Facts do not matter when confronting hardcore conspiracy theory believers. Facts will not have the silver bullet effect that we want them to, and if they did work, we wouldn’t have conspiracy theorists to deal with in the first place. What matters instead is the motivation present in the believer. If that motivation can be exposed, then it’s much more likely that the person can be convinced to abandon the conspiracy theory belief altogether (it’s not very likely, just more likely).
The first thing we should keep in mind is that it is very rare that a person is raised in an environment that pushes conspiracy theory belief… though in the very youngest of us presently this may become a more common phenomenon. Keeping that in mind, we should recognise that something brought people to conspiratorial beliefs. The literature argues that the most common cause presently is mere exposure to conspiracy theories which, until the last few decades, was an uncommon occurrence. Thorson argues that exposure, even to debunk a conspiracy theory, helps spread them – which makes sense because we typically share the thing we are taking apart. Yet this exposure doesn’t compel someone to believe, something else gets people to click those links. That motivation is the key.
Sociological and psychological literature has identified a few of these motivations. For this article, I would just like to concentrate on one motivation – the need to feel unique or superior to the rest of the crowd. This motivation is one of those that seem obvious once it is pointed out. It’s the type of motivation that first galvanized anti-vaxxers fifteen years ago. It’s the type of motivation that allows a flat earther to condescend to us regular folk. It’s what permits the Health Ranger to call the rest of us “sheeple.” They are the special, the unique, they have seen through the veil, and thus should be regarded as more intelligent than the conspirators they seek to unmask. I’m being a bit simplistic – anti-vaxxers are also motivated by the fear of the unknown and a misinformed alt-med worldview – but this need to feel special is a primary motivation when it comes to attaching a personality to conspiratorial belief.
Two separate articles both identified this motivation in 2017: “I Know Things that They Don’t Know” (Lantian et. al) and “Too Special to be Duped” (Imhoff and Lamberty). Both of these publications conclude that the desire to feel more unique than the general public has a discrete impact on the beliefs that an individual will hold. They also explain why they will continue to hold those beliefs despite the presentation of evidence that counters their position.
These studies are not, of course, without their limitations; the biggest being that they are based on self-reporting. Self-reporting is problematic because it’s inherently subjective, and as another writer has pointed out regarding placebos, it can create false conclusions about an objective phenomenon. However, there is also no other way to measure this, short of some science fiction brain scan. Even though conspiracy theorists believe fantastic things, we have to take their word for it when they tell us why they believe what they believe.
That disclaimer aside, this research is important for a few reasons. The first, as stated above, is that understanding the motivations of conspiracy theorists should be a primary step if we are going to combat the phenomenon. It is an unfortunate fact that an extremist may never have been radicalised if only they had stumbled into an online forum debate over which actor was a better Doctor instead of a forum where the central argument was about whether or not Immigrants or the Jews were the real problems. That individual has staked their position to feel part of something, but also to feel distinct from the general public.
The second reason this is important is that it tells us that the attachment isn’t rational, it is emotional. As Lantian et. al writes:
the converging evidence presented in this paper demonstrates that believing in conspiracy theories may be a way to satisfy one’s need for uniqueness.
The paper goes on to observe that conspiratorial attachment will be stronger in those that feel uniqueness is an important trait. Imhoff and Lamberty argue:
Conspiracy theories seem to hold the promise of being a set of political attitudes that guarantees that one will be seen as having an independent, if not necessarily accurate, mind.
The important conclusion we should be reaching is that when we attack a conspiracy theory, we aren’t just attacking what someone believes, but are attacking the person themselves. It explains the defensiveness and anger with which conspiracists respond to challenges. This isn’t like trying to claim that the MCU isn’t “real cinema”, because there aren’t many of us that have built our personalities around the Marvel movies. When we challenge conspiracy believers, we are not only saying that thing they believe is false, but that they are also just as plain and normal as the rest of us.
Finally, and I think most importantly when it comes to confronting conspiracy theories, the appeal is in their unpopularity with both the general public and the official authorities. The more unpopular the belief amongst the general public, the more it satisfies that need, and the stronger the attachment to the belief. Similarly with opposition from the authorities. This explains the failure of the U.S. government to convince an already conspiratorial right-wing base to wear a mask and get vaccinated. Since the same individuals already reject the legitimacy of the authority to begin with, the pleadings from those authorities are not just falling on deaf ears, they are actively strengthening the opposition to those pleadings.
Going forward we must recognise that these beliefs are part of the individuals’ personality – whether that is as their own distinct identity or as a group identity (even these publications appreciate that irony). It could be beneficial to point these individuals in a more constructive direction. They can still be unique; they can just be unique in a better direction. We, as skeptics, should remember that these people represent a loss of effort, intelligence, and creativity toward something productive.