This was the column I wrote for the Free Lance-Star on Sunday November 29th - except my opening paragraph said the guy thinking poison gas was being pumped over the fence by the neighbor was "bat-shit crazy." But I guess we have to respect the sensitivity of the FLS readers.
I had a patient once. He thought the neighbors were pumping poison gas over the fence. Everyone just accepted that he was bat-shit crazy and didn’t take too much notice of his claims.
But now people claiming conspiracies seems have come a bit of a fashion. Conspiracies are being spread at the highest levels, by people in positions where their claims can reach – and seemingly be believed - by a large swath of the population.
Some of these are truly fantastic. I have trouble understanding how someone can seriously believe, as QAnon does, that there is an international cabal of Satan worshiping pedophiles run by the leaders of the Democratic party. That Hilary Clinton and Obama are planning a coup. That the spread of corona virus is caused by the 5G network. That COVID-19 doesn’t exist. That 9/11 was sponsored by the US government. That Sandy Hook was contrived to promote gun control.
Or more topical, that wearing a mask causes you to be sick, rather than protecting you. Or that the election was influenced by 2.7 million votes being stolen or that there were “huge bags” of ballots that were not counted – or at least not without some more objective evidence than Giuliani claiming it.
Making of a Conspirator
So, I am prompted to wonder about the mindset of people who can believe if not exactly “an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret” as the dictionary defines a conspiracy. But at least who have “a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual facts” as the psychiatrists define it.
The psychological literature notes that conspiracy believers tend to be distrustful, uncooperative. They reject authority and movements are grounded in a revolt against “elites and experts” notes Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, Joseph M. Pierre MD, Writing for Psychology Today,
They tend to be loners and believe they are in possession of secret information, which makes them special and important.
A paper on the American Psychological Associations site Psychnet also notes “narcissism, or a grandiose idea of self, is positively related to belief in conspiracy” which has a slightly familiar ring. And these people have a “teleologic bias” – meaning they think things happen for a reason. They are part of some grand plan - which “brings a comforting certainty and closure.”
My observation is there is a tendency to not be well informed about the science of things like immunizations that they are opposing. As well as an anti-science bias in general.
There also seems a somewhat paranoid belief in government overreach, or a belief in some nebulous “they” or “them,” - like The Deep State, or The Great Reset – that is is going to screw them over.
Many people, but conspirators especially, tend to have a “confirmation bias” meaning they look for and believe, information that fits with their particular biases – and conveniently overlook evidence that doesn’t.
What source of information a person reads/listens to/watches is highly influential. There’s a world of difference in what belief gets reinforced if you watch Fox News versus CNN.
People go with the source they agree with, and think the sources of people who don’t agree is tainted or “fake news.” And/or all the people out there that don’t believe the crazy ideas is because others are just naïve.
And of course, you can get reinforcement of the craziest, most far-out ideas on the Internet. As you know, anyone can post anything, fact based or not.
And hooking up on the Internet with people with the same beliefs gives conspirators a sense of belonging.
Even though some claim the propagation of these conspiratorial ideas, if not to be totally believed, at least will inject enough confusion and distrust that, for example, people will not think Biden is the legitimate president.
The inclination when dealing with someone whose beliefs you think are just crazy, is to tell them that they’re off their trolly, and beat them around the head with evidence. But, as the psychological take on conspiracy notes, such people are “resistant to reason or confrontation with actual facts”
Dr. Pierre advises, if we want to change “cognitive distortion” we need to deal with them as in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. We should “first listen empathetically with a goal of understanding.”
When there’s someone you want to shake by the lapels and ask “what the hell’s wrong with you?” it is a far less satisfying to placidly hear them out. But as all the talking heads are telling us there’s an awful lot of reconciliation and peace making needed now in our highly partisan society.
A need to go with what will re-unify the country rather than what will give us righteous satisfaction.H