How Far Down the QAnon Rabbit Hole Did Your Loved One Fall?
What to do when someone you love becomes obsessed with QAnon, part 2.
Posted Aug 21, 2020
“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well… Down, down, down. There was nothing else to do…”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
“Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me.”
This is part 2 of a series on “What to do When Someone You Love Becomes Obsessed with QAnon.”
In the first installment, "The Psychological Needs That QAnon Feeds," I discussed the psychological needs that QAnon may fulfill for its followers. Understanding those needs is a vital first step in order to understand why those who have fallen down the QAnon rabbit hole may be loathe to climb out. In this installment, I’ll set the stage to understand how the chances of rescuing our loved ones from the QAnon rabbit hole—and how to go about trying—may depend on just how far they’ve fallen.
Are Conspiracy Theorists “Crazy?”
To begin with, let’s differentiate belief in conspiracy theories like QAnon from the kind of delusional beliefs that are used to define mental illness and psychosis. Generally speaking, delusions are false and unshared beliefs that are often based on subjective “inner” experience and whose content is often “self-referential,” involving the believer. In contrast, conspiracy theories are usually shared beliefs that don’t explicitly involve the believer and are based on external evidence that one finds “out there,” such as on the internet. Unlike delusions, conspiracy theories may or may not turn out to be true. After all, they’re “theories.”
Based on this distinction, people who believe in conspiracy theories, however “crazy” they might sound, are no more delusional than those who believe in literal interpretations of religious texts like the Bible or the Quran. And so QAnon—the increasingly popular “right-wing” belief about the secret nefarious machinations of the Satan-worshipping, child-trafficking “Deep State” and President Trump’s destiny to thwart them—is a classic conspiracy theory, not a delusion. Now, if someone were to believe not only in QAnon dogma, but also in the false and unshared belief that they are Q, that would suggest a delusion. Note that it’s possible to believe in both conspiracy theories and delusions at the same time, with some overlap.
Conspiracy Theory Belief: Particle and Wave
Another way to understand whether beliefs might be considered “pathological” is to model them quantitatively as a continuous phenomenon—in other words, within a kind of scale that measures intensity or severity. For example, a cognitive model of delusional beliefs quantifies them along “dimensions” that include strength of conviction (how strongly one believes a delusion), preoccupation (how much one thinks about the delusion), extension (how much the delusion “bleeds into” or affects one's life), and distress (how much one is upset by the belief). Applying this model to non-delusional beliefs like conspiracy theories can help to understand when a belief is likely to disrupt people’s lives with a negative impact on their jobs, relationships, and mental well-being.1
Moving along a continuum of conspiracy theory belief, dimensions like conviction, preoccupation, extension, and distress would be expected to increase across it, along with mistrust in authoritative and mainstream sources of information.2 As believers go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, more and more time is spent “researching” conspiracy theories and immersing oneself in online discussions with other conspiracy theory believers, with less and less time spent on work, relationships, or other recreational pursuits. As this happens, believers increasingly turn their back on previous friends and family who don’t agree with their beliefs and don’t “inhabit” their new world.
Similar to how physicists understand light as both “particle” and “wave,” it can also be helpful to conceptualize belief intensity as discrete points along a continuum, like colors in the visible light “spectrum.” Conspiracy theory researcher Dr. Bradley Franks and his colleagues have proposed just such a spectrum model, with 5 “types” or stages of conspiracy theory belief.3 Their model goes something like this (with additional comments added by me):
- Type/stage 1: People feel like “something isn’t right,” but keep an open mind as they seek answers to questions.
- Type/stage 2: People feel as if “there’s more to reality than meets the eye,” are skeptical about official explanations, and start to seek out alternative sources of information.
- Type/stage 3: Mistrust of authoritative sources of information increases to the point of definitive belief that some official narratives are untrue. As a result, people continue to seek information and engage with like-minded people from whom they gain a sense of belonging and group membership. They’re also more likely to get involved in “political action.”
- Type/stage 4: At this point, nearly all official and mainstream accounts are rejected so that people turn away from the mainstream in favor of affiliation with an “enlightened” community of conspiracy theory believers. Non-believers are dismissed as “sheep” who are “asleep.”
- Type/stage 5: In the final stage, authoritative and mainstream accounts are rejected to such an extent as to embrace belief in not only improbable, but frankly supernatural explanations for events (e.g. aliens, lizard people, etc.). At this stage, conspiracy theories and delusions may begin to overlap with self-referential aspects.
Dr. Franks’ proposed spectrum of conspiracy theory believers is a novel framework to help understand just how far down the rabbit hole conspiracy theory believers have gone. But for the purpose of deciding how to intervene within that continuum, it may be more useful to more simply divide conspiracy theory believers into two stages: “fence-sitters” and “true believers.”
Fence-Sitters and True Believers
The mentally healthy way to hold most of our beliefs is with “cognitive flexibility,” acknowledging that we might be wrong and remaining open to other people’s perspectives. It’s likewise a good idea to maintain a healthy level of skepticism about new information that we encounter lest we succumb to our cognitive biases and merely reinforce preexisting beliefs. This is especially true when we’re talking about theories where supporting evidence is modest or preliminary, and in the case of religious or political beliefs, where a lack of objective evidence often leads to many equivocal perspectives, such that faith becomes necessary to sustain belief.
In the early stages of conspiracy theory belief, people are “fence-sitters” who are looking for answers and haven’t yet made up their minds. Cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness may be intact, but skepticism is already closely linked with mistrust of authoritative sources of information. At this stage, conspiracy theories are appealing as expressions of, or even metaphors for, that mistrust—for the idea that both information and informants are unreliable—without necessarily having a significant degree of belief conviction. This preliminary stage explains why some people might endorse Flat Earth conspiracy theories without actually believing the Earth is flat.
Farther down the rabbit hole, conspiracy theories are embraced with greater belief conviction and become entwined with a new group affiliation and personal identity (e.g. within QAnon, adherents identify as “anons,” “bakers,” and “Q-patriots”) that makes it increasingly difficult to maintain previously established social ties. As such “true believers” move away from the mainstream and in turn are estranged because of their fringe beliefs, they often feel increasingly marginalized and under threat.
In order to protect themselves and resolve cognitive dissonance, they often “double down,” ramping up belief conviction further and diving even farther into a new ideological world. Many will increasingly feel the need to take action, whether spending more time posting on social media in order to “spread the word” or at the extreme, through more drastic and potentially dangerous measures like arming themselves in order to “self-investigate” a child pornography ring at a pizza parlor.
When people’s beliefs become so enmeshed with their identities, giving them up can be viewed as an existential threat akin to death. Needless to say, that's a bad prognostic sign.
In Part 3—the final installment—of this series on “What to do when someone you love becomes obsessed with QAnon,” we’ll conclude by discussing what kind of interventions might be helpful, depending on just how far down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory belief someone has gone.
1. Pierre JM. Faith or delusion? At the crossroads of religion and psychosis. Journal of Psychiatric Practice 2001; 7:163-172.
2. Pierre JM. Mistrust and misinformation: a two-component, socio-epistemic model of belief in conspiracy theories. Journal of Social and Political Psychology 2020 (in press). [Available as a PsyArXic preprint at https://psyarxiv.com/xhw52]
3. Franks B, Bangerter A, Bauer MW, Hall M, Noort MC. Beyond “monologicality”? Exploring conspiracist worldviews. Frontiers in Psychology 2017; 8, 861.