How to cure people afflicted with conspiracy theories

In the summer of 2016, I began working on a play about an addiction support group for conspiracy theorists called How To Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart. It had one public staged reading in May of 2017, then ultimately decided to turn it into a novel, which I finished and sent off to my agent on New Year's Day 2020.

At its inception, I thought it would be kind of a fun, wacky idea — a dark comedy that could also be a vessel for asking some interesting questions. Once I started seriously working on the story, however, it took a pretty dark turn (not unlike our own reality). I realized that I had set myself up for a narrative challenge: not only did each of my characters need a backstory that lead them to believe in each of their respective conspiracy theories, but I also needed to give them each some additional trauma, or a reason to seek out a support group to help them cope with their conspiracy theory. When the story begins, the group is already up-and-running, so you don't actually see the characters falling down their respective rabbit holes or blowing up their personal lives (except for one, the entry/viewpoint character who's the new guy at the meeting). Most of the damage is already done; now they're all just trying to dig out of the hole.

(There's also a shady real estate deal involving foreign-financed luxury condos and a legitimate Nigerian billionaire from a parallel reality who genuinely needs help with a cross-dimensional wire transfer; but that's all for another time.)

The initial setup I laid out for myself with this story indirectly allowed me to dodge a bullet: figuring out how to actually change these peoples' minds. I could write those scenes, sure, but I don't know how realistic they'd be; and given how deep our own reality has fallen down the rabbit hole, I'd feel like I was lying even more than most fiction writers already lie just by insisting that I might have an answer to these conspiratorial afflictions.

I don't have the answers. But it turns, there is a joint study from several university psychology departments in Budapest, Rheims, London, and Bloomington Indiana, who actually did some research into the topic. From Changing Conspiracy Beliefs Through Rationality and Ridiculing, published October 2016 (emphasis added):

Conspiracy theory (CT) beliefs can be harmful. How is it possible to reduce them effectively? Three reduction strategies were tested in an online experiment using general and well-known CT beliefs on a comprehensive randomly assigned Hungarian sample (N = 813): exposing rational counter CT arguments, ridiculing those who hold CT beliefs, and empathizing with the targets of CT beliefs. Several relevant individual differences were measured. Rational and ridiculing arguments were effective in reducing CT, whereas empathizing with the targets of CTs had no effect. Individual differences played no role in CT reduction, but the perceived intelligence and competence of the individual who conveyed the CT belief-reduction information contributed to the success of the CT belief reduction. Rational arguments targeting the link between the object of belief and its characteristics appear to be an effective tool in fighting conspiracy theory beliefs.

In other words, mockery and/or rational counter-arguments from a trusted source are more effective than good ol' fashioned empathy. That's interesting! If not a little disheartening.

Of course, this paper was published before Trump's election, before PizzaGate, before Tom DeLonge's stolen Pentagon UFO tapes, and before QAnon.

Perhaps that's why a more recent article from The New York Times presents the opposite approach, particularly in terms of QAnon Moms who may taken the well-intentioned bait of "child trafficking is bad" and then followed it down into a darker realm of demonic Deep State Democrats facing off against the super-powered righteous of Donald Jesus Trump. "If it's someone you know, talk to them privately," the article suggests, and "acknowledge when someone is not open to a discussion," both quoting from the author of The World's Worst Conspiracy Theories. A medical director dealing in vaccinations recommends that you, "Approach the subject with kindness and empathy." If it's someone you don't know personally, "respond with facts," they say.

These all sound like the instincts I've followed myself, mostly in trying to keep my family on Facebook from tipping over the edge; anecdotally, it's only ever succeeded in pissing them off even more. Perhaps I should have tried the mockery approach, as suggested by the scientists in 2016? Shame is a powerful influencer.

I don't know the answer to curing conspiracy theories. But I know the problem isn't going away any time soon. So these articles are at last somewhere to start. (And my book, which hopefully sells sooner than later.)

Changing Conspiracy Beliefs through Rationality and Ridiculing [Gábor Orosz, Péter Krekó, Benedek Paskuj, István Tóth-Király, Beáta Bőthe, and Christine Roland-Lévy / Frontiers in Psychology]

Misinformation Is 'Its Own Pandemic' Among Parents [Jessica Grose / The New York Times]

Image: Sebastian Bartoschek / Flickr (CC 2.0)