“Where we go one, we go all.”
Ever since I started writing about conspiracy theories, readers have occasionally written in to ask for advice about a family member who has fallen down the rabbit hole of belief. To be honest, beyond expressions of sympathy and referring them back to my posts about why people are attracted to conspiracy theories in the first place, I often feel at a loss to offer anything helpful. The stark reality is that becoming obsessed with conspiracy theory beliefs has significant potential to drive a wedge between loved ones that can irreparably damage relationships.
Recently, however, I was invited on KQED radio to talk about this issue as it relates to QAnon, which prompted me to consider a more thoughtful response that I’ll cover here in a series of blog posts.
In Part 1 of this series on “What to Do When Someone You Love Becomes Obsessed with QAnon,” we’ll explore why it is that some people are so drawn to QAnon. Understanding that is a vital starting point if we hope to help loved ones climb of out the QAnon conspiracy theory rabbit hole.
Understanding the Psychological Needs That QAnon Feeds
QAnon is a curious modern phenomenon that’s part conspiracy theory, part religious cult, and part role-playing game.
Some of the psychological quirks that are thought to drive belief in conspiracy theories include need for uniqueness and needs for certainty, closure, and control that are especially salient during times of crisis. Conspiracy theories offer answers to questions about events when explanations are lacking. While those answers consist of dark narratives involving bad actors and secret plots, conspiracy theories capture our attention, offer a kind of reassurance that things happen for a reason, and can make believers feel special that they’re privy to secrets to which the rest of us “sheeple” are blind.
With an invisible leader (it’s not even clear if “Q” is a single individual or several), no organizational structure, and no coercive element for membership (people are free to “come and go” as they please), it would be a stretch to call QAnon a religious cult. But it has been increasingly modeled as something of a new religious movement, especially inasmuch as it’s often intertwined with an apocalyptic version of Christianity. Previous research on cults has revealed that people who join them are more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression and are often lonely people looking for emotional and group affiliation.1 Anecdotal evidence suggests that a similar psychological profile may also account for why some might find QAnon appealing.
Beyond conspiracy theory and online cult, QAnon has also been described as “an unusually absorbing alternate-reality game” where online players who refer to themselves as “bakers” eagerly await the chance to decipher cryptic clues in the form of “bread crumbs” or “Q-drops.” These rewards are dispensed within an irregular "variable ratio reinforcement schedule" that highlights how QAnon represents an immersive form of entertainment that, like online gaming or gambling, provides an ideal set-up for a kind of compulsive behavior that resembles addiction.
The puzzle-solving, role-playing dimension of QAnon acts as another reinforcing intoxicant of sorts, providing believers with an exciting new identity as a "Q Patriot." Back in the 1980s, parents worried that kids playing Dungeons and Dragons would get so invested in their magical role-playing characters that they might lose touch with the real world. Today, QAnon is a kind of live-action role-playing game in which the conflation of fantasy and reality isn’t so much a risk as a built-in feature.
Understanding the multifaceted aspects of QAnon in this way helps to understand its appeal as well as why believers might be unwilling to unplug and walk away. For those immersed in the world of QAnon, climbing out of the rabbit hole could represent a significant loss—of something to occupy one’s time, of feeling connected to something important, of finally feeling a sense of self-worth and control during uncertain times.
Without replacing QAnon with something else that satisfies one's psychological needs in a similar way, escape may be unlikely. Of course, leaving QAnon would allow believers to reclaim significant time and energy that might be better channeled into healthier real-life relationships, work, and recreational pastimes. But for many, the very lack of such sources of meaning might have led them to seek out QAnon in the first place, such that there would be little guarantee of finding them anew.
From that perspective, life down in the rabbit hole might look pretty good. As one QAnon believer put it, “Q is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
How can we convince our loved ones to walk away from that?
For more answers, see Part 2 and 3 of this series on "What to do When Someone You Love Becomes Obsessed with QAnon":
1. Rousselet M, Duretete O, Hardouin JB, Grall-Bronnec M. Cult membership: what factors contribute to joining or leaving? Psychiatric Research 2017; 257:27-33.