Conspiracy theories have surged over the last few years, as we’ve frequently reported. One 2018 study, for example, found that 60% of British people believed in a conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, the rise of QAnon in America has been particularly alarming.
It’s easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists — but this is not a productive way to tackle the issue. Instead, researchers are exploring why people get sucked into such belief systems, even at the expense of personal relationships. This work can help us understand why conspiracies spread, and provide some useful guidance for talking to loved ones who may have fallen for a conspiracy theory.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
There are a number of reasons someone may be attracted to a conspiracy theory, often related to frustrated psychological needs.
“The first of these needs are epistemic, related to the need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty” explains Karen M. Douglas, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent. “The other needs are existential, which are related to the need to feel safe and to have some control over things that are happening around us, and social, which are related to the need to maintain our self-esteem and feel positive about the groups that we belong to.”
So, for instance, if someone is anxious about the pandemic and feels out of control, they may be drawn to theories that suggest it is false, satisfying their existential needs. If they are frustrated about a particularly political situation, they may start exploring apparently clear-cut solutions to unanswerable questions, satisfying their epistemic needs.
There are also numerous risk factors related to conspiratorial thinking: conspiracy theories can be fuelled by a desire to feel special or political apathy, for example. People with lower levels of critical thinking are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, as Stephan Lewandowsky, co-author of a recent Conspiracy Theory Handbook and Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol, explains.
Those who endorse conspiracy theories are “usually people who believe that intuition is a better way to know the truth than data — people who think their gut feeling is telling them what to believe and who don’t need or want evidence to make a decision,” he says. “They don’t have a healthy level of scepticism.”
Conspiracy theories, by their nature, are also “self-sealing”, meaning that evidence can’t be used to refute them — one of the reasons they are so hard to counter. “The absence of any evidence is taken to be evidence for the theory”, Lewandowsky explains. “To give you one example, there was someone claiming on YouTube last year that Anthony Fauci was personally directing money into a lab in Wuhan. When the interviewer said there was no evidence, her reply was ‘see, that’s how good the cover-up is. There’s no evidence because they cover it up so well’.”
How to talk to somebody who believes in conspiracy theories
In an ideal world, we would prevent conspiracy theories from taking root in the first place. As Douglas and her colleague Daniel Jolley note in their study on the anti-vaccination movement, “inoculation” can prevent the influence of conspiracy theories to begin with.
They found that anti-conspiracy arguments increased intention to vaccinate a child when presented before conspiracy theories. But once these conspiracies were established, they were much more difficult to correct, even with arguments that were factual and seemed logical.
So talking to somebody before they become immersed in the world of conspiracy theories could be a way of preventing it altogether — something Lewandowsky and other authors refer to as “prebunking”. As David Robson wrote for The Psychologist last year, this isn’t just a case of presenting new information — rather, it’s about encouraging people to think critically, arming them with techniques to protect against misinformation. (The “Bad News” game, developed by University of Cambridge researchers, is one example of an intervention oriented around critical thinking.)
Dispelling a conspiracy theory once it’s entrenched, however, is not an easy task. “When people believe something so strongly, it’s difficult to change their minds,” Douglas says. “People are very good at selecting and interpreting information that seems to confirm what they already believe, and to reject or misinterpret information that goes against those beliefs.”
But as academic Jovan Byford writes in The Conversation, “underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world”. So it’s important to understand the emotions that might be behind someone’s false beliefs, and to try and empathise with them.
One study published in Personality and Individual Differences earlier this year found that those espousing COVID-19 conspiracy theories were more likely to experience anxiety, while another found that many conspiracy theorists also felt that they had little control over their lives or the political situations they found themselves in.
Douglas points out that people believing in conspiracies may feel “confused, worried and alienated”. It would be counterproductive, therefore, to behave in a hostile or ridiculing way towards them. “This just dismisses their views and might alienate them even further and push them further towards conspiracy theories,” she says. “It’s important to keep calm and listen.” “The whole thing is about empathy,” agrees Lewandowsky. “Ridiculing people doesn’t help — and there is evidence to suggest that you shouldn’t do that.”
As anyone who has had a strained family conversation about politics will attest, it can be hard not to respond in a combative manner if you fundamentally disagree with the way somebody sees the world. But research from Harvard Business School, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, suggests that being receptive might be the way forward instead.
The team, led by Mike Yeomans, argues that “conversational receptiveness” is key to de-escalating conflict: if you talk to someone in a way that indicates you’re receptive to their views and beliefs, they’re more likely to be persuaded by yours.
Simple phrases like “I understand that…” or “What you’re saying is…” could therefore bridge the gap between you and somebody with entirely different views — and even if this doesn’t mean they disavow a conspiracist belief, it could help a relationship remain friendly and non-antagonistic.
Power and purpose
As Lewandowsky points out, empowering people may also help to combat conspiratorial thinking. As we’ve seen, belief in conspiracy theories is closely linked to feelings of powerlessness — so it follows that instilling a sense of control could help ward off conspiracism.
On a personal level, people can be empowered through interventions that encourage analytic thinking and that remind them of times they were in control. In one study, for example, participants who were asked to recall a situation in which they were in control were less likely to believe in a conspiracy theory than those asked to recall a situation in which they were out of control. Such approaches may help you get through to someone you care about.
“One thing that can be done is to restore people’s sense of control,” Lewandowsky says. “One of the reasons people become conspiracy theorists is because they feel they’ve lost control of their lives and they’re afraid — that’s one of the reasons why a pandemic will trigger more of this thinking, because people have lost control of their lives.”
“So that’s one indirect way of getting at it — don’t try to talk someone out of it, but make them feel good about being in charge of their lives. Then they may gradually give up, because they don’t need it anymore.”
This isn’t to say that it will always be possible to disabuse someone of their beliefs. “The hardcore believers who are really down the rabbit hole… they are extremely difficult to reach,” Lewandowsky says. It’s also important to protect your own wellbeing when having conversations that may be frustrating or upsetting. But treating people who believe in conspiracy theories with empathy and calmness may be the first step towards a productive conversation.