2021 was a banner year for conspiracy theories, from the notion that the COVID-19 pandemic was a hoax to there being a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles controlling the deep state. While these conspiracy theories may seem more than a little far-fetched, they do have dramatic and tragic real-world consequences. Theories about the COVID-19 being a hoax led many to disregard public health guidelines, leading to thousands of preventable deaths and hospitalizations. And families have found themselves divided over beliefs in their conspiracies that flourish in unmoderated online forums. These public and private tragedies have led many to wonder what can be done to help people who have gone down this rabbit hole, or what can be done to keep these theories from spreading in the first place.
But what explains this odd and disturbing rise of conspiratorial thinking? As it turns out, conspiracy theories meet numerous psychological needs, particularly during turbulent times. They do this in part by providing a cohesive view of the world that helps the believer maintain a sense of control during periods of social turmoil and anxiety. This desire for control fuels “illusory pattern perception,” also known as apophenia, which is the brain’s tendency to see patterns in random events. This is especially powerful for people facing personal or cultural upheaval and who may be looking for a way to explain their experiences. Similarly powerful is the mere exposure effect, which posits that people tend to view information more favorably if they have encountered it before. If we are briefly exposed to an idea, via a meme or video on our social media feeds, we are more likely to believe the idea, especially if it conforms to beliefs we already hold.
Conspiracy theories also provide an ordered view of the world that does not require believers to challenge their deeply-held beliefs. Since conspiracy theories tend to exploit uncertainty and fear, certain social groups tend to be more vulnerable to conspiratorial beliefs than others. Jan Willem van Prooijen found that belief in conspiracy theories tends to be mediated by a person’s level of education, particularly their ability to imagine complex solutions to problems, as opposed to simple or convenient solutions. Other factors, such as belief in the paranormal, political extremism, feeling a lack of control over one’s own life, lower self-esteem, lower social and economic standing, and even boredom tend to correlate with conspiratorial thinking. Finally, a belief in certain conspiracy theories can facilitate a sense of community. Believers can maintain a positive image of themselves and their social groups by appealing to tribalism or our commitments to our in-groups. Research has shown that people are more likely to believe conspiracies if the theories place blame on opposing political parties. Such divisions can be exacerbated by moments of political upheaval or scandal, when trust in the government is already diminished. This makes conspiracy theories a powerful tool for political actors who want to use misinformation for personal gain, by raising questions about the trustworthiness of the news media, educational institutions, and the scientific community, presenting themselves as the only reliable source of information.
Ultimately, researchers have found that the best way to mitigate the spread of conspiracy theories is to prevent them from taking hold in the first place. One way to do this is through “pre-bunking,” a process that applies the principle of “inoculation” from psychology and involves warning people that someone may try to misinform them and present them with “weakened” examples of the kind of misinformation or persuasive techniques they might be exposed to, so they can prepare themselves. Using “weakened” versions of the conspiratorial arguments is especially important, as research shows that presenting misinformation and information at the same time may confuse listeners, or they may not be able to remember what was true and what was false later. While pre-bunking should give listeners the information they need to identify the conspiracy theory when they encounter it, the true facts should be given more emphasis.
But once they have taken hold and once an individual believes in a particular conspiracy theory, it can be difficult to change their mind, regardless of how strong the evidence against that conspiracy theory is. This is due to a psychological principle known as the “continued influence effect.” According to this principle, closely-held beliefs, especially those that are foundational to a believer’s identity or understanding of the world, can persist, even when the believer is aware of the facts. Since we are especially drawn to theories that reinforce what we already believe, we tend to be especially reluctant to give them up. In fact, being presented with information that contradicts our beliefs may trigger “the backfire effect,” in which the listener clings more tightly to their beliefs in response to a perceived attack on their values.
For these reasons, experts suggest that it is likely more effective to approach conspiratorial-minded loved ones with empathy rather than a barrage of facts. When the conspiracy theory comes up in conversation, ask questions about what they believe and what evidence they believe supports it instead of listing off reasons that the theory is wrong. This may allow them to see the holes in their own logic. Avoid mocking their beliefs, as this may contribute to their sense of persecution and push them away. Instead, focus on shared memories, reminding them of their identity outside of the conspiratorial beliefs, and emphasize the value of the relationship. Direct them toward ways to concretely meet the goals and needs that underlie their conspiratorial beliefs. Suggest they get involved with organizations that address issues they care about, since feeling empowered to address social issues may give their anxiety a healthier outlet. Above all, be prepared for it to be a long process.
While there are many circumstantial factors that may push any one person toward or away from a particular conspiracy theory, the psychological and sociological factors that underlie conspiratorial thinking mean we are all potentially vulnerable, especially in moments of uncertainty and polarization. And these powerful rhetorical techniques can lead to devastating personal and public consequences. While more work is needed to address the many factors that lead people to create and adhere to conspiracy theories, for people hoping to salvage relationships with loved ones who have become consumed with a conspiracy theory, these techniques may give them a place to start.