By Katie Mather
Recently at lunch, a coworker brought up a podcast he had listened to recently that discussed Flat-Earthers — people who truly believe that the Earth is flat. It is bananas. And the discussion prompted me to give an unsolicited (and unofficial) TedTalk where I ranted about not understanding how people can be so invested in something that is so clearly disproven and outrageously false. It’s almost funny.
There are so many demonstrably crazy and stupid conspiracy theories and lies that people believe and it genuinely stumps me. I don’t understand people who are convinced climate change isn’t real or who think Barack Obama was really born in Kenya or who believe that Nazis live on the moon or who openly tell other people that the world’s most powerful leaders are actually lizards. And the people who believe in these theories are insanely devoted and loyal — how does this happen?
How do people get so sucked into such a wild idea that they throw all logic and common sense out the window and prioritize their unfounded beliefs over fact?
First of all, people who believe this kind of stuff are typically people who do not feel like they’re in control or power. These are people who are searching for something to fill the void caused from loss (whether it be political loss, financial loss, emotional loss, etc.) and need something to explain and justify why they’re suffering from this loss. The personality traits of people who are drawn to conspiracy theories are typically the same across the board: an eagerness for experience, narcissism, low agreeability, and an intense desire to identify as unique or above average. Fostering conspiracy theories is a way for people to feel special and necessary. They want to feel superior, as if they have this special kind of information that not everybody can properly understand.
This also explains why conspiracy theorists hold on so tightly to their ideas. When someone questions their beliefs — and even if someone utilizes factual, proven evidence against these beliefs — admitting defeat is synonymous with admitting that the conspiracy theorists themselves are not actually unique or special.
Disagreeing with someone’s fundamental values elicits an emotional response within both parties. When meeting someone who has totally different values from us, our first instinct is to immediately try and explain why we’re right and how they’re wrong. This is the wrong way to handle it.
Challenging someone’s beliefs doesn’t do anything for the other person — it makes them cling to their beliefs even harder. This is called the Backfire Effect:
When you’re presented with information that contradicts a strongly held belief, the backfire effect states that you will likely dismiss the contradictory information, subsequently strengthening your beliefs even more.
Thus, when presenting evidence of the moon landing to someone who legitimately doesn’t believe it ever happened, every piece of contradictory evidence that you supply only further convinces the other person that their conspiracy theory is true. Sometimes, they’ll even turn what you say into part of the conspiracy theory: “that photo is fake,” “this was created by the CIA to trick you,” etc.
Group affiliation plays a huge role into why individual conspiracy theorists are less likely to listen to any kind of reason. The more people who believe a certain theory, the harder it becomes for any individual in the group of believers to leave or understand that what they believe in is wrong.
This is why people like Alex Jones are hugely problematic. Alex Jones is a right-wing radio personality, who is typically dismissed by the general population as being a legitimate threat because of his temper tantrums and his perpetuation of absolute nonsense and lies. Some things he believes in: the global elite are planning on murdering 80% of the world population, 9/11 was an “inside job” by the U.S. government, several U.S. mass shootings should be questioned for legitimacy (he famously claimed that the children murdered in Newtown, CT were hired professional actors), Obama is working for Al-Qaeda, and the government is “creating” homosexuality.
He also once seriously interviewed Robert David Steele on his radio show — a man who claimed that the 2,000 children who go missing every day are actually being sold to Mars as sex slaves.
Mars. Sex slaves. All of this is ridiculous and all of it is so easily dismissible because these claims are just insane and founded on absolutely no legitimate fact.
However, we should be scared of people like Alex Jones and should take this fear and conspiracy theorists more seriously. As easily dismissible as his claims are, Jones’ website Info Wars attracts over 3 million American viewers every month. His radio show has somewhere between 2 million and 5 million listeners daily. His show was publicly supported and praised by President Trump.
Conspiracy theories seem harmless enough — sometimes even funny; who doesn’t love the fact that B.o.B literally set up a GoFundMe to launch satellites into the sky so he can see for himself whether the Earth is round? What the FUCK? — but the consequences of this delusional thinking are legitimate and dangerous. I mean, 12 million Americans believe Lizard People run the country.
NASA had to publicly respond to the claims that they were selling missing children as sex slaves to Mars. That’s how influential conspiracy theory groups are.
NASA, AN INDEPENDENT AGENCY OF THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH OF THE UNITED STATES FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, HAD TO ANNOUNCE THAT THEY WERE NOT SELLING CHILD SEX SLAVES TO MARS BECAUSE OF WHAT SOME GUY SAID ON ALEX JONES’ RADIO SHOW.
This is why people believe in this crazy conspiracy theories — their overpowering need to feel special, the necessity they feel to justify why they’ve experienced certain losses, and getting sucked into a delusional sense of groupthink mentality. A completely unfounded and insane mentality that is occasionally endorsed by the President of the United States.