 have magnified widely held social anxieties and trust issues.” 1 I had to deal with this issue first-hand at MEHRI.

This was the time when parents had become incredibly anxious about the MMR vaccine due to the paper that Wakefield had published in the Lancet in 1998. Parents were devastated by the thought that they had caused their child’s autism. Families with one child on the spectrum were begging us to help them find a way to split the vaccine into three doses for their next child, or eschewing vaccination altogether. It wasn’t until 2011 that we became fully aware of the extent of Wakefield’s fraud2. But by then the damage had been done. Is still being done.

We need to look at the explosion of conspiracy theories around the COVID vaccine in light of the furor over the MMR vaccine, and following that, the HNHI and then measles vaccines. But what has happened since the pandemic is startling. Vaccine conspiracy theories are just the tip of the iceberg.

A meta-analysis came out in 2023 that confirms that there has been a precipitous collapse of trust in what would hitherto have been highly trusted figures or institutions3. The study confirms what we have long suspected: the “conspiratorial mind” sees threats all around, values intuition over reason, feels that they and like-minded individuals are superior to those who are not part of the elect.

You only need to read Dan Ariely’s Misbelief (2023) and the flood of wild conspiracy theories to which he has been subjected to see how this is most definitely not a rational issue4. That is not to say that conspiracy theories are ipso facto irrational (although some clearly are); rather, it is to suggest that conspiracy theories are non-rational, in the sense that they are not only immune to doubt, but actually grow stronger when factually challenged.

The conspiracy theorist is caught in the web of mis-trust. It is not just that they mistrust what were once highly respected authorities and institutions. Nothing those authorities or institutions could say or do would restore their trust. And yet we persist in trying to do just that: to restore their trust with facts and data.

The reason why we are drawn to privileging rationality here is simply because trust itself is the most rational of constructs. You have to have grounds for relying on another person or institution, reasons to trust that they will not harm you. Without a rational foundation, trust is simply a misleading term for fanatical devotion.

The origins of trust are developmental. The securely attached baby learns that they can trust their caregivers and depend on them for comfort. Bretherton’s “4 S’s” refers to four key factors that underpin secure attachment. Infants need to feel “seen, safe, soothed, and secure.”5 But we can take this a step further: the origins of the 4 S’s themselves are physiological, dating back to the distant evolutionary past.

Panksepp showed how separation produces intense aversive sensations in both caregiver and infant. These sensations are generated by a PANIC/GRIEF circuit that runs from the dorsal PAG to the ACC. This PEC evolved from an ancient pain circuit that dates back to squamates. Thus, the “psychic pain” of PANIC/GRIEF has strong links to the aversive sensations that accompany nociception and CRF. Reunion triggers the release of oxytocin and endogenous opioids that turn off these nociceptors and the stress-response.

Where the securely attached infant “expects” relief from their caregiver, the insecurely infant does not. The former associates the caregiver with those positive sensations that characterize homeostasis. In cases of D-Type attachment, the infant has no such association, or worse still, anticipates even greater distress. The securely attached infant SEEKS oxytocin; the insecurely attached infant SEEKS catecholamines. The securely attached infant restores homeostasis; the insecurely attached infant is chronically dysregulated.

In order to understand the epidemic of conspiracy theories, we need to start with the epidemic of insecurely attached children (approximately 38% in the US). Securely attached children go on to have high levels of trust in their romantic relationships; insecurely attached individuals have far lower levels of trust. Not for psychological, but for psychophysiological reasons.

If we want to restore trust, we need to go to the source of the problem. Which, you might say, is the raison d’être of Self-Reg.


References

1 Pertwee, E., Simas, C. & Larson, H.J. (2022) An epidemic of uncertainty: rumors, conspiracy theories and vaccine hesitancy. Nat Med 28, 456–459
2 Rao, T. S., & Andrade, C. (2011). The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian journal of psychiatry, 53(2), 95-96.
3 Bowes, Castello & Tasimi (2023) The Conspiratorial Mind: A meta-analytical review of motivational and personological correlates. Psychological Bulletin, 149(5-6), 259–29
4 Dan Ariely (2023) Misbelief: What makes rational people believe irrational things. Harper
5  I Bretherton (1992). The Origins of Attachment Theory. Developmental Psychology, 28(5)


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