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political psychology and the propagation of conspiracy theories

Nicolette Alayon is interested in conspiracies — not in adopting them herself, but in studying their relationship with non-political elites and investigating how celebrities drive public opinion on conspiracy theories. In this interview, the second-year Ph.D. student talks about researching conspiracies and how her liberal arts background inspired her to build relationships with her colleagues and students. Alayon’s goal is to become a professor of political science because it is “a way that you can educate people and impact political behavior in an observable way because you’re working with students at that stage in their life where their purpose is to learn about the world around them.”

Question: What interests you about political psychology?

 The general overarching idea of political psychology is to understand the underpinnings of behaviors of individuals. I like how it's focused more on people — regular lay people — rather than institutions. Even though institutions are really important, they don't function without everyday people — they’re what makes politics work. I think it's fascinating the way people think about politics and how people don't think about politics, and the reasons behind that.

 Q: You’re wrapping up your second year. What is your secondary research paper about?

 I'm interested in the relationship between celebrities, or, I guess, a fancier term to call them is non-political elites. I don't know how familiar you are with the terms of political science, but elites are thought of as journalists, elected officials, people that we know are involved in politics. I'm interested in observing their relationships in political behavior: how they influence the way people think about politics — that's one part. And the second part is how it relates to conspiracy theory beliefs. 

 We see celebrities posting conspiracy theories all the time. There are anti-vaxxers — that's probably the most popular one. And I want to see: can they persuade people to believe in conspiracy theories? Or can they persuade people to not believe in conspiracy theories? It's twofold. 

 Q: In January 2019 you were a panelist at a Southern Political Science Association Conference talk about deep-state conspiracies. Can you tell me more about that panel and what led you there?

 The paper I presented was about the relationship between stealth democracy and conspiracy belief. Stealth democracy is basically this theory that Americans want democracy, but they don't want to be involved in it: they don't want to see it; they want it to work in the background. If it doesn't work, if something goes wrong, then they want to basically tear the whole thing down — which is just fascinating. 

 The idea of stealth democracy comes from World War II stealth bombers: they're there, but you don't see them until things go wrong. My general hypothesis was that President Donald Trump was the stealth democratic hero; Trump really appealed to people that fall high on the scale of stealth democracy — that just has to do with his populist and authoritarian ideas.

 That was my senior research paper for my senior year of undergrad and that's when I kind of realized that research is so cool — I get to figure out what I think is important. I did that presentation a couple months after I graduated from undergrad.

 Q: And after you graduated from Stetson University with degrees in Political Science and Government, you attended the Stanford Summer Institute in Political Psychology. What did that experience entail?

 It was the best program ever — everyone should do it. It's wildly expensive for those who aren’t supported by department or external funding, which is a signal of a larger gatekeeping problem in academia, but I highly recommend it. 

 That's actually how I met Professor Druckman, who is my current advisor — that program is basically why I'm here at Northwestern. Every day there's a new scholar from a different university. I'm pretty sure the year that I went they brought in American scholars, but previously they've had scholars from all over the world. The participants in the institute are people from all over the world, so I met scholars from Australia, Italy, all over the US — super cool. And you just learn about people's research and how that inspires your own individual research. You get to build one-on-one connections with the scholars you had met, and then also build one-on-one connections with other people in the institute. I have close working relationships with those people that I'll have forever, hopefully. Some of them are graduate students, some of them are done with grad school — it's a great program. And that's how I was able to build a close working relationship with Druckman: I became his research assistant before I had applied to Northwestern and worked with him for probably close to a year before I had enrolled.

 Q: What motivated you to enter academia? And how do you hope to contribute to the study of political psychology?

 I originally wanted to go to law school and then I realized that in law school, they just teach you what to think and what the rules are. I liked how in grad school and academia I get to decide how I want to think about things and I get to decide what's important. A way that Professor Tillery had explained it to me is in academia you kind of get to be your own boss: you get to decide what research you want to do, you get to decide what's important, and that was really appealing to me. My undergraduate advisor explained to me like, "I had wanted to be a Supreme Court justice because it's a job for life and I love the Supreme Court". And that was his way of wanting to contribute to society. He realized he wasn't really up for that and that being a professor is the next best thing because it's a way that you can educate people and impact political behavior in an observable way because you're working with students at that stage in their life where their purpose is to learn about the world around them. 

 Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

 I came from a small liberal arts college — Stetson is like a baby-small college — it was a big transition for me to go from a liberal arts college to a big research university like Northwestern. It's very different. The relationship that you had at my undergrad — I had dinner with my professors, we'd go to each other's houses. Not that that's not possible at Northwestern, but it was definitely a different environment. I think that my initial environment inspired me to want to go into academia because I want to have those close relationships with my students. The way that I think about it is when you don't foster close relationships, it's some form of gatekeeping. That's why I'm not like, "I am your TA, and this is how it works". Because no one's comfortable, and then you don't learn, and then you feel awkward — and that's not the point of learning at all. So a lot of my ideas around that come from being at a liberal arts college.


Interview by James Pollard (WCAS '22)