How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend

Why do peo­ple pledge alle­giance to views that seem fun­da­men­tal­ly hos­tile to real­i­ty? Maybe believ­ers in shad­owy, evil forces and secret cabals fall prey to moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing. Truth for them is what they need to believe in order to get what they want. Their cer­tain­ty in the just­ness of a cause can feel as com­fort­ing as a warm blan­ket on a winter’s night. But con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries go far­ther than pri­vate delu­sions of grandeur. They have spilled into the streets, into the halls of the U.S. Capi­tol build­ing and var­i­ous state­hous­es. Con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries about a “stolen” 2020 elec­tion are out for blood.

As dis­tress­ing as such recent pub­lic spec­ta­cles seem at present, they hard­ly come near the harm accom­plished by pro­pa­gan­da like Plan­dem­ic—a short film that claims the COVID-19 cri­sis is a sin­is­ter plot—part of a wave of dis­in­for­ma­tion that has sent infec­tion and death rates soar­ing into the hun­dreds of thou­sands.

We may nev­er know the num­bers of peo­ple who have infect­ed oth­ers by refus­ing to take pre­cau­tions for them­selves, but we do know that the num­ber of peo­ple in the U.S. who believe con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries is alarm­ing­ly high.

A Pew Research sur­vey of adults in the U.S. “found that 36% thought that these con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries” about the elec­tion and the pan­dem­ic “were prob­a­bly or def­i­nite­ly true,” Tanya Basu writes at the MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Review. “Per­haps some of these peo­ple are your fam­i­ly, your friends, your neigh­bors.” Maybe you are con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist your­self. After all, “it’s very human and nor­mal to believe in con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries…. No one is above [them]—not even you.” We all resist facts, as Cass Sun­stein (author of Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ries and Oth­er Dan­ger­ous Ideas) says in the Vox video above, that con­tra­dict cher­ished beliefs and the com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple who hold them.

So how do we dis­tin­guish between real­i­ty-based views and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries if we’re all so prone to the lat­ter? Stan­dards of log­i­cal rea­son­ing and evi­dence still help sep­a­rate truth from false­hood in lab­o­ra­to­ries. When it comes to the human mind, emo­tions are just as impor­tant as data. “Con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries make peo­ple feel as though they have some sort of con­trol over the world,” says Daniel Romer, a psy­chol­o­gist and research direc­tor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania’s Annen­berg Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Cen­ter. They’re air­tight, as Wired shows below, and it can be use­less to argue.

Basu spoke with experts like Romer and the mod­er­a­tors of Reddit’s r/ChangeMyView com­mu­ni­ty to find out how to approach oth­ers who hold beliefs that cause harm and have no basis in fact. The con­sen­sus rec­om­mends pro­ceed­ing with kind­ness, find­ing some com­mon ground, and apply­ing a degree of restraint, which includes drop­ping or paus­ing the con­ver­sa­tion if things get heat­ed. We need to rec­og­nize com­pet­ing moti­va­tions: “some peo­ple don’t want to change, no mat­ter the facts.”

Unreg­u­lat­ed emo­tions can and do under­mine our abil­i­ty to rea­son all the time. We can­not ignore or dis­miss them; they can be clear indi­ca­tions some­thing has gone wrong with our think­ing and per­haps with our men­tal and phys­i­cal health. We are all sub­ject­ed, though not equal­ly, to incred­i­ble amounts of height­ened stress under our cur­rent con­di­tions, which allows bad actors like the still-cur­rent U.S. Pres­i­dent to more eas­i­ly exploit uni­ver­sal human vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and “weaponize moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing,” as Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine social psy­chol­o­gist Peter Dit­to observes.

To help counter these ten­den­cies in some small way, we present the resources above. In Bill Nye’s Big Think answer to a video ques­tion from a view­er named Daniel, the long­time sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor talks about the dis­com­fort of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. “The way to over­come that,” he says, is with the atti­tude, “we’re all in this togeth­er. Let’s learn about this togeth­er.”

We can per­haps best approach those who embrace harm­ful con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries by not imme­di­ate­ly telling them that we know more than they do. It’s a con­ver­sa­tion that requires some intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty and acknowl­edge­ment that change is hard and it feels real­ly scary not to know what’s going on. Below, see an abridged ver­sion of MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Review’s ten tips for rea­son­ing with a con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist, and read Basu’s full arti­cle here.

  1. Always, always speak respect­ful­ly: “With­out respect, com­pas­sion, and empa­thy, no one will open their mind or heart to you. No one will lis­ten.”
  2. Go pri­vate: Using direct mes­sages when online “pre­vents dis­cus­sion from get­ting embar­rass­ing for the poster, and it implies a gen­uine com­pas­sion and inter­est in con­ver­sa­tion rather than a desire for pub­lic sham­ing.”
  3. Test the waters first: “You can ask what it would take to change their mind, and if they say they will nev­er change their mind, then you should take them at their word and not both­er engag­ing.”
  4. Agree: “Con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries often fea­ture ele­ments that every­one can agree on.”
  5. Try the “truth sand­wich”: “Use the fact-fal­la­cy-fact approach, a method first pro­posed by lin­guist George Lakoff.”
  6. Or use the Socrat­ic method: This “chal­lenges peo­ple to come up with sources and defend their posi­tion them­selves.”
  7. Be very care­ful with loved ones: “Bit­ing your tongue and pick­ing your bat­tles can help your men­tal health.”
  8. Real­ize that some peo­ple don’t want to change, no mat­ter the facts.
  9. If it gets bad, stop: “One r/ChangeMyView mod­er­a­tor sug­gest­ed ‘IRL calm­ing down’: shut­ting off your phone or com­put­er and going for a walk.”
  10. Every lit­tle bit helps. “One con­ver­sa­tion will prob­a­bly not change a person’s mind, and that’s okay.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Con­stant­ly Wrong: Film­mak­er Kir­by Fer­gu­son Makes the Case Against Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ries

Neil Arm­strong Sets Straight an Inter­net Truther Who Accused Him of Fak­ing the Moon Land­ing (2000)

Michio Kaku & Noam Chom­sky School Moon Land­ing and 9/11 Con­spir­a­cy The­o­rists

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • WW says:

    That’s all great, but what do you do when they’re ulti­mate­ly cor­rect? There are many mind-bog­gling things hap­pen­ing today, that if some­one pre­dict­ed it even 25 years ago, you’d call them “crazy” for even sug­gest­ing it!

  • Ray Collins says:

    WW, the answer for Closed Cul­ture is: Deny it. What­ev­er the socialist/statist/evolutionist posi­tion is, “Open Cul­ture” takes it and pre­tends there is no oth­er, except for those prop­a­gat­ed by those they pre­tend are lunatics/conspiracy theorists/fascists, etc. They’re not even aware that the term “con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist” itself was dreamed up decades ago to label any­one who acknowl­edges real­i­ty, but dis­agrees with the gov­ern­ment line.

  • Mark Ostrom says:

    I can­not watch the first video because of the EXTREME OFFENSIVE images and sound bytes it con­tains. Any think­ing per­son has already seen these ‘bits’ and to have them forced on my eyes again I will not abide. Oth­er­wise, great infor­ma­tion. Ter­ri­fy­ing, but great.

  • joel says:

    When I was grow­ing up, adults would tell me how the world is. As I got old­er I start­ed using my own brain and lim­it­ed expe­ri­ences to fig­ure the world out. In my late teens I ques­tioned every­thing, stub­born­ly, yes, but by then I knew what was right and wrong. Back then if you told me to not ask ques­tions, I would think that was fishy. These days are no dif­fer­ent except that my life expe­ri­ences are far less lim­it­ed. If you tell me, or any­one, to shut up and not ask ques­tions, most peo­ple think you’re hid­ing some­thing. Call­ing some­one a con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist is no dif­fer­ent. This arti­cle’s exis­tence proves that. Ask ques­tions! If they prove unfruit­ful then at least you know.

  • Honey Bees says:

    Gen­der dif­fer­ences are by no means an inven­tion that arose at some point. These are build­ing blocks of human civ­i­liza­tion as well as a source of great plea­sure. mys­tery and beau­ty. In many ways, they make you want to live. Destroy them and we will lose alot. Prob­a­bly every­thing

  • Chris says:

    You can’t change their minds. It’s like talk­ing to a wall, and they are con­stant­ly chang­ing their goal­posts to argue their point. If you think you have them, they come back at you and change the angle argu­ing anoth­er view­point, and they keep pound­ing half truth out of con­text points that you’ve nev­er heard of into you. Many peo­ple are fal­ter­ing, and falling vic­tim to this mis­in­for­ma­tion, many thanks to the inter­net.
    The world was a more sta­ble fact-full place in the past. Now the world is full of peo­ple who believe in too much mis-infor­ma­tion. Per­son­al­ly I think soci­ety will fall apart because too many peo­ple believe every­one has to be “hid­ing” some­thing.

  • Meditatewithfernando says:

    All my life, friends and fam­i­ly have told me that my voice is very sooth­ing. Sev­er­al years ago, a shaman and vocal­ist friend encour­aged me to cre­ate guid­ed med­i­ta­tions, and that’s how I got start­ed. Since then, I began to devel­op them, inspired and chan­neled through my Spir­it Guides. I have been hon­ored to host guid­ed events in the Unit­ed States and Spain.

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