Jewish space lasers, Part III
Can conspiracy thinkers be reached?
Conspiracy theories are often associated with Republicans, and with good reason. Many Republican politicians, including former President Donald Trump, have promoted conspiracy theories. However, it is important to note that conspiracy thinking is not exclusive to Republicans; people of all political affiliations can fall prey to conspiracy theories.
The dangerous consequences of the conspiratorial perspective—the idea that people or groups are colluding in hidden ways to produce a particular outcome—have become painfully clear. The belief that the coronavirus pandemic is an elaborate hoax designed to prevent the reelection of Donald Trump has incited some Americans to forgo important public health recommendations, costing lives. The gunman who shot and killed 11 people and injured six others in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 justified his attack by claiming that Jewish people were stealthily supporting illegal immigrants. In 2016 a conspiracy theory positing that high-ranking Democratic Party officials were part of a child sex ring involving several Washington, D.C.–area restaurants incited one believer to fire an assault weapon inside a pizzeria. Luckily no one was hurt.
The mindset is surprisingly common, although thankfully it does not often lead to gunfire. More than a quarter of the American population believes there are conspiracies “behind many things in the world,” according to a 2017 analysis of government survey data by University of Oxford and University of Liverpool researchers.1
One main factor contributing to the proliferation of conspiracy theories is the psychology of conspiracy thinking. Psychologists have identified several cognitive biases that can make people more susceptible to conspiracy theories, including confirmation bias (the tendency to seek information that confirms one's pre-existing beliefs), the Dunning-Kruger effect (the tendency for people with low levels of expertise to overestimate their understanding of a topic), and belief perseverance (the tendency to maintain beliefs even in the face of contradictory evidence).
People who feel little or no control over their lives are more likely to engage in conspiracy thinking. Stress and anxiety are also contributing factors. Perceptions of being unwanted similarly pushed some individuals into a conspiracy mindset. Conspiracy theories can also appeal to people who feel disempowered or marginalized.
By believing in a conspiracy theory, people may feel like they have uncovered the truth and are now part of a select group of people who know what's really going on. This can be appealing to people who feel like mainstream society has left behind them.
If you have a family member or friend who advocates conspiracy theories, the best thing you can do is to engage them in a respectful conversation. Avoid attacking them or their beliefs; try to understand their origin and ask them to explain their reasoning. You can also try to provide them with credible sources of information that challenge their beliefs. However, dealing with conspiracists is tiring and time-consuming. Set the bar very low.
There is a correlation between a conspiracy mindset and religious faith. Many religious beliefs are not based on empirical evidence and rely on faith alone. This can make faithful people more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories, which also often rely on faith instead of evidence. It is important to note that not all religious people are prone to conspiracy thinking, and not all conspiracy theorists are religious.
"I've probably got almost a hundred requests in my inbox," says Diane Benscoter, who's been helping people untangle from extremist ideologies since the 1980s, after she herself was extricated from the Unification Church, commonly known as the Moonies.2
Conspiracy theories are a complex phenomenon influenced by various cognitive biases and societal factors. If you encounter someone who believes in a conspiracy theory, it is important to approach the conversation with kindness and respect and to engage them in a thoughtful conversation. By doing so, you may help them see the world in a more reasonable and evidence-based way.3
Don’t appeal to emotion. The research suggests that emotional strategies don’t work to budge belief.
Don’t get sucked into factual arguments. Debates over the facts of a conspiracy theory or the consequences of believing in a particular conspiracy also cannot make much difference.
Focus on prevention. The best strategies seem to involve helping people recognize unreliable information and untrustworthy sources before they’re exposed to a specific belief.
Support education and analysis. Putting people into an analytic mindset and explicitly teaching them how to evaluate information appears most protective against conspiracy rabbit holes.
I’m guilty of having made fun of conspiracists in the past, but that is the worst approach possible if you want to help someone see reality. Many experts are calling the spread of disinformation online a public health emergency. Collective action is necessary. Systemic action is necessary. If we, as a society, do not demand higher standards for public discourse (like that conversations are grounded in reality), we are likely to continue on a downward spiral, losing representative democracy, and maybe even forgetting we ever had it.
If you know someone involved in conspiracy thinking, encourage them to take a critical thinking class. It isn’t an overnight fix, but we all have to start somewhere.