Is QAnon a Mass Delusion?

Conspiracy theories aren't delusions, but they can be just as unhealthy.

Posted Oct 05, 2020

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

With increasing media coverage over the past several months, about half the country is now aware of the QAnon conspiracy theory, although 80 percent view it as bad for the country. The harm that QAnon can have on relationships—testing their limits and sometimes fracturing them completely—has also become more clear. This is an interview I did for Cecilia Watt's Guardian article about "QAnon orphans" who have lost connection to their friends and family because of their increasing obsession with the conspiracy theory.

Do you think there's a relationship between QAnon and undiagnosed mental illness?

The short answer is no. There’s really no evidence that belief in conspiracy theories like QAnon should be thought of as a symptom of mental illness. On the contrary, surveys have consistently shown that about half the population believes in at least one conspiracy theory, so that conspiracy theory beliefs should be thought of as mostly normal.

Like any belief, however, “cognitive dimensions” of conspiracy theory beliefs such as conviction (how strongly we believe something) preoccupation (how much time we spend thinking about a belief) and distress (how much the belief worries us) can get ramped up to the point of causing problems.

Also, inasmuch as QAnon has been likened to an online cult, it’s possible that evidence about who tends to join cults—people who feel lonely or are struggling with symptoms of anxiety and depression and are searching for emotional connection and group affiliation—might apply to some who get immersed into the online world of QAnon. But that’s not about someone being “crazy” so much as socially disconnected.

Is this effectively a mass delusion?

Again, the short answer is no, but the longer answer is more complicated. In psychiatry, delusions are generally regarded as idiosyncratic beliefs to the point of being unsharable. And yet, sometimes idiosyncratic beliefs do become shared—especially on the internet—whether we’re talking about religious beliefs, political beliefs, or even something as fundamental as whether the Earth is flat. That presents a conundrum for psychiatric diagnosis that hasn’t quite been resolved.

In my view, what makes delusions unshareable is that they often contain a self-referential component—the belief is about the believer in some highly improbable way. It’s one thing to believe that the government is spying on us or in a supernatural being. But it’s another to believe that the CIA is following you, or that you are the Second Coming. The “evidence” to support such self-referential beliefs is often subjective, not objective, experience.

In contrast, conspiracy theory beliefs are usually not about the believer. And the evidence to support them is often something someone else said. I don’t like the term “conspiracy theorist,” since most people who believe in conspiracy theories aren’t theorizing so much as they’re searching and finding information that’s “out there,” often on the internet. This search is highly influenced by confirmation bias, meaning that we tend to find and latch onto things that we’re looking for in the first place and that support our pre-existing intuitions.

My model of conspiracy theory belief is that it’s a two-part process that begins with “epistemic mistrust” or mistrust of authoritative information. When we mistrust authoritative sources of information, we become vulnerable to misinformation and deliberate disinformation. Conspiracy theories are often appealing because they are the antithesis of authoritative claims.

How does one know when to let go of a loved one?

That question could be applied to any relationship under strain for whatever reason. Speaking in terms of “rational choice economics,” how long one “hangs in there” is a personal choice that has to be weighed according to the risks and benefits of continuing vs. ending a relationship.

But we don’t always act based on rational choice economics. And there’s a big range of “letting go” that’s variably possible depending on the relationship. If we’re talking about “Aunt Susie” who’s gone down the rabbit hole but lives in another state, then it might very well be possible to maintain a connection, while setting limits on talking about conspiracy theory beliefs like QAnon. But that kind of distance and limit setting isn’t as applicable to say a married couple raising kids. Romantic relationships and marriages are probably the most vulnerable to damage from one person’s preoccupation with conspiracy theory beliefs to the point of neglecting other responsibilities including the relationship, not unlike other compulsive behaviors like pornography, gambling, or drug use. 

With QAnon, we’re talking about something potentially very similar. When does someone decide to end a relationship that has become destructive, where the loved one refuses to change or to get help? The answer will depend on the individual, but there’s usually a breaking point—the question is whether a QAnon believer can “climb out” of the rabbit hole for the sake of the relationship before it’s too late.