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What Attracts People To Conspiracy Theories? A Clinical Psychologist Tries To Explain

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Black Helicopters, the moon landing was faked, chemtrails, alien cover ups, pizzagate, QAnon... All conspiracy theories that can suck people in. Why do we believe them? Black hat PR firms, political activists, and other bad actors are using social media to amplify new conspiracies. How do you recognize if you’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole? And how do you deal with family and friends that have passed the conspiracy point of no return?

Mary McNaughton-Cassil is a professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Jerry Clayton: Tell me, what exactly is it that attracts people to conspiracy theories?

Mary McNaughton-Cassill: I think it goes back to the basic way that our brain processes information. We can't even look at clouds and pieces of toast without trying to connect the dots and see faces or elephants or pictures.

McNaughton-Cassill: And we also like to think in terms of stories. Research shows that if you tell someone a story and you leave out a key component, like you don't mention how they got across the river, later, people will fill in the details when you ask them about the story. So I think what happens with conspiracy theories is especially when the world is confusing and uncertain, we're looking for ways to try to make sense and our brain will connect all sorts of things.

Clayton: Is there a mental profile of a person who might be susceptible or more susceptible to conspiracy theories?

McNaughton-Cassill: I suspect that it's the person who doesn't like ambiguity and doesn't like change or uncertainty about why things are happening. If you are uncomfortable with kind of the gray areas of the world and want answers, then you might be more prone to look for them, to try to find ways to explain things that don't make sense to you on the surface or that you don't feel comfortable or agree with. I also think there's a little bit of an attraction to conspiracy theories because it implies that you know or recognize something that other people don't. So in a sense, it makes it gives you knowledge. It makes you feel important if you know something that other people aren't privy to.

Clayton: What happens when a person who believes in a particular conspiracy theory and they're all in and then they're presented with evidence that completely disproves it?

McNaughton-Cassill: See, that's the problem with conspiracy theories is if your basic premise is that everything you're being told is false and there is a big secret event happening behind the scenes, then no matter what you're told, you just assume that that's propaganda and covering it over again.

Clayton: You're sitting at the holiday table with a family member and that person is, again, totally wrapped up in a conspiracy theory. How do you how do you deal with that person?

McNaughton-Cassill: First of all, you have to realize they're not going to listen to reason because that is the sort of out option for them is if I tell them that their theory is wrong, they're going to say that I'm part of the conspiracy. What I have lately taken doing is not arguing about the content, but trying to figure out exactly what you're asking me now, why they feel that way. But I think we need to spend way more time understanding why we're seeing the world so differently and figuring out what parts of our world overlap so we can get back to some kind of collaborative movement forward.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.