Conspiracy Theories, explored by the Redcliffe Explorers
At our Redcliffe Explorers meeting in October, psychologists and counsellors Meryem and Greg Brown revealed some of the neuroscience and psychology behind belief in fake news, alternative facts, conspiracy theories, Q-Anon, anti-vaxx views, and climate denial that have become familiar to us in recent years. This led to a very illuminating discussion on the best ways to talk to a family member, friend, or colleague who’s been seduced into a totally irrational belief system. Our speakers very kindly provided the following summary of their presentation.
But first, Meryem began by posing the question: ‘What do you call the shortest distance between two points?’ Naturally most of us said (or at least thought) ‘A straight line’. She replied: ’Yes, but a few years ago I heard renowned Houston University professor and social researcher Brené Brown claim that “a conspiracy theory” also answers this question.’
Meryem and Greg then investigated ways in which this might be true, looking at neuroscience and personality characteristics to help explain why conspiracy theories meet ‘shortest distance’ needs in some people.
When a person feels under threat, our brains are wired in such a way that the first part to be activated is the limbic system, particularly the amygdala. The amygdala has one main job: to ensure our survival, usually by triggering the freeze, fight or flight response in the face of perceived threat. It is not very nuanced or sophisticated, unable to distinguish between a feeling and a fact, so it requires another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (our smart brain), to assess the actual risk and take appropriate action. Unfortunately, because this is when we may most need it, the smart brain tends to go ‘off-line’ when we are flooded with stress hormones or are sleep-deprived, thus leaving the amygdala in charge.
Covid has been described as a time of both chronic and acute stress, where the two main causes of stress – a lack of predictability and a lack of control – have become the norm. Many people have come to feel insecure and powerless. These are perfect conditions for the limbic system to be over-activated as it seeks the shortest distance to guarantee our survival. The brain is wired to see patterns and seek order in chaos when it feels under threat. Conspiracy theories meet this need, providing simple answers to complex questions, comfort and solace in patterns rather than randomness, and thereby a sense of certainty and control. This appears to be particularly the case in people who have a fear of the unknown and low trust in authority figures.
Research into early trauma and attachment style helps explain this further. Trauma – whether ‘capital T or small t’ trauma – changes the brain. The amygdala becomes over-activated, switching the brain from learning mode to permanent survival mode. Studies suggest that people who experienced early trauma – for example, betrayal, neglect or abuse by primary caregivers – develop an insecure, anxious or avoidant attachment style in order to survive. This usually results in low trust in authority figures (and perhaps even a transference of parent pain onto these figures). Politicians and scientists may then be seen through the lens of suspicion and scepticism, for the building block of trust in people who claim to be working in our best interest is missing or broken.
Some people who have an inherent mistrust of authority figures do so because they believe that truth should be a short, straight line which is set in stone. So when they hear scientists and politicians revise their advice and policies day to day – first declaring just one jab, now two needed, now a booster shot needed; masks not needed because virus not originally seen as airborne, now mandatory mask-wearing, etc. – this is interpreted as more proof of ‘the so-called experts lying to and manipulating us to rob our freedom and control us’. Rather than understanding that best practice in science demands constant re-adjustments as new data come to hand, with advice being shaped daily by the latest modelling, conspiracy theorists look at the alterations as proof of untruthing.
How do these factors of mistrust and fear of the unknown play out? We then looked at personality and conspiracy theories.
For some people, this alienation and disenfranchisement manifests as individualism: ‘I can trust no one but myself’. Research into conspiracy theorists suggests that some score high on grandiosity measures, whilst others score with very low self-esteem. The former tend to be lone-rangers or else become leaders of their cohorts; whist the latter tend to gravitate to conspiracy theory cohorts, seeking a sense of belonging and special identity (we special few Vs the sheep majority) in these tight communities.
Research also suggests that people disposed to conspiracy theories score low for agreeableness (a factor measuring trust, altruism, kindness, affection, and pro-social behaviours which make people cooperative) and score low for conscientiousness (the factor measuring levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, and goal-directed behaviours).
Studies also point to a conspiracy mindset: some people are predisposed to hold multiple conspiracy theories because of how they see themselves, the world, and their place in it. Typically, they are drawn to conspiracy theories because they tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, may need to feel special, and see the word as an inherently dangerous place.
When we see that conspiracy theories may actually serve to meet some people’s most basic needs – safety in an unsafe world; order in chaos; survival; freedom; belonging – we need to be careful of falling into ‘shortest distance’ strategies ourselves. Bombarding people with more evidence is a shortest distance approach. For many, there is a profound mistrust in the source so it is not received as ‘evidence’. For many, appealing to rational argument ignores the fact that the amygdala may be the major player. For many, there is a deep foundation of insecurity, fear and powerlessness to be considered. For some, there is a history of trauma. In the light of this, ‘shortest distance’ responses would rarely be effective or respectful.
Greg then invited us to split into small groups and explore the Do’s and Don’ts of engagement with those in our family or community who hold conspiracy theories. We concluded there was no quick fix. Rather, we reminded each other of the following rules of engagement:
- Don’t mock or ridicule, adopting a stance of moral or intellectual superiority
- Don’t assume that providing more hard data will change minds as they might be immune to ‘evidence’
- Do demonstrate curiosity and respect for their point of view
- Do share stories rather than data
- Do make it about different perceptions rather than identity
- Do encourage critical thinking
- Do seek to maintain relationship
Finally, we were reminded that in our own frustration, confusion or fear we could succumb to ‘shortest distance reactions’ ourselves, and were encouraged to bring our learning, rather than our surviving, brain to the ongoing discourse.
[Submitted by Explorers Convenor IWB – 18th November 2021]
 Greg Brown: B.Bus (HR), M.A. (App Ethics), Grad Dip Couns, Dip Past Sup.
Meryem Brown: B.A., Dip Ed, M.Ed St., Grad Dip App Sc, Dip Past Sup.