Mind & Body

Why it’s so hard to argue with a conspiracy theorist

Conspiracy theories are not a new concept, but subscribers seem more steadfast and vocal than ever in their beliefs these days. We asked clinical neuropsychologist Dr Hannah Korrel for tips on how to broach this sensitive subject with a loved one without it ending in a screaming match.

Historically, conspiracy theories existed on the fringes of society. Unfounded claims that the 9/11 terrorist attack was an “inside job” by the United States government that emerged merely hours after the World Trade Centre collapsed, for example, was largely isolated dark corners of the internet.

Today, the fear and uncertainty we’re experiencing amid a global pandemic have created the ideal environment for new conspiracy theories to flourish: COVID is a hoax, or it’s caused by 5G mobile towers, or that the recently developed vaccines are actually microchips to monitor, even influence, your every move.

Brain chemistry

We probably should’ve expected this explosion of conspiracy theories, says clinical neuropsychologist Dr Hannah Korrel, who says it has everything to do with brain chemistry.

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“When you’re reading anything that is dramatic, or scary, or presents a danger to you, your amygdala goes into a fear response mode, which basically sends a lot of cortisone through your body,” she explains.

Cortisone is the hormone that kicks your body into fight-or-flight mode. It makes you “zone in” on perceived danger, making it difficult for you to absorb other information around you.

“For example, if there’s a fire in the kitchen, you’re not going to be looking at what’s on the television behind you, you’re going to be focused on the fire,” she says.

The trouble with the 21st century is that the internet has opened the floodgates of information, both factual and baseless, and naturally, we seek out what is going to make us feel at ease and safe. It’s tied in with our desire for survival.

“Conspiracy theories may promise to make people feel safer as a form of cheater detection, in which dangerous and untrustworthy individuals are recognised and the threat they posed is reduced,” argues a 2017 study titled The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories.

For those with a low agency–that is, people who feel a very low sense of control in their lives–are most susceptible to conspiracy theories because they’re looking for material, factual or not, that gives them that sense of control back.

How does belief in a conspiracy theory start?

It can start really unassumingly, says Dr Korrel, which is why it’s so easy to fall victim.

“If you hear a non-fact, but you happen to have heard it in the past… Researchers have found that when you’re presented with that information, many months later, you’ve forgotten where you heard it and forgotten if it was true, or it wasn’t true,” she says.

“And the fact that we remember hearing it in the past makes us more likely to believe that it’s true.”

In the instance of QAnon—followers of which believe former President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against Satan-worshipping elites who engage in the sex trafficking of children—the seemingly innocuous #SaveOurChildren hashtag actively encourages readers, viewers, or social media scrollers who aren’t familiar with QAnon to search for ‘save our children’ and be sucked down the rabbit hole of their conspiracy theory.

Social media plays a near-vital factor, especially in the comments section and Facebook groups where disinformation runs rampant. This is what’s known as an echo-chamber, where beliefs are reinforced and shielded from denial. It snowballs from there, and before you know it, you’re in “tin foil hat territory”.

Why is it so hard to argue with a conspiracy theorist?

Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories tend to think and act emotionally rather than analytically, according to a 2014 study in international journal Cognition.

It explains why conversations with your uncle around the Christmas table get so heated and so personal. Those who believe conspiracy theories have burrowed in with like-minded people, and even 100 articles that state COVID is very real won’t convince them.

It also probably goes without saying that no one responds well to being called an idiot or crazy, so going on the attack is not the best route to steering someone away from a conspiracy theory, although it can be tempting. Trying to argue immediately puts a person on the defensive and will likely push them further into their echo chamber.

So, what’s the best approach to talking to someone who subscribes to a conspiracy theory?

“It’s important to recognise the emotion behind why the person is engaging in the behaviour,” says Dr Korrel.

“In most cases, the emotion behind that behaviour is ‘I’m afraid. I love the people around me so very much, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to them’… So instead of focusing on the facts of what they’re saying, go in with sometime like, ‘I can see this is really worrying you, you really love your family,’ etc, and that person is going to feel heard and supported.”

She adds that only then is it worth presenting them with reputable information to gently steer them away from their echo chamber.

“If can be empathetic to one another, we’re more likely to stay onside with one another, rather than having a big fight over the table,” concludes Dr Korrel.

Neuropsychologist Hannah Korrel has spent over a decade becoming an expert in why the brain makes us do the things we do. A fierce mental health advocate, Dr Korrel brings neurology and psychology together to explain common life dilemmas, minus the BS. Find her on Instagram @nobullpsych.