Chances are we all know someone – a family member, a friend, a classmate, or a co-worker – who believes in conspiracy theories. In fact, more than half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, according to a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Chicago. That means those of us who don’t believe in any conspiracy theories are actually in the minority.
But some conspiracy theories are more dangerous than others. We may shake our heads at the misguided notions of some relative who believes the government is covering up proof of UFOs, but it’s a very different story when our loved ones espouse views that could put our health or our democracy at risk.
So what should we do during those awkward holiday gatherings when we come face-to-face with the conspiracy theorists in our lives? The temptation to fact-check their every statement may be strong, but it isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind, says Hunter College and Graduate Center Psychology Professor Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. Doing so can actually make believers feel like they are under attack and drive them further into their conspiracy theories, she argues.
Instead, Dennis-Tiwary suggests treating beliefs in conspiracy theories the same way we would treat anxiety disorders.
Research shows that many believers in conspiracy theories suffer from anxiety disorders. In the new book “Creating Conspiratorial Beliefs,” Dolores Albarracín, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and their colleagues identify two factors that drive the theories: 1) conservative media and 2) anxiety and social fear.
Keeping this in mind, Dennis-Tiwary gives some practical advice for dealing with conspiracy theory devotees.
She suggests considering the sources of this anxiety and using the core tenants of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, to change beliefs and behaviors. “Take a grassroots approach to gradually sow doubt in false beliefs,” says Dennis-Tiwary. “Insiders, like former believers and faith community members, can effectively challenge conspiracy theories because of their ‘in-group’ trusted status.”
That means listening without challenging every statement and asking questions to clarify exactly what your friend or relative believes. Over time, the answers to your gentle questions may cause the believer to notice inconsistencies or issues they can’t adequately explain.
To change unhealthy behaviors that contribute to conspiratorial beliefs, Dennis-Tiwary takes aim at social media and conservative news outlets and talk shows, which she describes as “the conservative outrage machine.” She calls on tech companies to change policies and algorithms that promote information propagating conspiracy theories. Some of this work has been done, but research shows that simple interventions like inserting guidelines for evaluating information online can also make people less likely to trust, like, and share conspiracy theories.
Dennis-Tiwary says bringing conspiracy theorists back to reality could not be more important. “With our nation at a crossroads, achieving greater unity depends on our ability to defuse dangerous conspiracy theories,” says Dennis-Tiwary. “We stand the best chance of doing so if we think like psychologists and put the science of anxiety at the center of our solutions.”