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QAnon seems to be everywhere these days—perhaps the trendy conspiracy theory even made an appearance at your family Thanksgiving Zoom. How can you talk with loved ones who seem to live in a different reality than you do? For Matt, our listener in London, it’s been difficult to maintain a relationship with his conspiracy-obsessed father. On a recent episode of How To!, we brought on Colin Dickey, cultural historian and author of The Unidentified, to help Matt find a new way to communicate with his dad. It may be counterintuitive but the most important thing, Colin says, is to not dismiss the conspiracy theory outright. Instead, consider the void in their life that this alternate reality may be filling, and start the conversation there. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: So tell me about your dad’s relationship with conspiracy theories.
Matt: Well, when I was 13 or 14 years old, I could listen to him wax lyrical about the Warren Commission or the moon landings. I was fascinated because he’s a great storyteller. But now, I mean, he’s even mentioned to me a few times videos that he’s watched from the Flat Earth Society about alleged evidence that the earth is flat—and my dad has a degree in physics.
Over the years I’ve become a bit embarrassed. There probably is quite a lot of judgment in the tone of my voice or the way I talk to him sometimes around this. And there’s just been this slow, gradual distancing between him and I over the last few years. And we’ve managed to avoid a direct conversation about QAnon, but I think both of us have just recognized that we are seeing things very, very differently. A lot of people that are susceptible to conspiracy theories are very careful with the kind of language that they use. That language is often cloaked in sort of phrases like, “I’m just keeping an open mind, you know?” What frustrated me over the years is like, “Well, hang on, you can open your mind too much that your brain falls out.” It’s emotional talking about it because I just feel so overwhelmed sometimes. It’s really hard to navigate and to find common ground with people that you love when you are literally living in two different realities.
Colin Dickey: Yeah, it’s really heartbreaking. I know a lot of people who have gone through similar things where they’re sort of seeing their loved ones slip away and it’s impossible not to feel that sense of loss and frustration.
Charles: Colin, before we get into some practical advice, could you contextualize why conspiracy theories might be so popular right now?
Well, after the 2016 election there was a lot of discussion about how Facebook and social media were a real driver of these things. But it’s not the case that conspiracy theories are new to social media. At the beginning of the Cold War, the Air Force took it upon themselves to investigate UFO sightings and so any time anybody reported seeing a strange light in the sky, the Air Force would show up. They’d do an interview and they decide, well, it’s probably Venus or something like that. But almost immediately people began to worry that the government knew more than they were letting on. And I think a lot of this had to do with the Manhattan Project, too, because after the first atomic bombs were dropped, it became clear that the government is actually capable of keeping very strange things utterly hidden from the public.
There was a study that was done about 12 years ago. The researcher showed a group of people two different images—one was just a bunch of squiggly lines. The other was also random lines everywhere, but there was a pattern of a hat behind it. So you show these two images to people. People can see the hat just fine. Then, you show them the one that’s just visual static and ask if you see anything. Some people say, no, I just see static while other people treat it like a Rorschach— “I see a dog, I see whatever.” The researchers then correlated that with people’s mental states and the people who felt anxiety or a sense of lack of control in their lives, either financially or romantically or existentially, those are the people that saw patterns where there weren’t patterns. The conclusion the researchers came to is that this is a basic human behavior: If you think of primitive human culture, you need to be able to tell when looking at the jungle or whatever, what is just a leaf and what is a tiger. Particularly when we’re feeling that things are out of control, we tend to look for patterns and so one of the things I think about conspiracy theories and why they’re so durable is because they provide this perverse sense of order to the world.
Charles: And so with that in mind, how do we approach talking with our friends and family who may be particularly prone to believing in conspiracy theories?
Colin: So when I moved to upstate New York about four years ago, I met this guy who was just a solid Rush Limbaugh listener every day. And he would tell me about this website and allegations of a secret pedophile ring out of Oklahoma City that had abducted this kid from Indiana. One day he just sent me a link to the website and he said, “What do you think?” And I read it. And I thought, well, this seems really far-fetched to me, but I like this guy. I knew that if I just wrote him back and said, “This is a bunch of B.S.” I would lose that chance to have a dialogue and possibly lose the friend in the process. So I just kind of sat with it for a second and I thought rather than just kind of going with my gut instinct, I said, “What is it that I’m looking for that would make me take this seriously in a way that I’m not?”
As conspiracies go, one of the more difficult elements of, say, like a QAnon conspiracy theory is that it offers that community that I think socially-isolated people are craving in the way that you’re describing. It becomes a positive feedback loop where people do start to build a community and they start to think, “Well, not only am I doing this good detective work, I’m saving children from the clutches of the Clinton pedophile ring.” It gives them a lot of that kind of existential meaning, and so suddenly it becomes a kind of appealing community that you can sign up for.
Matt: Yeah for my dad, I think a lot of this comes down to fear and anxiety. He doesn’t have many friends of his own age. He’s in his 70s and there’s something about living in a community and society which keeps us sharp in the way that living on your own and being susceptible to Facebook and YouTube algorithms doesn’t.
Colin: Exactly. Also, for my upstate friend, he felt very strongly—and I don’t mean this negatively at all—about the need to protect children from abusive situations. I realized if I disparage this theory that he’s advocating in a way that makes it sound like I’m disparaging his concern for these children—mythical or not—I’m going to lose him. I have to figure out a way to validate his sense that he is looking out for kids who might be in distress, and I have to figure out how to validate that without validating the theory that comes with it. Like, how do you cut out the tumor while leaving the good tissue all around it intact?
Charles: So what’s the first thing you did?
Colin: The first thing I would do is say, “Yes, I absolutely believe that there are conspiracies.” You know, Nixon and Iran-Contra. So I agree, because who knows? But once you start to understand how actual conspiracies are unmasked you start to see certain commonalities. Once there’s a hint of a conspiracy, the journalists are falling all over each other to break the story. Things come out. The Boston Globe broke the Spotlight story about the Catholic Church in January and I think that Cardinal Law had resigned by November of that year.
[So by pointing this out] what I was trying to do was amp up my friend’s own cognitive dissonance so that the buy-in for believing this got harder and harder for him. I even went so far as to say, “If it is true and you wanted to blow the lid off of it, here’s where I would look.” In this case, this was a bunch of powerful people in Oklahoma City in the 1980s. I said, “Go talk to journalists in the area at the time, see what they think.”
My favorite version of this is Bob Lazar, the guy who first claimed that Area 51 in Nevada was where the government kept the UFOs. Lazar claimed to work there and to have seen these aliens, where the aliens pulled out their laser guns and liquidated like 43 scientists or something like that. Responsible journalists were basically like, “Where are the obituaries to these dead scientists? Where are these dead scientist families protesting the veil of secrecy around their dead loved ones?” Lazar had to come back and say the government goes around to orphanages all around the country and finds young children who have no family, and then they raise them up to be scientists who work on these alien projects so that when they get killed, nobody misses them. There’s this kind of increasingly elaborate series of justifications.
Matt: This goes back to the idea that a lot of conspiracy theorists pride themselves on research. But that research is accumulated in a way that helps to defend the theory. [So what I’d want to urge my dad to think about is] how do you do the research that might challenge the theory?
Colin: Yes, and once you start to think a thing might be plausible, it’s really easy to convince yourself that it is definitely true. Like the amount of times when I’ve been convinced, “Did I leave the oven on?” Just asking myself that question within 30 seconds, I’m like, “Oh, my house is burned to the ground.” Getting somebody out of that feedback loop where everything seems to just be sort of biased so that all you’re seeing are things that backing your argument is so crucial. And it’s not something that only people who are prone to conspiracies do—it’s something that we all do every single day.
Charles: But what about people who believe in conspiracy theories that are dangerous, like that you shouldn’t wear masks or get vaccines. Do we have an obligation to be more judgmental with those folks to try and actually convince them that they’re wrong?
Colin: Yeah, that’s a real tough one. I think you have to push back on this. You have to vaccinate your kids. You have to wear a mask. There are certain things where you just have to put your foot down. When you engage with somebody philosophically about an opinion that is wrong because you hope to change their mind, one of the things that you’re saying is “I believe this conversation is up for debate.” And I think that there are certain things that you just have to say, “This is not up for debate.”
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To hear the rest of Colin’s tips for coaxing someone out of believing a conspiracy theory, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.