Discover more from Defusing American Anger: A depolarization endeavor
Thoughts on reducing paranoid, self-destructive conspiracy-theory beliefs
Some resources of mine related to conspiracy-minded thinking
I was talking to someone who has a close family member who has, over the last few years, gone deeper and deeper into various unreasonable and paranoid conspiracy theories of various sorts, including QAnon-type “we’re surrounded by people who want to kill children” beliefs and Flat Earth beliefs.
Paranoia is high these days. As I discuss in my book Defusing American Anger, extreme us-vs-them polarization naturally results in more paranoia and more conspiracy-theory-esque beliefs. I think these things feed off each other and amplify each other: us-vs-them feelings and suspicions make us more likely to believe in big malicious plots, and beliefs in big malicious plots can increase us-vs-them feelings.
And I think, in general, a polarized environment creates a breeding ground for all sorts of distrust of people around us, including the government and authority figures. And, as I examine in my work, some of this distrust can be rational. As I examine in my book and sometimes on my podcast, there are many biased and irresponsible takes these days from journalists and pundits and politicians on the left and the right (even as you may think “one side is much worse”). To take one example, there were many bad and irresponsible mainstream stories about the Trump/Russia connection.
When people become aware of these kinds of things, their distrust in authority figures can start to shrink, and as a result some of these people can go down a rabbithole of distrusting everything around them. Rational distrust can easily turn into suspicion that is unreasonable, paranoid, and self-destructive.
And, to be clear, there are also a lot of untrue and exaggerated and malicious claims made about all sorts of things these days, motivated by extreme us-vs-them animosity (something we talk about in this podcast episode about “need for chaos” worldviews). Animosity and paranoia breeds more animosity and paranoia. But I think it’s helpful to examine the more rational things that can be an instigating factor in paranoid worldviews. When we see some of the more rational things those people see, we are in a better place to speak to them and help them.
And this is not just a rightwing thing: there are plenty of examples of liberal people going down these rabbitholes; this is why you can find surveys showing that ~10% of Democrat voters have QAnon-type beliefs, or find a lot of pieces about how vaccine-related conspiracy theories have infiltrated a lot of left-leaning wellness/spirituality communities (something I think helps account for Robert F Kennedy’s popularity). In an excerpt below, I talk more about the ubiquity of conspiracy-theory beliefs these days.
After talking to my friend about this, I thought I'd share a couple things I'd done in this space that might help people who are going through similar things. There are of course no easy answers. I don't think anything I share will likely do much practical good when it comes to getting people out of overly-paranoid views: by definition highly suspicious and paranoid views are rather impervious to being changed. But in the off chance they might be helpful, I thought I’d share.
Conspiracy-theory excerpt from my book
After talking to my friend, I decided to put the Conspiracies chapter of my book up on my site.
You can read that excerpt here: https://www.american-anger.com/post/on-conspiracy-theories-and-polarization.
This chapter was my attempt to make people see how unlikely big plots are, and how unlikely big plots are to be kept secret. I think doing this kind of work is important in combatting irrational beliefs, as I think so many of us have outlandish, unrealistic views of how likely big plots are.
And the nature of us-vs-them polarization is that few people want to do that work: they'd rather mock and insult people who believe such things because there is often some team-based anger involved. I think we need more people attempting to engage with these ideas head-on, instead of avoiding or mocking them. We need more people making efforts to show why such things are illogical. That chapter was my attempt at that.
That excerpt also talks about something I think is very important: our tendency to label things too quickly as ‘conspiracy theory beliefs.’ The nature of extreme polarization is that so many of us will be quick to insult and degrade people on the “other side,” and one aspect of this is being too likely to group people’s more rational, nuanced views on various things in with the most paranoid, unreasonable views. If we’re not careful about how we speak about people’s beliefs, we run the risk of alienating them, and actually amplifying their us-vs-them animosity and confirming their suspicious views. (This was something discussed in this podcast episode about persuasive speech.)
A recent talk about some psychological factors in conspiracy-minded thinking
On a recent episode of my podcast, I talked with Mikey Biddlestone, who's researched conspiracy-minded beliefs. This was one of the more popular episodes of the podcast this year. We talk about the boundary between what are more reasonable/rational beliefs and what are bad, unreasonable beliefs. And we talk about some psychological factors in making conspiracy-minded worldviews more likely.
Recognizing the strangeness of life can be a factor in paranoia
I’m very interested in existential psychology. I see existential fears as powerful behind-the-scenes forces for so much of our dysfunctional and self-destructive ways of being.
A while back I wrote a piece about how the strangeness of life can be seen as a fundamental source of existential fear. I think this is very much related to highly paranoid views. People can, once they start to focus on the strangeness of the world, start to go down a rabbithole where they desire explanations to explain that strangeness.
For example, recognizing the strangeness of existence might lead someone to think something like, “There’s no way this weird world I’ve found myself in could be random; there must be some purposeful design somewhere; someone must have done all this.”
In my opinion, some religious beliefs and conspiracy-minded beliefs can be motivated by similar feelings and desires: feelings of anxiety upon recognizing that the world is strange and inexplicable, and a desire to understand it, to tame it in some way, to lower our anxiety about that. In some ways, it can be more comforting to believe there’s some vast plan at work (e.g., some huge conspiracy to hide from us the Earth is flat) than to struggle with pure existential anxiety. A big secret plot is exciting! It can make us feel special and give us meaning.
I think the existential fear of isolation plays a big role here, too: oftentimes people who go down these rabbitholes are isolated; they are looking for meaning. Being part of the few people who “know the truth,” who have the secret knowledge, can be a way to feel like your life has meaning, that you are special. It can help you compensate for other things that aren’t going well in your life. It gives you access to a community.
We discuss other existential-related aspects of this in that episode I linked above. For example, for the Sandy Hook shooting, it can be more comforting to think that it was faked than it was real: it’s more comforting to imagine some shadowy organization faked that stuff than to deal with what it means that we live in a world where someone can murder children for no reason. I’d argue that even for something like 9-11 conspiracies: it’s somehow more comforting to believe there’s some big shadowy people who arranged it than to believe it was random and out-of-control: for one thing, if there’s a big shadowy group to blame, that means we can still get justice: we might still find the perpetrators and expose the evil—which is more comforting than believing that people can do terrifying things and there will never be any big reckoning; there will be no real closure.
What are your recommendations?
If you have any personal stories you’d like to share on this topic, comments are appreciated. And if you have any recommendations for what you’d tell loved ones who have gone down these conspiracy-minded rabbitholes, please share those as well.