How To Rescue Someone From a Conspiracy Theory

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S1: This is probably the first time in my life when I got the sense that this was important to somebody, not because they were stupid or easily duped or paranoid. This was important to somebody because he really cared about the well-being of children and that really like, you know, affirms them. And I hadn’t really had that kind of empathy towards conspiracy theorists before that moment.

S2: You’re listening to how to. I’m Charles Duhigg. Conspiracy theories are not a new thing, but right now it sort of feels like they’re everywhere. Way more than before. It used to be that only crazy people told you that the moon landing had been faked or that 9/11 was an inside job. But these days, everyone seems to have a favorite conspiracy theory if you have a windmill anywhere near your house. Congratulations. They say the noise causes cancer. You tell me that one rare. There are these conspiracy theories like Kuhnen that are sucking in sensible, well-meaning people, even elected representatives. But what do you do when it hits close to home? Meet Matt from London.

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S3: You know, my family is one of, I’m sure, millions that are very much affected by this.

S4: In the last few years, Matt’s sister and his stepmom have started dabbling in conspiracy theories like believing that vaccines cause autism or that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. But Matt’s dad, well, he’s like a long time conspiracy connoisseur.

S5: You know, when I was 13 or 14 years old, I could listen to him wax lyrical about the Warren Commission or, you know what, the moon landings. And all evening I was fascinated. He’s a great storyteller.

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S4: Matt’s dad loved to muse about JFK being assassinated by the CIA and the Mafia and and wondering aloud if the moon landing was faked. But lately, what he’s been talking about has gotten weirder.

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S3: Yeah, I mean, he’s he’s mentioned to me a few times, you know, videos that he’s watched from the Flat Earth Society about, um, alleged evidence that the earth is flat.

S4: And this is a guy that’s got a degree in physics that says that this gap in their beliefs, it’s taken a toll on their relationship.

S6: I’ve over the years become a bit embarrassed.

S5: That probably is quite a lot of judgment in the tone of my voice or the way I talk to him sometimes around this.

S3: But there’s just been this slow, gradual distancing between him and I over the last few years. And I think the both of us have just recognized that we are seeing things very, very differently.

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S4: And has that translated into, like anything that like have your parents acted in ways that you think are wrong or that hurt you to watch?

S3: No, they haven’t. And there hasn’t been any malicious or horrible behavior. But what I would say, and I probably tread carefully a little bit on this, because nobody wants to describe their loved ones is as racist or any of that kind of language. But I’ve heard my dad talk about the Jews and very conspiratorial ways, and that just makes me feel really, really uncomfortable on today’s episode.

S7: How do you get a loved one to stop believing in a conspiracy theory? How should we intervene if it starts to sound dangerous? And when is someone so far gone that we have to let them go?

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S4: As you heard before the break, Matt grew up listening to his dad’s wild stories, but there’s this difference between believing that Area 51 is hiding aliens and agreeing with Kuhnen that pedophiles and the Democratic Party are drinking the blood of children at night. And to Matt, it feels like his dad is tipped over from, hey, that’s kind of a crazy theory you’re talking about. Do hey, that is really crazy.

S3: A lot of people that are susceptible to conspiracy theories are very careful with the kind of language that they use. And that language is often cloaked in sort of phrases like I’m just keeping an open mind. And I think what frustrated me over the years is like, well, hang on. I mean, you can open your mind too much that your brain falls out. And I guess I’m sort of looking for some. Oh, sorry. It’s hard. It it’s emotional talking about it, because I just feel so I feel so overwhelmed by it sometimes because it’s it’s just really. It’s really hard to to navigate and it’s really hard to find common ground where you are literally living in two different realities with people that you love.

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S4: This is really hard. And so we reached out to someone who’s studied how families can become divided by conspiracy theories.

S8: Yeah, you know, I mean, I just want to echo it’s really heartbreaking. And, you know, I know a lot of people who have have gone through similar things where, you know, they’re sort of seeing their loved ones slip away. And it’s it’s impossible not to feel, you know, that that sense of loss and that frustration.

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S2: Kontiki is a cultural historian who’s researched conspiracy theories. And before we talk about how to handle family members who are saying these crazy things, it’s important to understand why conspiracy theories are so attractive to some people in the first place.

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S8: After the 2016 election, you know, there was a lot of discussion about how, you know, Facebook and social media were a real driver to these things, but it’s also not the case that conspiracy theories are new to social media. You know, prior to World War Two, there were strange things in the sky all the time that people noticed. But after World War Two, 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 the strange light in the sky, you know, 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, you know, the first atomic bombs were dropped, it became clear, you know, oh, the government is actually capable of keeping very strange things utterly hidden from the public.

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S4: There’s a study that Cohen often thinks about when he’s trying to explain the tendency to see conspiracies around us in it. A group of people were shown two different images. One of them was just random squiggly lines. The other one looked similar. But there was also an image like a hat behind the squiggly lines.

S8: So you show these these two images to people and the people. They can see the hat just fine. Everybody sees that. And then you show them the other one, the one that’s just visual static. And you say, do you see anything? And some people say, no. I just see, you know, static. And other people sort of treat it like a Rorschach, like they see. I see you know, I see a dog, I see whatever, you know, and then the 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, you know, existentially. Those are the people that saw patterns where there weren’t patterns. And the conclusion the researchers came to is that this is sort of a basic kind of human behavior. You know, if you think of, you know, sort of primitive human culture, you know, you need to be able to tell, you know, when looking at the jungle or whatever, you know, what is just a leaf and what is a tiger about to eat you, you know, particularly when we’re sort of anxious or kind of, you know, feeling that things are out of control. We tend to look for patterns. And 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.

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S4: And right now, people are really craving that order. There’s a pandemic going on and a contested election and millions of people out of work. We all want to know what’s happening, what’s coming next. And Colin understands that impulse. A few years ago, he met a guy who was trying to make sense of things. It was it was after Colin had moved to upstate New York and he was starting to make new friends. And he met Eric, who had some interesting theories.

S8: He was telling me about this this website and this sort of allegations of this secret pedophile ring out of Oklahoma City that that had abducted this kid from Indiana. And 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 farfetched to me, but I like this guy. And I and I knew also that if I just wrote him back and said, you know, this is a bunch of B.S., I would lose that that chance to have a dialogue and I would, you know, possibly lose the friend in the process. And so I you know, I just kind of sat with it for a second and I thought, you know, rather than just kind of going with my gut instinct, I kind of stopped and I said, you know, what is it that I’m looking for that would make me take this seriously in a way that I’m not.

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S2: And this brings us to the first rule of how to communicate with a family member or friend who believes in a conspiracy theory before you dismiss what they’re saying is ridiculous. Just take a second. If you say this is crazy. Now, you’re probably not going to change their mind and and you’ll likely damage the relationship. So instead, ask yourself, what does this person really saying to me? Who why are they drawn to this conspiracy theory? What’s it providing to them? How can I help them find what they’re looking for in a more rational way?

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S5: I think a lot of this comes down to fear and anxiety, and my dad doesn’t have many friends of his own age, you know, he’s in his 70s and and there’s something about living in community and living in society which kind of keeps us sharp in the way that living on your own and being susceptible to Facebook and YouTube algorithms doesn’t not only do I think you’re right, I think that, you know, as conspiracies go, one of the kind of more difficult elements of, say, like a kuhnen conspiracy theory is that it offers that community that I think that sort of socially isolated people are craving in the way that you’re describing.

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S8: You know, that it exactly. It becomes as 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, you know, the Clinton pedophile ring and stuff like that. So it sort of gives them a lot of of that kind of existential meaning. And so suddenly it becomes a kind of appealing community that you can sign up for.

S9: You’re only a few clicks away from feeling like, oh, my goodness, I’m I’m part of something huge here for Callon.

S2: Once you started trying to figure out why Eric, his friend upstate, wanted these conspiracy theories to be real, it opened up a whole new understanding of who Eric was. And it offered a way for Colin and Eric to find something in common without Colin having to validate that these conspiracy theories were true.

S8: You know, my my upstate friend, he felt very strongly, and I don’t mean this negatively at all, I think this is a very positive, you know, personality trait of of this guy is that he felt very strongly about the need to protect children from abusive situations. You know, and I realized, like, OK, if I disparage this this theory that he’s advocating in a way that makes it sound like I’m disparaging his concern for these children, you know, mythical or not, I’m going to lose them, you know, because 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?

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S10: When we come back, Colin will tell us how to do that and then we’ll help Matt apply those lessons to his family. Stick with us.

S4: We’re back with our listener Matt, and are expert Colin Deqi, who’s helping Matt communicate with family members who believe in conspiracy theories. And Colin has told us that the first rule is not to dismiss a family member is completely crazy. And then he says, you should admit that sometimes conspiracies can be real.

S11: President Nixon stunned the country today by admitting that he held back evidence from the House Judiciary Committee, keeping it a secret from his lawyers and not disclosing it in public statements.

S8: The first thing I would do is say, yes, I absolutely believe that there are conspiracies, you know, Nixon and Iran-Contra. And I would just say, yeah, so I agree with you because who knows?

S12: But conspiracies, you can then point out, are actually kind of complicated to pull off. There’s certain things you expect to see if, say, Washington, D.C. pizza parlor was actually hiding a secret pedophile ring or if the Air Force was hiding aliens at Area 51.

S13: There ought to be some evidence you can point to once you start to sort of understand how actual conspiracies are unmasked, what you start to see certain commonalities once there’s a hint of a conspiracy. I mean, you know, the journalists are falling all over each other to break the story, you know, and things come out, you know? You know, 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.

S4: And then you can gently point out if the conspiracy theory your friend or family believes is real, then it ought to share some characteristics with other verified conspiracy theories. Right. That’s what Colin did with his upstate friend Eric.

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S8: What I was trying to do was amp up his own cognitive dissonance so that the the buy in for believing this got harder and harder for him. And 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. You know, like like in this case, this was a bunch of powerful people in Oklahoma City in the 1980s. And I thought, go talk to journalists in the area at the time, see what they think.

S13: You know, my favorite version of this is Bob Lazaar, the guy who first claimed that Area 51 in Nevada was where the government kept the UFOs and he claimed to work there and he claimed to have seen these aliens for the aliens, pulled out their laser guns and liquidated like forty three scientists or something like that, which is like already that’s a hard claim.

S8: But then, you know, I think responsible journalists were basically like, where are the obituaries to these dead scientists?

S13: Where are these dead scientist families, you know, protesting the veil of secrecy around their dead loved ones, you know, and fossils are 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 the alien projects so that when they get killed, nobody misses that. It’s just like so it’s like this kind of increasingly elaborate series of justifications. So with, you know, Kuhnen or whatever, it’s always a question of like, if this is a real if this is really happening, then somebody is doing this work. Right. And those are the people at the top to Woodward and Bernstein. It was you know, it was the secretaries who who told them everything.

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S5: It kind of goes back to what you said you got me thinking earlier when you were talking about challenging your friend Eric to go and do some research.

S9: And it got me thinking that, you know, a lot of conspiracy theorists pride themselves on research, as I will do the research man. I’ve done the research. Yeah, but it’s only detail that is accumulated in a way that helps to defend the theory. What they’re not good at doing, it’s getting them to think about. So how do you do the research that might challenge the theory?

S4: So here’s our next rule. Turn this instinct to be skeptical to to do your own research on its head. Try and get your friend explain why their conspiracy might be wrong. And the goal here isn’t to have them renounce their beliefs. It’s just to plant a seed of doubt so that maybe eventually they realize that they don’t have all the answers and they start to question the theory themselves once you start to think a thing might be plausible.

S1: It’s really easy to convince yourself that it is definitely true, like the amount of times when I’ve been convinced, like, you know, just the question of did I leave the oven on? Like, just asking myself that question within 30 seconds, I’m like, oh, my house has burned to the ground, you know, like, you know, like I just like, you know, you kind of get into this into this cycle where, like getting somebody out of that that feedback loop where everything seems to just be sort of biased out so that all you’re seeing are things that that back your argument, I think that is is so crucial. And again, it’s not that that’s not something that just people prone to conspiracies do, something that we all do every single day.

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S4: And it’s really hard to break out of that caller’s next step in trying to get through to his friend. Eric was writing him this really long email that kind of gently prodded him to explore the logical flaws and some of the inconsistencies in the conspiracy that he had been talking about. And then Colin did something kind of unexpected.

S1: So it took some effort on my part. But the next step was to just leave it alone. So I wrote this long email to him and then we didn’t talk about it for a while. And again, because what I did not want to do is I did not want to push him into a defensive crouch where he would double down. And so, you know, in the meantime, we’ve maintained our friendship. You know, we’re actually in a band together, sort of terrible classic rock cover band.

S8: But, you know, like so we through our conversation, I laid out enough kind of problems with how this conspiracy theory doesn’t match the historical record that it it gave him some pause, you know, and I think, you know, the best I can hope for is that just over time, this thing will now continue to look less and less like anything that is recognizable in the real world.

S2: But what if your loved one goes in the other direction? What if they get sucked further down the rabbit hole or they start believing in even more dangerous conspiracy theories like like not getting a covid vaccine because they think Bill Gates is trying to implant a tracking device in them or they start planning for an armed uprising.

S10: Don’t you have an obligation to intervene when they might harm themselves or someone else? Yeah, that’s a that’s a real tough one, because for me, I always think in terms of like strategy and tactics.

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S1: And I think I think, yes, you have to push back on this. You have to vaccinate your kids. You have to wear a mask. These are not things that are really up for debate. You know, the the Jews are not controlling the world. You know, there are certain things where you just have to put your foot down when you. Sort of engage with somebody philosophically on an opinion that, you know, 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.

S9: You put that really, really well. And there are some lines in the sand where I just don’t I just don’t want to go. One of the reasons I don’t want to engage with that is if I slip up or falter at any point, you my facts or my figures or my dates don’t add up, then it’s like I’ve set myself up whereby I could quote unquote, lose that argument. And actually, in doing so, validate, you know, some really, really horrible, insidious views.

S10: This is our last rule if something is really out of bounds and not up for debate. Then don’t debate it, and if the person you’re talking to can’t respect that, then you may have to make a hard choice about whether you keep the relationship or not. But if it’s not that dire, if there’s a chance that you might help them escape this conspiracy theory, then lean into your own experiences, talk about what you know firsthand to be true for math, that means talking about the work that he personally has done with government officials and business executives.

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S14: I’ve been lucky enough to work with very senior parliamentarians in the UK, government ministers, I’ve worked with, you know, CEOs and captains of industry. And I think one of the things I’ve found difficult with my family is, is, is to sort of say, look, guys, I’m not doubting for a minute that conspiracy’s with a small C don’t happen. You know, it’s human nature that governments and even businesses will conspire and do bad stuff. But the people that run for office, the people that run businesses, you know, 90 percent of them are just ordinary people like you and I, you know.

S4: Well, Matt, let me ask you, what do you think your dad would say if you said that to him, if you said, but I’ve spent my life trying to help make government better. And when you when you say that, like, all government is bad or that they lie to us all the time. It’s actually me you’re talking about, and it hurts me to hear you say that. What do you think your dad would say?

S6: Yeah, it’s quite it’s quite moving to hear you put it in those words, Charles, because I think that.

S9: I think that kind of goes to the heart of why I find some of this so hurtful, because it’s very, very difficult for someone like me not to take that personally, because those are people that I consider friends and colleagues. And I know that in the overwhelming majority of cases, they are motivated by values and principles of public service. And yet the conspiratorial worldview is so fueled and powered by a deep suspicion and almost like a vandalism.

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S6: And to see them sort of just being brushed aside, I find I find really offensive.

S4: Have you ever said that to your dad about the work that you do? And now what do you how do you think he would respond if you did say that to him?

S6: You know, I think he’d probably be quite receptive to it, to be honest, I think he probably would. I think he’d probably hear me because. I know that he really respects me and I know that he loves me to bits and I know that he’s a good guy. Yeah, I’ve never had that conversation with him. And maybe maybe that’s something for me to think about.

S4: And I got to imagine that it is going to change your dad, right? I mean, maybe not overnight. Maybe he’s not going to say, you know what, Matt, you’re right. I was wrong about all those things. But I do think that if you have that relationship with him and you guys are talking about this stuff, that there’s going to be some point at which he’s about to say, yeah, the governments are wrong and some voice in his head is going to say, except my kid.

S9: It’s really interesting, actually, of goes back to what Colin was saying earlier about, you know, I’ve got to say, I’m really impressed with Colin spending the time to write a 6000 word email to a friend. I mean, that that is a good friend.

S14: I’ve got to say, for four or or there’s some sort of pathological obsessive compulsive disorder, there may be a bit of both, right? Maybe. Maybe a bit of both. But, you know, that to me is a really loving gesture.

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S15: And it just as you were speaking, Charles, I was thinking actually, what would it be like if I could get to a point where I could occasionally say to that, hey, dad, just a quick note. Go back to what we were saying the other day. Here’s a couple of things that might be worth having a look at. You know, and actually, I think he would enjoy that back and forth as well. And I think we could probably do that in quite a loving and respectful way.

S12: Thank you to Matt for sharing your story with us and to Colin Dickey for all of his great advice. You should definitely look for his book, The Unidentified Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters and Our Obsession with the Unexplained and is a quick update.

S4: Mazzone He took some of the ideas and put them to use.

S9: The other day I got an email from my stepmom and heard my dad are obviously very, very close and they kind of like two peas in a pod. So it was kind of like getting an e-mail from both her and my dad.

S16: And it was lovely. And, you know, she heard what I was saying. But what got my attention the most was she said it was just so good to hear from you. And I think that’s what lingered in my mind, wasn’t so much that we’d kind of agreed to a truce for now, but it was just the fact that she said it was just so good to hear from you. So, yeah. Solidarity from London.

S17: Cheers, guys.

S12: That’s great to hear, Matt, and I hope conversation at the holidays is a little bit easier this year.

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S17: Are you hearing voices at night or is there anything else we can help you with?

S12: If so, you should send us a note of how to add Slate dot com or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And we might have you on the show. How TOS executive producer is Terry Jon, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show and Marc Jacobs, our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of Audio. Special thanks to Sung Park. I’m Charles Duhigg, and I’m going to put my tinfoil hat back on now and hopefully see you next week unless the aliens get me.