How Should We Respond to People Who Spread Conspiracy Theories?

The psychology of conspiracy theories and how to talk to those who believe them.

Posted May 14, 2020

fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

“It’s just my input!” “What do you think of [Plandemic]?” “See, COVID-19 is a hoax!”

These are just a few of the justifications folks have shared with me or in public virtual spaces when spreading Plandemic and other anti-science conspiracies.

Plandemic” in particular seems to have poured fuel on an ever-present fire of conspiracy beliefs. In recent years, conspiratorial themes filling social media include climate change denial, anti-vaccination, and prejudice toward Jews and Muslims, among others.

When limited to one person or a family household, conspiracy theorists are easy to dismiss. With the rapid spread through social media, however, the power of conspiracy theory content wreaks havoc. Research exists showing that endorsement and spreading of conspiratorial content may be associated with worse prejudice toward vulnerable groups, decreased trust in government institutions, lesser political participation (e.g., voting, peaceful protest), and lower engagement in positive health behaviors (e.g., lower intent to get vaccinated).  

In short, the sharing of seemingly harmless information is actually quite damaging, and stretches well beyond any one individual’s “input.” But what do we know about conspiracy theory beliefs?

The nature and causes of conspiracy theory beliefs

Conspiratorial beliefs are complicated. Our gut instinct to blame them on simple paranoia or pushing of an agenda doesn’t suffice. In fact, some evidence suggests many conspiracy theories may not be driven by paranoia at all, instead serving to maintain the social dominance of a group. Placed in today’s discourse, conspiracy theories maintain power and control of one religious, political, or racial group over another.

The basic nature of conspiracy theories has been investigated. A team of researchers in New Zealand conducted several studies showing that conspiracy theories may take one of two forms: (1) “ideation” and (2) “skepticism.” The first type of conspiracy beliefs, ideation, typically feature themes of government/secret society cover-up, small groups of individuals controlling narratives to the public, and other forms of mass manipulation. They appear over-the-top and are perhaps easier to spot. Plandemic fits this type very well. The second theme, skepticism, is a general attitude that people in society are willing to go to great lengths to cover-up the truth. Authors of the article explain that skepticism beliefs may seem more rational, and therefore be harder to root out.

The pervasiveness of conspiracy theories in contemporary American and global cultures has sparked greater social science interest in understanding causes. We tend to believe that conspiracy theory support comes down to individual characteristics of a person. To a degree, this has been supported by the research. Remember, however, conspiracy theory beliefs are complex.

Endorsement of conspiracy theories is associated with characteristics such as intense authoritarian attitudes, high narcissism, and low self-esteem. Personal characteristic findings are limited in two ways, though. First, no one-size-fits-all explanation holds water for all conspiracy theory content. Second, these factors are merely descriptive. Causes are absent. 

A model explaining why people may be drawn to conspiracy beliefs was recently offered by a Dutch scholar. The primary cause of endorsing a conspiracy theory is thought to be a sense of existential threat: perceived danger to one’s life or well-being. With a sense of existential threat comes fear and anxiety. We then consume, believe, and spread conspiracy theories as a way of making sense of the perceived threat. Our efforts to make sense of complicated circumstances such as a pandemic are overly simplified by conspiracy theories. The existential threat model also argues that the desire to make sense of a complex danger becomes stronger when there is a specific hated outgroup to target in the conspiratorial picture.

Let’s take that apart a bit. COVID-19 makes us feel an existential threat. In an often desperate attempt to make sense of the overwhelming amount of information and emotion, we seek to simplify things by finding a good conspiracy (e.g., Plandemic). Those efforts become even more fervent when the conspiracy theory focuses on members of a religious, national, or political outgroup that one dislikes.

How do I approach someone spreading conspiracy theories?

Armed with a basic understanding of conspiracy theories, we can make choices on how to engage persons spreading them. As noted by a Harvard psychologist, the first choice is whether to engage at all. I tend to agree with her ultimate conclusion: Engaging conspiracy theorists is a must when lives are literally on the line.

If one is to engage, it is best done in a non-social media venue and calmly. Strategies include:

1. Just the facts! Beginning with a question as simple as whether the person actually believes the conspiratorial content may reduce endorsement of the distrust evident in some conspiracy theories. A next step may be the non-judgmental presentation of well-sourced facts as a possible alternative explanation. One can supplement facts relevant to the conspiratorial content with basic information on the nature of conspiracy theories and their causes.

2. Personalize the subject. A more nuanced approach may be to personalize the subject to invoke emotion. There is modest evidence suggesting that creating emotion may, for instance, reduce short-term prejudice. In an example relevant to COVID-19, one may pose a straightforward question to someone spreading pro-hydroxychloroquine COVID-19 treatment content: “Would you trust a doctor giving this drug to your partner?” This may be an avenue to a fruitful discussion.

3. Consider the alternatives. You can pose counterfactuals to the person. Promoting counterfactuals entails having a person consider how the past or present could be different based upon alternative personal actions. This technique has been shown to benefit victims of terror attacks, among others. In this instance, one may suggest alternatives to turning to conspiratorial content to cope with the threat of COVID-19.

Like explanations of conspiracy theories, there is no one solution to engaging in these difficult conversations. Some people may be too invested in the content or identity politics. For me, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try everything we can to mitigate the harm done by conspiracy theories.  

Note: The author wishes to thank Frank Golom, Ph.D., and Tess Gemberling, Ph.D., for comments on earlier drafts of this piece.