It’s a tale as old as time. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love and marries girl. Boy starts staying up late watching YouTube videos and becomes increasingly convinced that a cabal of nefarious Jewish businessmen controls the world. Hollywood is in on it, and America is ground zero for a possible lizard-human republic led by the Illuminati. Girl feels alone and confused as to what happened to boy.
The Pain is Real.
Reading through support groups such as Reddit’s r/QAnonCasualties demonstrates just how non-farfetched this scenario is. With well over 50% of Americans believing conspiracy theories today, there is a good chance that you know someone personally that has “fallen down the rabbit hole” of wild speculations.(1) Often the evidence is non-existent or shaky at best, but none-the-less, well-educated, and otherwise sane individuals increasingly believe ideas that defy conventional logic.(2)
This article aims not to make fun of those that believe conspiracy theories but to provide a methodology to help them. Real families are torn apart, friends are lost, and casual relationships are becoming tense. Engaging with a conspiracy theory is not a game; there are real-life consequences, and “owning a debate” will do nothing to help. The best way to look at this article is as a resource to rescue those you care about from damaging ideas.
This journey isn’t comfortable, but the stakes are high. The truth is, “wins” will not be immediately apparent. Knowledge is power, but one doesn’t need to know the ins-and-outs of any individual theory to affect change. The battle is with HOW people think, not WHAT people think. First, we will look at who is most likely to believe conspiracies. Then we will look at why and finish with how to move a person to reconsider. This sequence is important; understanding the roots of the problem informs the way out.
Who Believes This Stuff?
Surprisingly, the demographic that believes conspiracies isn’t what one would expect. The fact that 15 percent of those with postgraduate degrees believe that powerful people planned the pandemic shows that intellect isn’t the issue.(2) Conspiracy theories bypass logical thinking centers of the brain by design. It’s our fascination with patterns, driven by powerlessness and anxiety, that lead us to believe through the gateway of emotion rather than critical thinking.
While it’s true that right-leaning partisanship will make one more likely to believe a conspiracy theory at the moment, this hasn’t always been the case. The truth is that whichever party currently considers that they are powerless and disenfranchised and harbor anxious feelings about the state of affairs is the party that will most likely succumb to conspiracy thinking.(3) It doesn’t help that, even when in power, both major parties are painting themselves as powerless victims of a system rigged against them.(4)
Powerlessness and anxiety aren’t minor afflictions. Powerlessness is the cause behind many destructive behaviors as desperation leads us to self-harm, engage in risky and often illicit activities, and has even been shown to lead to suicide.(5) Powerlessness, while a useful tactic to rile up voters, is in its essence a trigger for dehumanization. Dehumanization is the belief that one doesn’t have the merits of personhood that are intrinsic to being human. When a person feels dehumanized, they will do whatever it takes to claw back the power that feels taken from them.(6)
These motivations are an essential point. Your loved one isn’t acting out of anger or spite, even if that is how it manifests. These are mere symptoms. The truth is, understanding that the conspiracy theories that are ripping apart relationships are themselves coming from a place of desperation is the key to having compassion. Re-read that statement. Your kindness is the key to unlocking the prison in which conspiracy theories have locked a person about whom you care. If this severe anguish doesn’t move us, we have to question whether we care about the one we are trying to help.
“There’s no one profile of a conspiracy theorist,” says Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. “There are different perspectives of why people believe in these theories, and they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive — so the simplest form of explanation is that people who believe in conspiracy theories are suffering from some sort of psychopathology.”(7)
Because many who find themselves deep into conspiracy theories are, in essence, hurting people looking for respite, it stands to reason that this fact should inform our approach. One wouldn’t approach a person suffering from depression with derision. A man standing on a ledge doesn’t need a push; he needs a hand. In part two, I will explore why conspiracy theories offer relief. This further understanding will bring us to a place where we can lovingly counter harmful thought patterns.
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