“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
In these polarized times, one of the laments I hear a lot from readers and friends is that people they are close to have fallen prey to conspiracy theories. This is strikingly common; after all, some scholars estimate that, in recent years, half of Americans endorsed at least one such belief.
Perhaps you are cringing as you look toward Thanksgiving, when someone you love will explain the truth about the midterm elections, or the real origins of the coronavirus. It can be very upsetting to hear a friend or family member say things that seem to you like obvious, falsifiable nonsense—it can feel almost as if they had joined a cult.
Perhaps in the past you have tried to meet these beliefs with evidence and reason. Maybe you lost your patience and resorted to derision and mockery. Most likely, you made no progress and only strained your relationship. Fighting over the facts is very unlikely to convince anyone. The truth is that, often, the substance of conspiracy theories—the actual claims they make—isn’t why people cling to them so tightly. In some ways, these beliefs can make people happier. To those who hold them, they may bring a sense of belonging, control, and even entertainment. Understanding this can help you meet their views in a more compassionate and persuasive way.
A conspiracy theory is the belief that powerful people have conspired to achieve a particular circumstance or event, and have done so in a covert way. Those who believe these theories often have what psychologists call a “conspiracy mentality,” or a general tendency to suspect that powerful people are acting in hidden ways.
A big mistake we make in confronting conspiracy theories is assuming they provide nothing but harm to those who hold them. In fact, a tendency toward these beliefs may be wired into us, because they could have been helpful to our survival at times. For example, some scholars have theorized that true conspiracies by hostile forces in past times—before modern institutions such as civil rights and police protections—could be so deadly that it was better to be safe than sorry by embracing a paranoid idea that might well be false.
Conspiracy beliefs can also bring tangible benefits for well-being. For example, they can provide a sense of control in a chaotic world. Research has shown that people who feel they have little control over their lives are more likely to hold superstitions (for example, that the number 13 is unlucky), see spurious correlations (in, say, the stock market), and believe in conspiracies. Similarly, people with a need to feel unique and special may gravitate toward unusual beliefs, such as conspiracies, held by a minority of people.
These beliefs can also provide a sense of community, as Kelly Weill wrote earlier this year in The Atlantic in an article about people who believe in a flat Earth. Even though conspiracy theories can drive a wedge between those who believe them and their friends and family who don’t, at the same time, these unpopular views can create a sense of kinship among people who hold them—sort of like unpopular tastes or esoteric knowledge. For more than a century among some social scientists, this has been called the “sociology of secret societies.” (Come to think of it, with our specialized language and technical toolkit, we social scientists might be considered an example of just such a society, although hopefully not a conspiratorial one.)
Plus, conspiracy theories can be, well, fun. Think of all the movies you’ve enjoyed where the hero has to get to the bottom of something that powerful, bad people are secretly doing. People find conspiracies entertaining in real life too. In a paper published this year in the British Journal of Psychology, researchers described experiments in which people were offered both conspiratorial and non-conspiratorial explanations for big events, such as the Notre Dame fire. The former explanations were rated as more entertaining and elicited stronger emotions than the latter. Conspiracy theories are where current events meet entertainment; it’s easy to see why they are such good business on cable television and social media.
Understanding the benefits that conspiracy beliefs give to their adherents doesn’t mean ignoring or minimizing the danger they can sometimes bring in terms of radicalization, prejudice, or even violence. If someone you know and love entertains conspiracy theories, it’s reasonable to be concerned about these threats. Or maybe it just feels undignified to see someone you love falling prey to ideas that seem to you not just incorrect but preposterous. But to comprehend why they hold these beliefs can make you more empathetic and thus more effective in dealing with them.
Keeping in mind the benefits that conspiracy theories bring, here is a two-step plan—starting with the behavior to resist, and then what to do instead—to help someone change course (or at least to help change the subject and protect your relationship).
1. Resist the urge to debunk.
I remember arguing with a colleague years ago about what I considered a patently absurd conspiracy in our workplace. It felt like every way I showed that his theory was ridiculous simply hardened his resolve. In the end, he said, “The more you say I’m wrong, the more I believe I’m right.” I figured he was just closed-minded, but then I encountered the work of the psychologist Rob Brotherton, the author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. Brotherton writes about the so-called backfire effect, where a person who believes conspiratorial views holds them more strongly in the face of alternate explanations or refuting evidence. Debunking is often a doomed venture.
2. Focus instead on what you have in common.
Maybe you can remember the experience of leaving home for the first time, feeling alone and insecure. Imagine that in this vulnerable state you fell in with a group of people who made you feel better—less alone. They had views very different from those of your family and old friends, a difference you saw starkly when you went back home. If your family attacked your new way of thinking, they would in effect be attacking the one thing that had made life tolerable for you during a lonely time. Homecoming would have been much sweeter if they’d simply welcomed you back and focused on the things you still had in common, right?
Do the same with your loved ones who hold odd or incorrect beliefs. Talk about your shared loves and cherished memories, not the things you disagree on. Do things together that you used to enjoy, and go back to your old corny inside jokes. At the very least, this will make the time at hand easier, and it might just create a line back to reality for your loved one, if and when they’re ready for it.
One last point worth considering is the costs and benefits to you of focusing on a loved one’s conspiracy beliefs. Something that astonishes me about humans is our capacity to ruin things we love by focusing exclusively on what we hate. I understand this from an evolutionary perspective, of course: Survival often requires attention to the speck of threat in a vast space of comfort. I also understand it from a practical perspective: It is terrible to see someone you love in the grip of something you consider insane or even dangerous.
But that tendency is woefully maladapted at Thanksgiving dinner when we insist on drilling into Aunt Marge’s weird views on fluoride instead of focusing on the warmth and goodness of being together as a family. Sometimes, the problem with conspiracy theories isn’t that others hold them, but that we focus on them alone, making things unnecessarily unpleasant. When you think about it carefully, you might just conclude that being right is less valuable than enjoying some love in your life.