By Carol S. Pearson
Part One: The Appeal of Conspiracy Thinking
I’m intrigued by how many conspiracy theories are gaining traction today, and wondering how so many fellow citizens of my country can believe them. I see news interviews with people who believe such outrageous things, but in every other way they look and act like typical Americans while confirming that they think something is real that, in fact, has been discredited many, many times because there are no actual facts to back it up.
Yet, there are reasons for people to seek some order in what appears to be a chaotic world. In a global society where everyone and everything is interconnected, it is very difficult to predict what will happen next. Spiritual traditions and religions have always taught that there are divine forces acting in the world, and, some say, also demonic ones. When these are consensual beliefs in the culture, they can be calming. But while they sometimes may produce a virtuous society, they also can lead to an Inquisition, as happened after the Black Plague so long ago. In a diverse society such as ours, we do not share one easy faith that can support us all, but neither do we run the risk of falling into a wrong-headed uniformity.
Inner order does exist in apparent chaos, and it makes sense that we seek it. Contemporary chaos theory tells us that within what seem to be random events there is always an underlying order that can be discovered, often through computer modeling. In psychology, C.G. Jung coined the word “synchronicity” to describe meaningful coincidences that cannot be logically explained. Many people today find inner peace and coherence from spirituality, too. The archetypes that I work with also provide some ways to notice recurring psychological or psycho-spiritual patterns in oneself and the world around us.
My interest in conspiracy theories comes from what they tell us about human psychology, so I approach this topic with a sympathetic mindset. Thinking about myself and where conspiracy thinking has hooked me, I remember living in a period many years ago when our society was changing quickly and things seemed chaotic. At that same time, I also was confused, with a psyche in turmoil, having abandoned many of the beliefs I had been raised with but not yet sure what might take their place.
Just then, I became entranced by The Crying of Lot 49, a Thomas Pynchon novel of some note. In it, the main character, Oedipa Maas, receives a letter from a law firm telling her that her ex-boyfriend has died and named her the executor of his estate. From there, she begins to notice all sorts of coincidences that lead her from one to the other, as might happen in a crime novel. She feels as if she is onto a conspiracy of some sort but does not know if it is redemptive or a serious threat, and the reader never finds out the answer.
Thinking back on how caught up I was in Oedipa’s search helps me understand the appeal of intuiting underlying, unseen realities that seem to make sense of things in a chaotic time. Like Oedipus, who put out his eyes, we are all a bit blind to what is going on that has not risen to the surface, so we may constantly be surprised by events we did not see coming—in my lifetime, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa, people not fitting into categories of male and female, and, fairly recently, the election of an ultraconservative president at a time when the views of most citizens were becoming more liberal. It would be scary for me to be walking around blind, not knowing where I would stumble, and it is unnerving to live in today’s world with a pandemic, economic uncertainty, and a citizenry that is so at odds with one another that it cannot come together to govern itself civilly.
I’ve been helped in understanding this situation by neuroscience. It turns out that our brains crave meaning, so much so that when actual truth about something is not apparent or is distrusted, the brain just serves one up. Very typically, classic conspiracy stories take a situation that is complex and not easily understood and then find someone to blame for it. Ideally this will be a group that the audience being targeted by the story already is threatened by. Gradually, more and more stories pile up about sequentially more and more outrageous crimes. The plotline then creates a narrative about who will save consumers of this narrative from this menace. Generally, someone this audience already likes is portrayed as their savior. This triggers confirmation bias, and with it a small, positive dopamine high, reinforcing not just the rightness of liking this person but also the entire conspiracy narrative.
Part Two: QAnon As a Case Study
As you might guess, my puzzlement has been triggered by the success of QAnon. News about this is all over the place, but one source I consider accurate is an article by technology columnist Kevin Roose of the New York Times on September 28, 2020. He writes: “QAnon is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.” The desired outcome is that the president would reveal these evil people, round them up, and punish them for their crimes, after which the country would become a utopia. Some elements of QAnon reference demon sperm, aliens, and other forces operating in the “deep state” of the U.S. government. One such adherent actually shot up a pizza parlor in the Washington, DC area, believing that Hillary Clinton was engaged in the child sex trade out of its nonexistent basement, an event now referred to as PizzaGate.
Contemporary conspiracy theories do not share the entire picture all at once, and people keep making up new elements. Part of their appeal is the search, with people going from one social media site to another to find pieces of the puzzle and put it together themselves. It feels like being a detective and finding a secret that few, if any, know. And, it provides a sense of meaning. It is like my identifying with Oedipa in the Crying of Lot 49, only better, because the story is presented as fact, not fiction.
The Sage archetype theoretically supports curiosity to find truth, but when people cannot face the truths they fear, it will swerve to seek what it is they actually want to believe. Conspiracy theories that succeed in engaging many people typically also seem for a time to fulfill primary human needs. Think for a moment of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: people need to achieve, sequentially, safety, security, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization to be fully free and independent beings. Believers in QAnon and other conspiracies can feel safe and secure because they think they are going to be saved, they have a sense of belonging to this secret in-group, and gain self-esteem from being in the know, while others are not.
Successful conspiracy theories also build on the dilemma people face living in a democracy and a capitalist economy where the pressure to compete and achieve is constant. Most of us have found some way to feel like winners to avoid being losers. This could be from being successful, perhaps rich (or at least self-supporting) or famous (or having the most likes on social media), or by winning a contest in some arena. A sense of worthiness could result from being “right” because of being educated, and thus knowledgeable, or having access to the one true religious faith, to avoid being in wrong. It also can come from being moral, either by adhering to a moral code or by being loving and kind and caring for others—either way, avoiding being bad.
Most conspiracy theories portray those whom their followers disdain as losers, wrong, and bad, even if the truth is that they threaten the adherents by seeming to be more successful, right, or good. This can then spiral down into demonizing those the conspiracy-minded do not like, and providing the satisfaction of imagining them being punished or even killed.
This pattern can be observed not only in QAnon adherents, but in many of us. Thus, the question becomes: how do we vaccinate ourselves from falling into our own versions of such traps? According to psychiatrist C.G. Jung, we all have a shadow of the parts of ourselves we repress, often rightly, so that we do not kill, steal, and so on. Most of us repress those qualities that we do not approve of or have been told are shameful. However, this also is where weird beliefs can spring from, because it is where we are unconscious.
So, what would be in the shadow of a person or group that projects onto others a deep state plot, with aliens, demon sperm, and child sex trafficking? To me, that might indicate shame at feeling “other” and not fitting in. Guilt about impulses that a person does not want to admit are his or her own are the most likely to be projected. A fantasy about others engaging in sex trafficking can be triggered by experiences of being abused or shamed as a child or by shaming your own inner child, especially related to the expression of sexual feelings believed to be inappropriate or wrong. Along with this, believing in a deep state in the government might suggest one’s own desire to exercise control over others so as to make them become as you wish they would be, accompanied by a feeling of powerlessness, and thus a desire to be saved by some group or individual.
The more we avoid what we do not want to see in ourselves, the easier it is to fall into demonizing others.
Part Three: The Vaccine to Prevent Conspiracy Thinking in Ourselves
- Be yourself. Observing people around me, I know that those who have gotten to Maslow’s stage of self-actualization seem to be relatively immune to comparing themselves with others, and hence have less motivation to attack them as wrong, losers, and bad. They often are satisfied simply to be their best selves. Being comfortable just being our best selves is an important element in developing an immunity to the conspiracy-thinking virus.
- Check the story you are thinking against the facts. Engage your Sage curiosity in listening to people who have direct experience of the issue at hand and who avoid being ideologues. People are less likely to believe untruths about the area of life where they have direct experience. For example, I’ve lived in the Washington, DC area long enough at various times to know that those in the civil service generally are patriotic, dedicated to the mission of their agency, and well-versed in research that tells them how best to accomplish that. You also can check where there is scientific consensus and where there isn’t. That is why people who believe outlandish things actually may be normal in the areas of their lives in which they have direct knowledge of what is real and what isn’t. It could be that they just watched television series like House of Cards or Scandal, or, years ago, The X-Files, and took them as mirrors of reality, or that they are being told falsehoods by authorities that they trust. Check your thinking against what actually has been proven to be true and with others closer to the situation at hand than you are to promote your immunity to conspiracy thinking.
- Get your primary needs met. Take steps to feel as safe and secure as you can and affiliate with others, so that you know you belong, seeking out groups that do not require blind obedience or conformity. Do the best you can to contribute your own gifts and strengths, so that you know you matter in the world and thus have self-esteem that comes from actual achievement. If these are in place, the conspiracy virus will have no access to invade your psyche.
- Get acquainted with your shadow. We can begin to identify our own shadows by identifying the people and actions that we abhor and cannot stop thinking about. Our situation is even more acute if we begin to fantasize about something bad happening to them. When we notice what it is we dislike that they do, we can then search out whether we might have the slightest bit of that attitude in ourselves, even if only in our thoughts, not our actions. We still may not like what others are doing, but much of our distress may dissipate once we experience the tiniest hint of fellow feeling. This can restore our own inner calm, so that our opinion about someone else does not have to ruin our day, the week, or that period of our lives. It also vaccinates us against starting to believe conspiracy theories about that person or group.
We are in a time that requires us to face the major problems before us. If we give in to the temptation to feel good about ourselves by demonizing others, any of us can begin to slip into a fantasy alternative universe. Meanwhile, real collective threats keep worsening without being addressed. Such escapes do not protect us against their inevitable result. And, to solve those challenges, we will have to be able to work with people who do not share our views.
It is my fervent hope that these vaccine ideas help you to stay focused on what is real and on what you can do about it, and on who you need to work with to do so. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject and what has worked for you—or not worked!