Dr. Dannagal Young discusses the emotional traits those buying into conspiracy theories have in common and what those close to them can do about it.

Producer: Stephanie McVicker
03/03/2021 • 12:50 PM EST

Dr. Dannagal Young, associate professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware, discusses the role that feelings of being socially maligned and interpersonal threat play in fueling conspiratorial thinking. She also discusses the trafficking of outrage and who stands to benefit from it. We also hear how heuristicssee definition - any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of decision making, often relying on intuition or gut feeling. Not guaranteed to be optimal or rational, this method is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate decision.
, a need for order, and "gut-feelings" can be effectively exploited to create mass movements. She closes by delineating the emotional investment those buying into conspiracies tend to share and how those close to them can try to reconnect and rebuild trust.

0:00: Stephanie McVicker:

With us today, we have Dr. Dannagal Young, an associate professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware. Dr. Young studies the psychology and influence of political entertainment and she's the author of, Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear and Laughter in the United States. Dr. Young, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:20: Dr. Dannagal Young:

Thanks Stephanie.

0:22: Stephanie McVicker:

Let's start off by talking a little bit about conspiracy theories. In your recent interview, you talked about the special sauce that kicks off an interest in conspiracy theories. Can you explain a little bit about the ingredients in the special sauce?

0:35: Dr. Dannagal Young:

So, when we're thinking about people who are prone to believe in conspiracy theories, there are sort of some underlying conditions that are typically met. These are individuals who are in some way, feel socially detached or socially maligned. So, at a psychological level that's happening. They also, in terms of how they interact with or perceive larger institutions, these tend to be individuals with lower trust in institutions, including government and media. And so, if you have those conditions and then you put on top of those other aspects of uncertainty or feelings that the world is slightly chaotic, and combined with a sense that things are categorically like unfair, those things are going to fuel this kind of behavior.

1:26: Stephanie McVicker:

You talked a little bit about the line being blurred between opinion and analysis programming versus news programming. Why is that something that we need to be concerned about?

1:37: Dr. Dannagal Young:

Well, for me, the big concern is that, not that these two genres exist, because they've always existed, right? You always had an opportunity for editorial content that has opinion at its core. There's the editorial page where we know that's where we go for opinion. The concern is not that it exists. The concern is that it is being sort of cloaked in the trappings of serious journalism and truth, and sort of empirical reality and empirical truth, in ways that I think are complicated for people to understand.

The Pew Research Center did a really fascinating study to try to understand how it is that people come to understand a distinction between opinion programming and no, it wasn't opinion programming, it was opinion statements and factual statements. Like what is the difference between those things? And many people were unable to discern the difference between an opinion statement and a factual statement.

2:40: Stephanie McVicker:

So how can you tell, how can people tell if they are consuming these so-called news or so-called opinions, how can they be critical thinkers and determine?

2:54: Dr. Dannagal Young:

What I always tell my students, and this is not just about conservative media or liberal media, but also interacting with any kind of emotionally arousing content that we encounter in any information space. The first thing to ask ourselves when we are about to respond, whether we're about to like a Facebook story or share it or retweet it or comment on it, or talk to someone about it. First thing you ask is who is benefiting from my emotional response? Number one, who is benefiting from my emotional response? And what are they trying to do with my emotional response? And a lot of this has to do with the economic incentives of our media environment that really reward and fuel this engine.

And once you start thinking, hold up, I don't know if I feel comfortable with folks trafficking in my emotions in ways that are profiting them and, you know, helping other people get power. That's key. If you stop and you ask yourself, am I comfortable with the idea that this entity is trafficking in my emotions and is using them as sort of a vehicle to get to some kind of profit goal or power goal. It really does help you sort of put on the brakes a second. Cause, you know, one thing is true. None of us wants to be a pawn, right? None of us wants to be, and none of us believes that we are. But how do we introduce sort of cognitive speed bumps to get us to slow our roll a bit, to say, what can I do to make sure that I do not become a pawn.

4:32: Stephanie McVicker:

During the Ted Talk last year, you had spoken about how different personality types tend to lean and what we call liberal or conservative. Can you talk a little bit about those traits?

4:43: Dr. Dannagal Young:

Sure. So a lot of this literature centers on the role of a threat, interpersonal threat in our environments and, you know, folks really differ across populations in terms of their physiological and biological and even sort of genetic makeup of course. And one of the ways in which we differ is in how much we are sort of attending to in monitoring for threats in our environment. And as a result of that sort of threat monitoring, there are different psychological profiles that will accompany that.

So for folks who really are concerned about interpersonal threat, the folks who lock their doors and make sure that they're locked and get the home security system, and check around every corner. These are folks who are motivated by efficiency, because efficiency is more likely to be protective and aid in survival. So these are folks who really would prefer predictability and routine order because the unpredictable and the novel could introduce more threats, right? And it's more uncertain. These are also folks who rely on cognitive shortcuts and emotional cues to make decisions because again, they're efficient and they help work towards sort of survival.

On the other side, you have the folks for whom threats are not as big of a concern. That kind of puts them in this sort of luxurious place where they can be okay with uncertainty. They can be okay with novelty. And they can think about things for a long period of time before making a decision, because they do not feel that same kind of reflexive pressure towards efficiency. So what ends up happening is that those folks who are threat monitoring, driven my instincts and heuristics and need order and closure, they tend to be social and cultural conservatives. In part because of the way that these traits manifest themselves and the things that they're concerned about. Which makes sense when you think about attitudes towards things like immigration or criminal justice, and even aspects of sexuality. So they would prefer things to stay the same, and for things to stay ordered in that way.

On the other side, those folks who are tolerant of ambiguity and who can think about things for a long time, because they're not as much under pressure to make a decision. These tend to be our social and cultural liberals, who have this higher tolerance for ambiguity. And that manifests itself in these more progressive policy positions on these same issues.

7:20: Stephanie McVicker:

And I've seen in the past, you've mentioned the link between psychology and politics is contingent on context, with what's going on around us. Can you explain a little bit about what you mean by that?

7:32: Dr. Dannagal Young:

Yeah, so we all have different social identities, right? Whether I think of myself as, you know, a member of my neighborhood, community, or a part of the University of Delaware community, or as a New Hampshire native, even though I now live in New Jersey. All of those identities are activated through context. So when I visit New Hampshire, I'm like, Oh yeah, I'm a proud New Hampshire native. When I'm on campus at Delaware, I'm like, I am the best blue hen there is. When I'm walking my dog, I am a member of my community. When you are in these online spaces where you're constantly reminded that you are a liberal Democrat or you are a conservative Republican, then that becomes salient. And once those identities are salient and we're thinking of ourselves in those terms, the traits that accompany those identities also become salient. And we'll tend to sort of make ourselves like the best example of this category, because we want to feel good about how we're performing in this role.

8:40: Stephanie McVicker:

So, I've read several articles, it seems to be the hot topic recently, about people who have lost family members due to conspiracy theories QAnon or the Anti-Vax movement, or what have you. When that happens, how do you begin to bridge that divide? And what approaches might make the divide worse?

8:58: Dr. Dannagal Young:

Because these beliefs tend to come from a place that is driven by emotional and psychological needs, it has to be emotional and psychological needs that drive the remedy. So the folks who are believing in these things are receiving from them, some sense of community, their identities are sort of enhanced by membership in these communities, especially these online groups. They become a part of like a QAnon group. They also, because they tend to be individuals who are socially maligned, by being a part of these groups, they feel smart, they feel respected. They don't feel like they're being cast aside and mocked. So when folks come at them with empirical evidence or, you know, a news story and say that is factually inaccurate, here are the facts. That alternative narrative that you're offering them does not in any way satisfy their emotional or psychological needs. All it does is reinforce the idea that you think you're better than them and that they're not that smart.

So what you have here is a real pickle, rhetorically. So what do you do? The facts of the conspiracy theories are besides the point. What's driving these things is so emotional and psychological that the remedy has to be about rebuilding trust and respect, and a loving connection with those individuals. So that you are diluting the sort of influence of that political identity or that conspiracy theory identity, which probably is super dominant because they have been isolated through COVID and have been online so much. So reaffirming the relationship that you have with them, either as a friend or family member, reminding them of memories and old times, sort of trying to reactivate the aspects of that individual's identity that are independent of these conspiracies.

11:08: Stephanie McVicker:

Well, it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking with Dr. Dannagal Young from the University of Delaware, and the author of Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States. She's a researcher in the psychology and influence of political entertainment. Dr. Young, thank you so much for spending some time with us today.

11:29: Dr. Dannagal Young:

Thanks so much. It was so fun.