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Opinion: Missing the forest for the trees, and belief in conspiracy theories


TOKYO -- A year has passed since the insurrection at the United States Capitol building. At least 2,000 people who did not believe that then President Donald Trump had lost the Nov. 2020 presidential election stormed the Capitol.

    Among those were people who believed in QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory whose followers believed that senior Democratic officials dominated the world as a pedophiliac network called the "deep state," and that Trump was their savior from such evil.

    What has been the influence of QAnon on Japan? Fujio Toriumi, a professor of computational social science at the University of Tokyo, randomly chose 100 tweets from those including keywords such as "deep state" or "QAnon" between June 2021 and Nov. 2021 (which averaged about 1,000 per day). He then classified the tweets into categories such as "support," "mockery," and "unrelated/unknown." As a result, over 60%, or more than 600 tweets a day, were found to be in support of QAnon, according to a Yahoo News report dated Dec. 10, 2021. The number is surprisingly large, but this doesn't seem like a situation that would greatly influence the general public.

    Dualistic thinking between good and evil is a major characteristic of conspiracy theories. Americans seem to like conspiracy theories, starting with the theories surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but the reasons why are not clear. However, according to the global bestseller "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why" by Richard Nisbett, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, when Asians are confronted with a phenomenon that is contradictory, they pursue a happy medium, while Westerners get hung up on which view is more correct than the other.

    In the book, the Asians to which Nesbitt refers are East Asians, and Westerners are Americans and Europeans. In the world of psychology, in which it was believed that there was a universal way of thought among human beings, Nesbitt is known for his success in indicating through empirical research the differences in thinking based on geography.

    For example, when shown a dense population of trees, Asians will see it comprehensively as a forest, but Westerners focus on the large trees and analyze the view that way. When asked which words go together among "panda," "monkey," and "banana," Chinese people tended to respond "monkey and banana" -- in other words, they saw the words' relationship. Meanwhile, Americans tended to answer "panda and monkey," seeing the two as being in the same category.

    So does this mean that Americans tend to lack a comprehensive view and when in a conflict situation, are likely to believe in the rightfulness of one side and lose sight of the factors and relationships in the background? Indeed, in the "War on Terror," the U.S. tried to Westernize Afghanistan and regarded Muslims with hostility. There is data indicating that just recently, about one in six people still believed in the existence of the deep state.

    In Japan, too, conspiracy theories about the coronavirus vaccine made their rounds, but at nearly 80%, the percentage of people who have been vaccinated is one of the highest around the world. It's possible that having the trait of pursuing a happy medium out of concern for our relationships with others may be increasing our immunity to conspiracy theories.

    (Japanese original by Tomoko Ohji, Expert Writer)

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