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Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories — And What we Can Do About It

Understanding the prevalence of conspiracy theories

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“Human minds just don’t work that way,” Jay Michaelson told me, responding to my naive proposition that we could dissuade people from believing conspiracy theories by illuminating their logical fallacies.

“We’re not designed by evolution to be rational-dominated creatures. Reason exists for the service of our survival… but so do a lot of other things. And when we think our survival is at stake, reason goes out the window.”

Michaelson is a Columnist at The Daily Beast, a Meditation Teacher at 10% Happier, and a Rabbi.

I was halfway across the world when I first heard of Jay Michaelson. I was alone, at a cafe, just before midnight, contemplating nothing less than the meaning of life. I was 11-months into a religious journey that I had subconsciously embarked on after a traumatic loss, facilitated by a religious group which had transplanted me overseas and convinced me of a new perspective of reality. A family member had sent me one of Michaelson’s articles the night I was at the cafe and, after reading it over a few times — I got on a plane and left the community – that same night.

Prior to reading the article, I hadn’t been able to refute the seemingly logical arguments that the religious group had been professing to me. Michaelson’s article showed how the group’s arguments were marred with circular reasoning, non-falsifiability, confirmation bias, and other logical fallacies — ultimately resulting in my return to the world view that I had prescribed to prior to associating with the religious group.

I was ultimately able to see that pieces of evidence do not necessarily constitute a larger truth. In other words — I recognized that evidence itself is insufficient to prove a theory, and that valid theories require much more than supportive data points.

Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories

Although the rationality of Michaelson’s article convinced me to abandon a belief system, for most people this method will not be effective.

This is because people aren’t drawn to conspiracy theories by logical reasoning (although they might think they are.) People are drawn to a conspiracy theories because it resonates with them on a subconscious, emotional level, and sometimes because it is held by their friends and family. Conspiracy theories are often a response to the perceived crazy, traumatizing, or seemingly nonsensical events that happen in our world. They offer an explanation to an otherwise inexplicable event. Someone might believe in a JFK assassination conspiracy theory because of the seemingly unbearable or unbelievable fact that he was assassinated.

After reconciling with this emotional pull, people will then solidify their views by reinforcing them with data and facts. If carefully self-selected, you can find data to support almost any view.

After enough time has past, a conspiracy theorist will develop cognitive dissonance. Once a person has held a view for a period of time, they will naturally become more entrenched in this view as it represents their view of reality (and thus a part of their ego.)

A real-world example of cognitive dissonance in conspiracy theories is Heaven’s Gate. The Heaven’s Gate conspiracy theory entails that followers should commit suicide and be able to leave their bodies to unify up to the next level. There exist Heaven’s Gate followers who didn’t commit suicide — yet still believe in the Heaven’s Gate prophecy because “It’s easier for a follower to believe in that theory than to think that they believed lies for 15 years,” as Michaelson said. Convincing yourself of a lie is often easier than allowing yourself to believe that you have been wrong for so long.

Thus, in order to address a conspiracy theory, it’s important to address the emotional factors as much as a rational ones.

For followers of the Coronavirus conspiracy theories (that the virus was in some way the result of 5-G telecommunications,) the reality of the global pandemic was simply too much to make sense of. Thus, they felt that it had to be the result of something larger — something sinister and intentional.

These theories are also compounded through social reinforcement. As Michaelson points out, “If everyone you know believes that the election was stolen, you are likely to also believe that, because humans base our beliefs on what other humans believe.”

How to Dissuade a Conspiracy Theorist

A current prevalent conspiracy theory is that climate change either doesn’t exist, or is entirely natural and doesn’t need to be dealt with. Some climate conspiracy theorists deny the reality of climate change and allege that the world’s leading climatologists are in kahoots and are trying to create a socialist world government.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) conducts studies on how people change their minds on climate change, and they have found that evidence-based argumentation seldom works. According to the YPCCC, the most effective way to convince someone that climate change is real is to have them talk about places they care about and reflect on how those places have changed. For example, getting someone to mention that their ski resort doesn’t have as much snow, or that their pond used to have more fish, is more likely to have a resonating effect on this person than sharing graphs or charts about climate change. Individuals need to realize on their own accord that climate change is real. Ironically, even though their personal observations are anecdotal and inconsequential, those observations are more likely to change their mind than a summation of facts and findings.

A person believes in a conspiracy theory not because of facts and evidence, but because of first-hand intuitive, emotional reasoning. Thus, they must be convinced via these same instruments.

If we can truly recognize and appreciate the emotional reasons why someone believes a conspiracy, instead of just focusing on why the conspiracy theory is wrong — we have a real opportunity to influence them.

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