By: Nika Kabiri, Ph.D.
This March marks the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 being declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). In the months since, millions have been wooed by wild conspiracies about the virus, vaccines, political responses, and more. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, almost one in every three Americans still believe the COVID-19 virus to be some sort of bioweapon engineered by the Chinese government, and another one in three believe the Center for Disease Control (CDC) exaggerated the response to COVID-19 in order to undermine then-President Trump’s efforts in combating it.
Other theories are darker and more outlandish, centered around a worldwide cabal of pedophilic cannibals, lizard-people disguising themselves as political leaders, and stories rooted deeply in anti-semitic sentiments spearheaded by the growth in popularity of QAnon.
On the surface, these theories and those who adhere to them could be viewed as grossly misinformed at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. And yet they persist. Even now, in the age of the Internet, when facts can be checked with just a few keystrokes, the truth seems more elusive than ever.
What makes conspiracy theories so hard to resist? And what kind of people are unable to resist them? Decision science has answers. By understanding how people access information, process it, then use it to make their decisions, we can get closer to understanding why some choose to follow conspiracy theories and some don’t.
Decision Science, and Why We’re All Prone to Conspiracy Theories
Simply put, “decision science” is the scientific study of the decision-making process in humans. Of particular interest for decision science is understanding why people make poor (or outright wrong) decisions time and again, especially when those decisions work against their best interests or even against their deepest desires.
Believing in a conspiracy theory is a choice, and it’s easy to think that conspiracy theory fans aren’t choosing wisely. But according to decision science, we are all making bad choices at some time or another. We like to believe we make rational decisions, but no human can be perfectly rational. Our brains have developed to be efficient, not accurate, and our physiologies compel us to be impulsive under stress. Also, humans are social creatures who are swayed by others on a neurobiological level. This means that sometimes our choices aren’t as much ours as we think they are. This is all part of being human.
A consequence of all this is a natural tendency to make connections between events when those connections aren’t there. If we understand why bad things happen, we can alleviate uncertainty, gain a sense of control, and feel more secure. If an accurate understanding isn’t available to us, our brains are okay with making things up or with latching onto any story that provides an answer. Behavioral scientists call this narrative bias, and we’re all susceptible to it.
You may not believe in QAnon, but chances are we have all believed some story that there’s no evidence to support. In other words, we’re all predisposed to believing in conspiracy theories. But we may not be equally predisposed.
Some Personality Types Are More Likely to Believe
Though we’re all likely to believe untrue stories at one point or another, we’re still not all followers of QAnon. Not all of us believe that 5G caused COVID. Not all of us think that vaccine patients are being injected with microchips. So why are some of us sucked in more than others?
Academics at Emory University recently published findings of a study that examined personality types and their relationship to conspiratorial ideations. Their study of close to 2,000 participants included in-depth personality profiling, as well as metrics designed to measure affinity for conspiracy theories. Results led to the development of a personality profile of conspiracy theory believers, suggesting that they are more likely to feel intellectually superior and deserving of more respect than others. They may also be more narcissistic and antagonistic, as well as more likely to cheat or take advantage of others in order to get ahead. They’re more impulsive and less inquisitive. They’re also less altruistic, less flexible, and less patient.
This doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the hard-core conspiracy fan, but there’s always more to learn. It was beyond this study’s scope to explain the root causes of conspiracy-related personality traits, but other research has shown that narcissism may stem from early parental influences and socialization experiences, and altruism to a specific type of childrearing. The Emory-led research found conspiratorial tendencies associated with low self-esteem, high social detachment, depression, and anxiety – all by-products of unhappy childrearing.
How to Talk to Conspiracy Theorists
Given the large number of people who admit to believing different conspiracy theories, it’s likely that we all know of at least one person in our personal or professional networks who can be labeled as a “conspiracy theorist”. In fact, that someone might be you. Whether you’re the conspiracy buff or you just know someone who is, having conversations with people who don’t see things your way can be daunting and exhausting.
If you find yourself attempting to converse with a conspiracy theorist, or are trying to open their eyes to hard evidence that contradicts their beliefs, you might do well to follow this advice:
1. Remember it could be you. It’s easy to see people with conspiratorial ideations as very different from the rest of us. But according to decision science, we’re all prone to believing stories that just aren’t true. Sure, conspiracies of pedophiles running the Democratic party can be extreme compared to most things people erroneously believe, but all of our incorrect beliefs lie somewhere on the same slippery slope. And while narcissism, antagonism, and a predilection for corrupt behavior are all associated with beliefs in conspiracy theories, there’s evidence to suggest that these traits could be engrained in childhood, a time during which the conspiracy theorist had little to no control over what they were learning about themselves or the world. By seeing conspiracy buffs as human will force your guard down, and avoid tension that could lead to argument.
2. Don’t share data; share competing stories. We all love a good story, and conspiracy buffs might like them more than most. Parading data, evidence, or information in front of them may not get you very far. Besides, data is rational, and people have a hard time being rational. Instead, share stories that paint a contrary picture, and deliver them as stories rather than as information. Come across as vulnerable, rather than determined. Pose a question that your story will answer. Be descriptive. And don’t be afraid to get personal. If you can reach them with a compelling tale, you’ll capture their attention with their guards down.
3. Leave the conclusion open. Some stories have clear punchlines, but punchlines work when minds are already open. So instead of offering an answer, leave them to draw conclusions for themselves. Conspiracy theories work not because they offer clear explanations; they work because they plant seeds of doubt, suggest answers, and then leave it up the person receiving the information to choose what to believe. The more work someone has to do to form an idea, the more committed they are to that idea. So, leave some things open-ended, but suggest which direction they need to look. They’ll be more attracted to a new thought if they had something to do with forming it.
About the Author
Nika Kabiri, Ph.D., is a decision science expert who helps people get real, move forward, and minimize regret. She has spent over two decades studying how people make decisions in a variety of contexts, from business to politics to relationships. She teaches decision science at the University of Washington where she obtained her Ph.D. in Sociology and is the founder and owner of Kabiri Consulting where she uses decision science principles to help her clients make the right choices. She’s also a co-author of the bestselling book Money Off the Table: Decision Science and the Secret to Smarter Investing. She is also the founder of YourNextDecision.com.
Learn more about Nika Kabiri’s thoughts and advice on decision-making at www.yournextdecision.com, and follow Nika Kabiri on Twitter (@nikakabiri) and Facebook (@kabiri.nika) for tips on how to make better choices.