For QAnon Believers Facing Reality, What Happens Now?
Has the inauguration driven adherents' cognitive dissonance to a breaking point?
Posted Jan 21, 2021
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” —Matthew 7:15
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” —I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, Philip K. Dick
"You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run"
—The Gambler, Kenny Rogers
On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States of America, sealing the deal for the 81 million voters who told President Trump, “you’re fired.”
For the sizeable minority that voted for Trump, however, many are left feeling cheated. Some were so sure that Trump would win the election that they found his defeat unfathomable. After the final votes were tallied, others embraced Trump’s claims—unverified despite more than 50 lawsuits—that the election had been stolen.
A smaller contingent of Trump diehards found solace in more outlandish prophesies that were fed to them within echo chambers on Twitter, YouTube, Parler, or Rumble by prominent QAnon influencers such as Lin Wood. That Trump would rise from the ashes of defeat like a phoenix, retaining power through a military coup. That JFK Jr. would return from the supposed grave. That after Vice President Pence refused to reject the electoral count, he would be tried for treason or executed. That following the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Biden, Hilary Clinton, other “Deep State” luminaries, and even the Pope would finally be exposed to be part of a massive pedophilia ring and face military tribunals.
So many predictions, none of which have come to pass. Of course, that hasn’t stopped QAnons before—when Q’s predictions have previously failed, time and again, followers have just pivoted and moved the goalposts, while encouraging each other to “keep the faith” and “trust the plan.” That’s par for the course with prophesies—when their due date passes not with a bang, but a whimper, there’s always another looming Storm, Apocalypse, or Second Coming for true believers to look forward to.
Psychology explains this kind of pivot, aimed at resolving the tension that arises when core misbeliefs and actions conflict with reality, through the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. While "cognitive dissonance” has become something of a household word today, it's less well known that the concept was originally inspired by psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues’ observations of a “UFO cult” calling themselves “The Seekers.”1 When the group’s prophesies of Earth’s destruction and rescue by space aliens failed to materialize, true believers who had given away their worldly possessions in anticipation of salvation doubled down on their faith, but modified their beliefs by concluding that the aliens had changed their minds and decided to give mankind a second chance.
Over the past few years, QAnon true believers have proved similarly stubborn yet flexible in their faith, shifting their goalposts to resolve cognitive dissonance each time one of Q’s predictions have fallen flat. But what are the limits of this kind of response? At what point, in the face of a mountain of amassed countervailing evidence, does the much anticipated “Great Awakening” promised by Q become a rude awakening?
Last summer, the New York Times series Rabbit Hole featured the personal account of a woman who counted herself among the QAnon faithful until she came to realize that Q was “fake” after he—a supposed government operative with top secret clearance and Trump’s ear—started posting Bible verses in what seemed to be an obvious marketing ploy. Then in the fall, several news outlets ran the story of Jitarth Jadeja, a QAnon believer whose faith began to “crack” as he noticed logical inconsistencies within QAnon evidentiary claims. Finally, when he found evidence to disprove a particularly far-fetched claim, that became the straw that broke the backbone of his conviction, leaving him “crushed” and embarrassed about how much time he’d wasted on QAnon and the toll it had taken on his life. Gradually, other personal accounts of this kind increasingly appeared in the new Reddit subforum r/ReQuovery, which has been serving as a kind of support group for those who have given up QAnon like a bad drug habit.
It’s debatable whether QAnon is best understood as a cult or a religion, as some have claimed, but research on cults does tell us something about why true believers leave such movements. A 2017 study found that abandoning cult membership is predicted by loss of faith in the core beliefs of the group, social interventions, and contradictions by its leader.2
Now that President Biden has been inaugurated, Q hasn’t posted online since early December, and Ron Watkins (a QAnon supporter and former administrator of 8kun, the online platform where Q posts) has urged QAnons to “go back to our lives,” there’s evidence that a large number of followers are questioning their beliefs and may finally decide to abandon the cause. A spate of articles published this week have quoted online chatter by QAnon adherents as follows:
Is this the beginning of the end for QAnon, then? Have QAnon followers finally woken up to the fact that they've fallen victim to a hoax? It hardly seems appropriate for a blog post about false prophesies to make a firm prediction, but the safe bet is that some QAnon believers will fold, some will stand, and some will double down. The theory of cognitive dissonance predicts that those with the most money in the pot—the true believers who have invested the most time and energy into QAnon at the expense of jobs and relationships—will be most likely to pivot in a way that preserves or fuels their faith. And make no mistake, those who have been profiting from QAnon—based on online hits, celebrity, or hocking QAnon-related paraphernalia—will certainly work hard to keep their cash cow alive.
It’s also a good bet that the movement will fracture and mutate in some form, just as religions and political movements inevitably do over time. Clearly, QAnon can exist without Trump as its savior. Some of those doubling down are already claiming that Biden’s victory and inauguration is somehow all part of the plan. And while QAnon is a homegrown conspiracy theory movement, it has already traveled far beyond the U.S. and transformed itself such that in some parts of the world, it has little to do with American politics.
Still, while many experts are predicting a long life for QAnon for years to come, an interesting side story in The Atlantic tells of a gambler who has made “a lot of money” over the past few years betting against Q’s predictions. For countless Americans, betting against QAnon might not only be financially profitable—cutting their losses and walking away could pay other substantial dividends, like the chance to reconnect with friends, family, and reality and to work on getting their lives back.
For more on the psychology of QAnon:
1. Festinger L, Riecken H, Schachter S. When prophecy fails: a social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. University of Minnesota Press, 1956.
2. Rousselet M, Duretete O, Hardouin JB, Grall-Bronnec M. Cult membership: what factors contribute to joining of leaving? Psychiatry Research 2017; 257:27-33.