How Does QAnon Hook People In?

Many paths lead down the QAnon rabbit hole and getting out isn't easy.

Posted Sep 30, 2020

AntanO/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Source: AntanO/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

These days, everyone wants to know how seemingly normal people can find themselves "true believers" at the bottom of the QAnon rabbit hole. And how it might be possible get the people we love out. Here are some answers I gave for an interview with Rebecca Ruiz for her Mashable article, "The Most Effective Ways to Support a Loved One Who Believes in QAnon."

Can you share what aspects of your training and professional experience help you understand how and why people are prone to and struggle with conspiracy theories? 

I’m an academic psychiatrist and former clinical researcher whose work has focused on the treatment of people with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia and a particular interest in psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. In recent years, my academic work has focused on the grey area between normality and psychosis, especially “delusion-like beliefs.” Delusion-like beliefs are false beliefs that resemble delusions but are held by people who aren’t mentally ill, like conspiracy theories. I’m interested in understanding normal delusion-like beliefs through the lens of psychiatry, based on what we know about pathological delusions, examining both similarities and differences. My Psychology Today blog, Psych Unseen, is written for a general audience and focuses on why we believe what we believe, especially with regard to why we hold false beliefs or believe in misinformation with unwarranted levels of conviction.

In your Psychology Today post, you wrote that "QAnon is a curious modern phenomenon that’s part conspiracy theory, part religious cult, and part role-playing game." For someone who is watching a loved one get pulled deeper into QAnon, how does the dynamic you describe make it difficult for a) the person to accurately understand why their loved one is attracted to QAnon b) make it difficult for the person to use effective tactics as they try to engage with their loved one about QAnon?

As I mentioned, the wide appeal of QAnon can be explained by the fact that it has many facets—conspiracy theory, religious cult, and alternative reality role playing game.

As a political conspiracy theory, it’s decidedly “conservative” since it paints Democrats and liberals as the root of all evil and President Trump as a savior. Ignoring the outlandish details of QAnon conspiracy theory, this central metaphorical theme has broad appeal, not only for conservative voters, but also conservative politicians. Even outside the U.S. where Trump isn’t necessarily seen as a savior, QAnon’s overarching indictment of liberalism and globalism is appealing within nationalist and populist movements worldwide.

In terms of the “religious cult” angle, a lot has been written recently about how evangelicals are attracted to QAnon. Again, the metaphorical narrative that suggests we’re in the midst of a climactic and apocalyptic battle between good and evil serves as a kind of “hook” for evangelical Christians.

Another newer “hook” has come in the form of QAnon highjacking #SaveTheChildren and now #SaveOurChildren. I mean, sex trafficking and child abuse are real issues worthy of concern—who doesn’t think we should be doing something about that? But QAnon is exploiting that concern to recruit people to its broader cause.

So there’s a number of different ways that people might find themselves falling down the QAnon rabbit hole. And once there, the psychological rewards of group and ideological affiliation and of being called to play a part in some Manichean narrative (that’s where the role-playing game aspect comes in) can be very difficult to give up. Especially if some kind of social isolation or estrangement got somebody down the rabbit hole in the first place.

Any attempts to “rescue” someone from QAnon have to be understood in these terms. Those who have found meaning in QAnon don’t want to be rescued—they’ve finally found something that’s bigger than themselves. That’s not going to be easily relinquished.

How can a concerned person deal with the fact that QAnon adherents have done their "research" and that research is the truth, so to speak? In other words, we're increasingly living in a world of "alternative facts" and it can be dizzying and disorienting to sort through this with someone who believes in QAnon. At a certain point, the realities diverge in very confusing ways.

Yes, this is a key point. Assuming we’re not talking about “fence-sitters” who are genuinely looking for answers and are still open to different perspectives, arguing the facts ­is unlikely to be effective when we’re talking with “true believers” of conspiracy theories because their belief system is rooted in mistrust of authoritative sources. 

Once people mistrust authoritative information, they’re vulnerable to misinformation and deliberate disinformation. This is doubly true when people consume information on the internet—someone who is aligned with QAnon is probably getting a totally different newsfeed that we are. This “alternative truth” is presented as a daily barrage of information that’s designed to reinforce what people already believe—creating a kind of “confirmation bias on steroids.” 

And of course, President Trump reinforces this all the time—the idea that reputable sources are purveyors of “fake news” and that mainstream media is the “enemy of the people.” There’s no arguing with that perspective—any attempt to counter-argue with facts will just be dismissed out of hand.

If we’re really up to the challenge of having a meaningful dialogue with someone about their conspiracy theory beliefs, we have to start by listening and not trying to argue. Start by asking people what kinds of information they trust, and mistrust, and why. Ask them how they decide what to believe and not believe. Any hope of challenging belief systems has to start from understanding the answers to those questions.

What is the danger of trying to persuade a loved one against doubting or abandoning QAnon beliefs? 

It’s becoming increasingly clear that QAnon can wreak havoc on relationships, driving a wedge between people that sometimes results in an inability to stay together or maintain a connection.

The dogma of cults is often centered around the need for its members to cut itself off from the rest of society which is portrayed as at best unenlightened and at worst an existential threat to the cult’s identity. With a conspiracy theory belief system like QAnon, it’s much the same way. And so, the biggest pitfall is that by opposing someone’s belief system, you can easily be labeled as the “enemy.”

What should you do when a loved one's belief in QAnon is so intertwined with their identity that engaging with them about it only makes things worse? 

When someone’s identity is so closely intertwined with their belief, as it often is with cults, religious extremism, and full-blown conspiracy theory beliefs, then any attempt to challenge those beliefs can be regarded as an attack on one’s identity. 

So once again, if someone is really hoping to “engage,” they have to be careful not to challenge and not be seen as an attacker. Just like in psychotherapy, it’s really about listening, understanding, and empathizing. Invest in the relationship and maintain a level of respect, compassion, and trust. Having that foundation is essential if we ever hope to get people to consider other perspectives and loosen the grip on their own.

For more about how to talk to loved ones who have fallen down the QAnon rabbit hole: