Politics Psychology

They’re Out to Get You

In the age of misinformation, what makes conspiracy theories so appealing?

Part 1: “Q” & A

Hear me out: The Democrats are full of shit. We all know that. They’re trying to ruin this country. But do you know why? It’s obvious: They’re devil-worshiping pedophiles. That, or friends of pedophiles. And celebrities who support the Democrats? They’re pedophiles, too, part of a worldwide network involved in trafficking children all over the globe. Where do they do their business? Secluded, Medici-era villas in the Italian countryside? Million-dollar New York penthouses? No, you fool, it’s so obvious: pizzeria basements. 

They’ve been at it for decades. Centuries, maybe. So why doesn’t anyone do anything about it? As it happens, you’re in luck; someone is. His name? Donald J. Trump. By running for President, he set forth to rid DC and Hollywood of its ruling pedophile class. And he won.

Don’t think I don’t hear you wondering “but Ben, Donald Trump won almost four years ago. Has he destroyed the elite pedophiles yet?” Again: you fool. It’s much more complicated than that! Trump may be the most powerful elected official in the world, but he’s limited in what he can accomplish. By whom? Like you don’t already know. It’s the deep state. The state beneath the state; the Obama-appointed bureaucrats who hid under their desks when Trump took office and haven’t come out in daylight since. They scurry about the Washington catacombs and wreak pro-pedophile havoc under our noses. Trump is only one man, and they, the deep state, are legion. He needs help. And he knows just the man for the job.

That man? Ten-year FBI Director Robert Mueller.

I hear you doubting again. “Hang on,” you might be thinking, “wasn’t Robert Mueller appointed by congress to investigate the President for wrongdoing? And moreover, before that, wasn’t he reappointed by Obama, a key player in the Democrat conspiracy, as FBI leader?” To which I, predictably at this point, say: You fool! Donald Trump only wanted you to think that he and Mueller were momentary enemies. The public not believing they could work together is the only way they could work together.

Donald Trump pretended to run for President to build a big fence, but he actually wanted to use the office to meet up with his secret friend and investigate a secret ring of high-profile child molesters sponsored by the devil. Right.

Does any of this sound silly to you? A tiny bit absurd? What if I told you that this is something tens of thousands of people believe? This is the QAnon conspiracy theory. It’s been gaining traction for years.

Kept (relatively) short, the QAnon theory revolves around one individual, or group of people masquerading as an individual, named Q. Q takes his (or hers, or their, but really, his) name from a supposed top-level government security clearance (to be clear, “Q clearance” is real, and someone with it does have access to top secret data… in the Department of Energy. If the Democrats start hiding people in wind turbines, Q’ll be the first to know.)

Q came to prominence when he started posting on 4chan in October 2017. His first post on the platform was the bold claim that Hillary Clinton would be arrested by an international coalition of police in the near future.

HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.

Q, 2017

It sounded crazy. But then it happened.

…it actually didn’t happen. But you knew that. Q’s first prediction was wrong, his journey as a potential political prophet put to bed before it had started. But Q didn’t see it that way. If anything, he learned from the experience and used the newfound knowledge to come back stronger. He’s since moved from 4chan to 8chan, a website that’s famously double the chan, and his style has evolved; he uses more acronyms now, and he really likes rhetorical questions.

What happens if a breach occurs @ WH?
Attempts [coordinated] to ‘capture a horrifying moment’?
What happens then?
Heavy protect (WH) _prev
POTUS ‘warning’ meant to push ‘rational thought’ (peaceful protestors) _prev coordinated anarchist [anarchy 99] push to victory [WH breach]?

Q, 2020

Domestic terrorists?
Extreme Radical(s)?
POTUS action coming.
Homeland Security _FBI_DOJ action coming.
Investigations may lead to [D][F] ‘support’ targets.

Q, 2020

Q’s nonsense intel comes from somewhere deep in the government. Not the deep state, obviously, those are the bad guys. The other guys, the not quite as deep state. And the official lore is that he has to write with vague acronyms and rhetorical questions because this is privileged information that only he is brave enough to leak. It’s not for everyone. Getting an advanced degree in political science or psychology? An idiot’s game. Those of us trawling through sludge on 8chan? We’re the real heroes.

The scope of QAnon’s gambit has boomed since his original (incorrect) prediction. What the simpleminded among us call a “conspiracy theory”, Q’s fans call The Great Awakening or The Storm, the latter based on a batshit carefully thought-out quote from the President at a military photo-op. The storm is coming for sure, and it’s bringing some big names with it. TV’s Roseanne Barr tweeted in support of the theory in 2018, and the significantly less-Influential General and former US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn endorsed it this year. According to the progressive nonprofit Media Matters for America, over 60 current or former congressional candidates have come out in support of Q. It’s officially a big deal™.

There’s a lot more that could be delved into regarding QAnon. Q posts a lot, usually utilizing his familiar blend of nonsensical acronymry and a full-auto barrage of rhetorical questions. The theory’s evolving, too. High profile pedophiles are still a big part of it, but they’ve spent more time on the bench lately, with more playtime having been afforded to the (fake) coronavirus pandemic in recent posts.

There’s a lot to delve into, but the delving isn’t worth doing, because I have a secret: I don’t really believe in this theory. I don’t think you’re a fool. I think you’re lovely. I just had to pretend I believed it to keep the deep state from knowing my plans.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s got its audience, and I can tell a lot of work went into it, but it’s been debunked. A lot.

Experts are pretty united on this. The theory holds no water. Still, more than a few people disagree. They’re loud and proud about it. The storm’s coming, y’know?

So if the experts are right, if QAnon is all bullshit, why do so many people believe in it? I thought you’d never ask.

I should note that from here on we’re going to be painting with a more general brush. Q’s storm troopers may very well hold the keys to the largest and most significant political conspiracy in the country right now, but in the overall field of conspiracies, the storm sorta blends into the background. Let’s talk about conspiracies.

Part Two: Aspiring to Conspire

It’s easy to underestimate how many people believe in conspiracy theories, especially the most popular ones. According to a 2014 study by Eric Oliver, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, 19 percent of Americans felt 9/11 was an inside job. 24 percent were sure President Obama was born in Kenya, or at least outside the United States (I’m 100 percent sure he was born in Antarctica; evidence pending). 25 percent believed that Wall Street bankers purposefully caused the 2008 financial crisis. The numbers go higher. 40 percent of those surveyed believed that the FDA is actively holding back natural cures for cancer at the request of the pharmaceutical industry. On a happier note, 30 percent of Americans think we’re living in the apocalypse.

There is no empirical evidence that any of the above theories are true. But people believe they are. Hell, maybe you believe in one, or at least sort of. You’re not one of those crazy conspiracy theorists, you just think there’s more than meets the eye, that’s all.

Yearning for Certainty

According to Oliver, a few elements of cognitive reasoning can explain most conspiratorial thought. The first (and, arguably, the most important), is a human need to eliminate uncertainty. In a podcast interview, Oliver explains that “any animal that lives in uncertainty is in danger”. If you don’t understand your environment, the people and forces around you, you’re liable to fall into a trap. When our life is on the line, we don’t want to rely on coin-flip decisions; we want certainty.

Sometimes, we relieve our need for certainty through science and research. More often, we rely on the words of those around us or our own assumptions. Historically, among other vices, our pal religion acted to fill the natural void created by our need to understand; religious texts offer answers to questions we can’t possibly answer on our own, at least not empirically. We want to know whether our lifestyles are right or wrong, what forces created the world around us, what happens when we die. For most of human history, science was unable to answer these questions; it still struggles with some of them.

Where science and religion are absent, we rely on our own brains to make up the difference. This is every time you’ve been absolutely certain that your rude coworker was a bona fide psychopath. 

Writing for Psychology Today, psychologist David Ludden writes about certainty, but also the desire for control and security. It’s not enough to know what’s going to happen, we want to be able to exert some influence on outcomes that involve us. Sometimes, our internal drive for control leads us to make minor assumptions about our lives; I’ll be safer if I’m the one driving the car, because I can control the outcome (even if I can’t). 

Other times, our assumptions are more significant. In his example, Ludden writes about climate change denial. The evidence for climate change is overwhelming. Practically everyone in the scientific community is on board. The data is in. But if human-facilitated climate change is real, the implications are pretty fucking heavy. If we believe that the Earth’s temperature and climate patterns are changing at a dangerous rate and that we’re responsible, then fixing the problem means altering our own daily patterns and lifestyles. It’s no small task. There’s no five-situps-a-day solution, it’s all or nothing, and it’s terrifying.

But there’s an alternative: Maybe it’s fake. And, consider this for me: if it is fake, things just got a lot easier, right? You don’t have to change anything. You can don your suit of aerosol-encrusted plastic armor, jump in your Hummer, and roll coal all the way to work like normal and not a damn thing will change. Life can be like this forever. It’s definitely the easier way to live. And, you won’t be the only one. Sure, there are a lot of voices on TV telling you that climate change is real and that we’re doomed, but there are also a lot of voices on TV telling you it’s not, that we’re all gonna be okay, and that we’re still on for the oil slick bonfire next Tuesday at the gulf.

If climate change is real, we’re at its mercy. The changes we have to make aren’t the ones we choose, but the ones we have imposed on us. If it’s fake, there’s no reason to alter anything we’re currently doing. We maintain control. In psychology, this concept is called “motivated reasoning”; we come to an internal conclusion based on logic that suits us. We choose the information we already agree with. In the words of morning weather man and philosopher king Al Roker, “You find the study that sounds best to you. And go with that.” 

Self Care

Ludden also writes about the desire to maintain a positive self-image, invoking research that “people who feel socially marginalized are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories”. On the same axis as eliminating uncertainty, conspiracy theories can help us close the internal gap we feel when attending to our own marginalization. If we’re unhealthy, uneducated, poor, and socially isolated, maybe these shortcomings aren’t attributable to our own failures but instead to an underground cabal of lizard people who prevent us from achieving the greatness we deserve.

Make no mistake; this isn’t an appeal to the virtues of personal responsibility. Often, our socioeconomic positioning isn’t entirely under our own control. Sometimes, we really are held down by government policy or legitimate discrimination. That’s part of what makes conspiracies so hard to navigate; if we have evidence that discrimination and inequality have effective negative outcomes in one corner, what’s to stop us to believe the damage is more widespread?

But there’s a difference between understanding that certain minority communities receive unequal distribution of resources, education, and legitimate justice and believing that Jewish people are only successful because they unfairly accumulated resources that otherwise would have been yours. One of these situations involves an appeal to an empirically-observable system of allocation; the other is a personalized defense meant to devalue a broad group for personal benefit.

Our desire to maintain a positive self-image in crisis doesn’t always lead us to make racist assumptions. Sometimes, it’s about restoring a certain level of self-esteem. If we understand very little of how the world works, and know that those around us understand more, we stand at risk to devalue ourselves by association. But if we can understand everything, or at least mostly everything, about how the world is run, we stand to gain a lot.

The implications of being privy to many widespread conspiracy theories are huge as far as self-esteem goes. Imagine spending years maintaining a rudimentary understanding of Earth science and then becoming privy to the forbidden knowledge that the world is actually flat. They knew more than you for years, and now, overnight, you’ve flipped the script. Or consider being surrounded for years by people with an advanced understanding of politics and modern history, and then learning that the United States is actually controlled by a legion of super pedophiles and the story of our time is a young adult fantasy novel about one businessman’s weirdly-circuitous quest to destroy them. Same thing.

Compared to lower alternatives, coming to believe in these theories provides an immediate high. Not only have you suddenly achieved total understanding, you’ve cultivated a sense of holding privileged knowledge. You are among the few who know the truth.

We’ve all held privileged knowledge at some point. It can be a powerful feeling. And many of us know the similar feeling of being the first in our families or friend groups to understand a complex concept. For you, it might be explaining a complex physics concept at the Thanksgiving table. For me, it’s spending a semester reading A Song of Ice and Fire so I can explain why Game of Thrones would be better if they hadn’t omitted Aegon.

The Anxiety Connection

The final element of conspiratorial thought is anxiety. This one isn’t so much a full-fledged piece of the puzzle as it is the catalyst for it all. Anxiety doesn’t cause us to believe in conspiracy theories, but it is often responsible for heavy uncertainty, a sense of losing control, and the eroding of our own self-images. Anxiety pulls the rug out from under us and puts us in jeopardy, and conspiracy theories are the big ol’ band-aids that cover up the bigger deep-down problem so we don’t have to look at it anymore.

Oliver explains one function of anxiety in the arena of conspiracy by invoking the monster-in-the-closet phenomenon. Most kids don’t actually believe they’ve seen a monster in their closets or under their beds; instead, they’re anxious and afraid of what might be lurking in there. And as humans, we weaponize and legitimize that anxiety by fleshing it out into the horrifying belief that something is lurking there. Our internal anxious engines continue to flesh out the avatars of our internal fears until we can’t bear the terror. “Since we’re feeling afraid,” he writes, “there must be a monster in the closet.”

This anxiety connection relies heavily on the psychological process of appraisal. Appraisal theory argues that our emotional states are reliant on our interpretations of biological stimuli. When our heart rate rises and our bodies shake, we might take in the cautious guises of others or negative imagery and interpret that we are scared. Given the same physiological conditions, a more positive environment could indicate excitement. Think of haunted houses; if the physiological excitement caused by a ragtag cast of college kids with chainsaws reliably evoked real terror, no one would pay for the pleasure. Because we interpret the same fight-or-flight response in a cute, fun way, the experience is overall enjoyable.

The connection is scientific. At least one study suggests that people primed to feel in control were less willing to believe in conspiracy theories than those who were primed to feel as though they had lost that control.

Being able to pawn our fears off on a scapegoat makes everything easier; our anxiety is top-down, thrust upon us by our evil overlords. Because if it’s not, we have to acknowledge that bad things occur at random, or that their patterns are too complex for us to understand.

These are some of the reasons someone might turn to belief in conspiracy theories. The list isn’t exhaustive, and the science is all relatively new. But it’s solid. Are we done? Have we come to know everything there is to know about conspiracy theories? Nope!

Part Three: Trust and Guts

Conspiracy theories aren’t new, and their believers are just as ancient. In “educated” circles and online, we’ve been laughing at them since time immemorial (I was born in 1995, making anything before that “time immemorial”). But things feel different now, don’t they? Like, JFK Assassination conspiracy theories were stories that kept our dads occupied in a world without fan fiction. QAnon seems to have a stronger political pull. And it’s not even as good a theory.

It’s easy to dismiss the believers as stupid, or dumb, or uneducated. It’s easy to call them idiots, numbskulls, gullible morons, and noobs. But Oliver thinks there’s something deeper, that a deep-set personality characteristic may account for the difference between those who reject conspiracy theories and those who aspire to conspire: intuition.

Specifically, Oliver’s research identifies a psychological axis between two extremes: rationalism, or seeking out logical explanations, and intuitionism, or forging those explanations yourself. This bears considerable similarity to psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s social intuitionism, which, in short, suggests that we, as a people, are much more intuitive than we think we are. While we consider ourselves to be logical beings who sometimes experience intuition, social intuitionism suggests we’re actually innately intuitive people who use logic to explain our intuitions after the fact. 

Working with the social intuitionist model, Haidt and his collaborators built the moral foundations theory, which interprets human morality through the lens of social intuition and boils it down to a few domains or “foundations”. Behind the scenes, there’s more scientific rigor, but you can find out where you stand on each by answering a simple hypothetical question. In developing his axis of rationalism vs. intuitonism, Oliver established a similar set of questions.

For example, Oliver asked “Would you rather stab a picture of your family five times with a sharp knife or stick your hand in a bowl of cockroaches?”

Other questions included “Would you rather sleep in laundered pajamas once worn by Charles Manson or pick a nickel off the ground and put it in your mouth?” and “Would you rather spend the night in that dingy bus station or spend the night in a luxurious house where a family was once murdered?”

Oliver’s goal with these hypotheticals is to ask people to internally compare tangible costs and symbolic costs. Putting your hand in a bowl of cockroaches has a tangible cost: cockroaches are gross, and if you don’t think so, you’re gross. They also might bite. I don’t know if they bite. Stabbing a picture of your family has no tangible cost, as long as it’s done in private, but actually fulfilling the task may be difficult for our more intuitive minds; stabbing a picture of your mom isn’t the same as stabbing your mom, but it kinda feels like it is. If the test were cockroaches vs your mom’s “friend” Todd, there’d be no contest.

Similarly, putting a nickel in your mouth is gross; you’re on the fast track to coronavirus and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Meanwhile, wearing (clean) pajamas once worn by Charles Manson has no direct cost; they’re pajamas. But our intuitive minds feel a cost. No scientific study has suggested that murder is contagious, but putting on Manson’s muppet babies T-shirt really seems like it would do… something. Better not.

Where you land on the rationalist-intuitionist axis depends on how you answer these questions. Oliver’s big idea is that a true rationalist would be able to recognize that the costs of tickling cockroaches and sucking the value out of a nickel are more direct than brutalizing photo paper and snuggling up in second-hand sleepwear.

On the opposite end, Oliver contends that a true intuitionist would be unable to ignore the potential symbolic costs of the latter options. No matter how much reasoning they go through, the thought of symbolically wounding a family member or coming into contact with a clean but tainted artifact seems too risky. They won’t do it.

Oliver also refers to Intuitionism as magical thinking, the creation of connections between two potentially unrelated things using imagined logic.

What’s key to understand here, though, is that intuitive thinking isn’t the absence of thinking. It’s not true that someone who believes in a conspiracy theory has simply failed to question it. Similarly, it’s (usually) not that they just believe everything they hear.

Instead, intuitive thinking relies on a sort of misuse of strategies we rely on for survival. In psychology, these examples of misuse are called cognitive biases

Among these, confirmation bias explains our tendency to seek out information that supports what we already believe. We look for evidence that proves that our intuitions were right all along. Proportionality bias leads us to believe that large-scale events must have similarly large-scale explanations; a high profile politician can’t be resigning from his post to spend more time with his family; it’s more likely he’s on the run from his alien debtors because he disobeyed the lizard imperative.

Illusory pattern perception is what happens when we misuse our innate ability to recognize patterns. Conspiracy theorists see patterns where they really don’t exist but appear to. Think the Beatles’ “Paul’s Not Dead” theory or the time the Kendrick Lamar subreddit was absolutely convinced that 2017’s DAMN. was only one half of a two album experience, with evidence sprinkled across its 14 tracks. I’m still waiting on NATION.

Conspiracy theorists and intuitionists aren’t the only ones who can fall prey to cognitive bias. Most of us experience them all the time. These are just a few. There are huge lists of ’em online. The difference here is, again, that rationalists are able to set aside their imagined connections and tenuous evidence in favor of more scientific findings. Intuitionists stick to their guns. Their intuitions.

Part Four: The Age of Conspiracy

So some people rely more on intuition than others, and intuitive people are more susceptible to conspiracy theories. But there’s no evidence suggesting that intuitive reasoning is new, unless we use it to convince ourselves that witch burners were working off the latest in empirical science.

So what got us here? Why do conspiracies seem much bigger than they used to be? And why have they permeated the political mainstream?

The spread of conspiracy theories, like the spread of any sort of information, is easier now than ever before following the creation and widespread adoption of the internet. The meme machine has gone rampant, and now we have to kill it. Realistically, it’s not hard to imagine how fringe information could reach a broader audience today than it could thirty years ago, especially if we understand that a wider selection of our population may be innately susceptible to them. The intuitive people of yesterday may have simply not had access to the same grade of high-fat low-iron theories that the almighty legion of Facebook aunts have readily at their disposal today.

But there’s also something else. Zuckerberg’s insatiable need to spoon-feed bullshit to baby boomers may account for part of the problem, but the situation is so much bigger than just that alone. (or is that my proportionality bias?)

In his Big Brains interview, Oliver suggests that the traditional Republican party, and conservatives at large, have been eclipsed by an increasingly intuitionist movement.

No one embodies this growing sense of partisan intuitonism more clearly than Donald Trump, who began his modern political career by repeatedly using his public platform to push the hoax that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. On the campaign trail, he suggested Ted Cruz’s father was directly involved in a plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy. He’s been consistent in his assertion that climate change, with all of its scientific consensus, is a Chinese hoax meant to destroy American industry.

The list goes on. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the President has suggested a malaria medication, bleach, and bright light may be effective cures for the virus, all against the advice of epidemiologists and medical experts. He hasn’t spoken directly on the subject of QAnon, but he regularly retweets the theory’s supporters. Maybe some day.

Again, Oliver’s idea is not that Republicans have always been deeply intuitionist. Parties change. Democrats went from slavery-defending states rights-ists to New Deal-touting supporters of the Civil Rights movement. The increased intuitionism of the Republican Party is so new that survivors of the old Republican party are still plentiful, yearning to a return to form from nationalist conspiracy to small government liberty.

Similarly, liberals are not immune to the allure of intuition. The anti-vaccine movement first gained traction among supposedly health-conscious liberals. There’s also no real evidence the President hired two Russian prostitutes to pee on a bed that the Obamas had slept in, but someone you know might believe it happened. I’ll keep my mouth shut on astrology.

Oliver suggests that this intuitionist takeover is relatively recent, and it explains the effective language barrier that seems to exist when the two sides of the American political spectrum attempt to communicate. A rationalist conservative and a rationalist liberal may be able to disagree on specific principles but still understand where the other is coming from. Oliver goes on to explain that “it’s not simply that they have different policy preferences, it’s that they have different worldview oftentimes. One is evoking reason and policy and facts and one is evoking symbol and metaphor and gut feeling.” 

He adds “I think out political discourse is getting more polarized along this dimension. And it masks itself as an ideological polarization, but it’s not really ideology”. In other words, we think the growing divide between Democrats and Republicans in the United States (the parties, not the people) is attributable to a growing divide in values, but the real culprit could be intuition.

It might sound like semantics, but this sort of idea is a potential explanation for why the views and opinions espoused by die-hard Trump supporters seem super malleable. The same folks who throw a fit at the very idea of wearing a face mask amidst a pandemic turning around and embracing the President for wearing a mask seems nonsensical otherwise. Similarly, the phenomenon could explain how rabid military supporters and patriots come to express support or disregard for growing Russophilia and Russian intervention in American elections.

Part Five: The Dragon

So this is where we are. Political debate, already known for its calm, sensical atmosphere, is now home to the same conversational aesthetic displayed in trying to convince your aunt that her bathtub isn’t haunted. Where do we go from here?

The first step, I think, is to understand the psychological undercurrent that allows these conspiratorial mindsets to build. Once we discard the idea that these folks are nuts and attend to the idea that their way of thinking may be inherently different, we move closer to mutual understanding. In other words, by reading my 10+ page bullshit, you’ve already made progress.

The second step is to understand anew why indulging too heavily in intuitive thinking can be a bad thing. If conspiracy theories help people bolster their self-esteem, are they really that harmful? I mean, obviously yes. In 2016, high off pizzagate fumes, a concerned citizen brought a rifle into a Washington DC pizzeria and tried to shoot a door open in an attempt to save the hoard of children hidden in the restaurant’s non-existent basement. A series of shootings around the world have been linked to the “great replacement” and “white genocide” conspiracy theories, which allege an incumbent ethnic cleansing against white people without any real evidence.

Some of these theories seem purpose-built to cause the most damage possible; their focus on Satanic pedophile rings makes that clear. Corruption is vague and intangible, but directing hate and anger toward those who abuse children is a cultural universal. In India, inaccurate accusations of child abuse through WhatsApp have galvanized massive lynch mobs. Dozens have been killed.

Conspiracy theories can do real damage to outsiders, but their effect on insiders isn’t great either. Ignoring the obvious downside that is spending life in prison or having killed someone for a stupid and ephemeral movement, psychologist Daniel Jolley writes that “while humans seek solace in conspiracy theories, however, they rarely find it.” Belief in anti-government conspiracy theories, for example, can dissuade people from voting. If they’re all corrupt lizards anyway, what’s the point?

The third step is deradicalization. For those among us who rely more on intuition in their day-to-day reasoning, this may be an uphill battle, but science suggests it’s possible to move away from conspiratorial thinking. Recent studies suggest that pointing out the logical inconsistencies in a conspiracy theory does make the theory less attractive to those who may otherwise believe in it.

Of course, there’s always the risk of the backfire effect, which occurs when those who believe in a theory dig their heels in and refuse to move from their position when presented with contrary evidence. But the same studies suggest the backfire effect isn’t as iron-fisted as previously imagined. Generally, people are open to reason, with the key caveat that that openness disappears pretty rapidly when belief in the theory is of personal importance to the person. Whether or not John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA in 1963 has no bearing on how I view myself, but try to tell me there’s not a cabal of lizardmen holding me back from my destiny of becoming the world’s foremost K-Pop idol and I’m immediately upset, because now I need a new explanation for my lack of musical success.

Psychologist David Ludden (of “several pages ago in this article” fame) explains it differently: “if you believe Sydney is the capital of Australia, you’re the victim of a false belief. But once you’re confronted with the fact that Canberra is the capital of Australia, you’ll readily change your mind. After all, you were simply misinformed, and you’re not emotionally invested in it.”

Worth noting, though, is that a lot of folks are emotionally invested in the theories they believe in. These theories bolster their sense of identity, and for many, they help in developing social ties to other believers. Of course, communities built on strong belief in one or two conspiracy theories are prospective breeding grounds for additional theories, especially if they’re related; did you know the Flat Earth conspiracy’s extended universe includes cameos from the Jewish New World Order and Hitler is Still Alive theories? Fan fiction just leveled up.

I can’t tell you how we begin to deradicalize those of us most deeply wrapped in the toxic web of modern conspiracy. Most of us have been guilty of burying ourselves in an activity or way of thinking that seems to validate our existence. How do you get out of that? 

My suggestion is as simple as it is without evidence. If false beliefs are easily correctable as long as we’re not emotionally attached to them, then the path of least resistance may be in detaching folks from the emotional necessity the theories hold. A person using sandpaper to bandage a cut is still, at the end of the day, a wounded person. Getting rid of the sandpaper won’t heal the wound. They need help; they’re using sandpaper as a band-aid. What the fuck.

A person reliant on false information for a sense of self-worth is a person in need of healthy validation. Maybe the only way to fix the conspiracy problem is to deal with the more significant problems these theories cover up. If we could act to understand suffering for what it is, and move toward compassion, maybe we can kill two birds with one stone.

Or maybe it’s the lizard people. I don’t know.

The above piece is a pop-science overview of publicly-available literature on conspiracy theories. I am neither an expert nor an academic. As such, this piece is far from comprehensive; there are studies I could not access or did not read. This topic is actively evolving, and this behemoth of a piece (by my standards) could be outdated as soon as right now.

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  • United States Capitol Building at night by AnthonyTPope for Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
  • Dark Clouds Storm Thunderstorm by Jahoo Clouseau on Pexels
  • Per the above Share Alike license, this remixed image is available for public use. Go wild.

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