By Emily Reynolds
Conspiracy theories have increased in recent years, as we have often reported. For example, a 2018 study found that 60% of Britons believed in a conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, the rise of QAnon in America was particularly alarming.
Conspiracy theorists can easily be dismissed – but this is not a productive way of addressing the problem. Instead, researchers research Why People get drawn into such belief systems, even at the expense of personal relationships. This work can help us understand why conspiracies spread and provide some useful pointers 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 might be drawn to a conspiracy theory, often related to frustrated psychological needs.
“The first of these needs is epistemicrelated 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 existentialassociated with the need to feel safe and have some control over the things that happen around us and Socialassociated with the need to maintain our self-esteem and have a positive feeling for the groups we belong to. “
So, for example, if someone is afraid of the pandemic and feels out of control, they may be drawn to theories that suggest this is wrong and that it satisfies their existential needs. When frustrated with a particularly political situation, they can begin to seek seemingly straightforward solutions to unanswerable questions in order to meet their epistemic needs.
In addition, there are numerous risk factors associated with conspiratorial thinking: for example, conspiracy theories can be fueled by a desire to feel special or political apathy. People with less critical thinking are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, explains Stephan Lewandowsky, co-author of a recent Conspiracy Theory Handbook and Chair of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol.
Those who advocate conspiracy theories are “usually people who believe intuition is a better way to learn the truth than data – people who think their gut instinct is telling them what to believe and who don’t need or want evidence , to make a decision. “he says.” You don’t have a healthy amount of skepticism. “
Conspiracy theories are also “self-sealing” in nature, meaning that evidence cannot be used to refute them – one of the reasons they are so difficult to fight. “The absence of any evidence is considered evidence” to the the theory, ”explains Lewandowsky. “To give you an example, there was someone on YouTube last year who claimed that Anthony Fauci personally directed money to a laboratory in Wuhan. When the interviewer said there was no evidence, she replied, “You see, that’s how good the cover-up is. There is no evidence because they cover it up so well. “
How to speak to someone 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, “vaccination” can prevent the influence of conspiracy theories from the outset.
They found that anti-conspiracy arguments increased the intent to vaccinate a child when presented In front Conspiracy theories. But once these conspiracies were established, they were much more difficult to correct, even with factual and logical arguments.
Talking to someone before delving into the world of conspiracy theories could be a way to prevent this from happening completely – something Lewandowsky and other writers refer to as “prebunking.” As David Robson wrote for The psychologist Last year, the point here is not just to present new information, but to encourage people to think critically and to equip them with techniques to protect them from misinformation. (The game “Bad News” developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge is an example of an intervention aimed at critical thinking.)
However, dispelling a once-entrenched conspiracy theory is no easy task. “When people believe in something so firmly, it’s difficult to change their mind,” says Douglas. “People are very good at selecting and interpreting information that appears to confirm what they already believe and rejecting or misinterpreting information that violates those beliefs.”
But as the scientist Jovan Byford writes in The conversation“Conspiracy theories are based on feelings of resentment, indignation and disappointment with the world”. Hence, it is important to understand the emotions that might be behind a person’s false beliefs and try to empathize with them.
A study published in Personality and individual differences Earlier this year, it emerged that those who advocated COVID-19 conspiracy theories were more likely to be scared, while another noted that many conspiracy theorists also felt they had little control over their lives or the political situations they were in were located.
Douglas points out that people who believe in conspiracies can feel “confused, worried, and alienated.” It would therefore be counterproductive to be hostile or ridiculous towards them. “That just dismisses their views and could alienate them even further and push them further towards conspiracy theories,” she says. “It’s important to stay calm and listen.” “The whole thing is about empathy,” agrees Lewandowsky. “Mocking people doesn’t help – and there are indications that you shouldn’t.”
As anyone who has had a strained family conversation about politics can attest, it can be difficult not to respond aggressively when you fundamentally disagree with the way someone sees the world. But research from Harvard Business School published in Organizational behavior and human decision-making processes, suggests being receptive instead.
The team, led by Mike Yeomans, argues that “conversational receptivity” is the key to de-escalating conflict: when you speak to someone in a way that suggests you are receptive to you Views and beliefs, they are more likely to be convinced of yours.
Simple phrases like “I understand …” or “What you are saying is …” could therefore bridge the gap between you and someone with completely different views – and even if that doesn’t mean they are denying a conspiratorial belief, it might help in a relationship remains friendly and non-antagonistic.
Power and purpose
As Lewandowsky points out, empowering people can also help combat conspiratorial thinking. As we’ve seen, belief in conspiracy theories is closely related to feelings of powerlessness – thus instilling a sense of control can help stave off conspiracies.
On a personal level, people can be empowered through interventions that encourage analytical thinking and remind them of times when they were in control. For example, in one study, participants who were asked to remember a situation when they were in control were less likely to believe a conspiracy theory than those asked to remember a situation when they were out of control Control were. Such approaches can help you reach someone you care about.
“One thing that can be done is to restore people’s sense of control,” says Lewandowsky. “One of the reasons people become conspiracy theorists is because they feel like they have lost control of their lives and are scared – that’s one of the reasons a pandemic will trigger more of this thinking because people are Have lost control of their lives. “
“So this is an indirect way of doing it – don’t try to talk someone out of it, just make them feel good that they are in control of their life. Then maybe they gradually give up because they no longer need it. “
This is not to say that it will always be possible to free someone from their beliefs. “The hardcore believers who are really in the rabbit hole … they are extremely difficult to reach,” says Lewandowsky. It’s also important to protect your own well-being when engaging in conversations that can be frustrating or disturbing. But treating people who believe in conspiracy theories with empathy and calm can be the first step to a productive conversation.
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles