Like any quarantined, bored adult, I have developed a fascination with conspiracy theories. I may not subscribe to the belief that 9/11 was an inside job or that JFK is living on an island somewhere with Tupac, but I’m intrigued by the passion behind such ideas and the emotional violence that often accompanies them.
Several years ago I was touring the new 9/11 memorial in New York, breathless from the crushing reality of such a devastating loss of life. My heart felt heavy and I felt a strange sense of guilt for being too young to understand the gravity of the tragedy when it occurred. I felt a sickening mix of patriotism, loss, disgust, hope, anger, and then guilt again for feeling that way despite having no personal connection to the event aside from having witnessed it on TV when I was six years old. And then, as I was leaving the site, I was bombarded by pamphlets and brochures boasting the “reality” of that day — papers pointing arrows to areas of the site that had obviously been blown up by pre-set IEDs, and websites claiming to have evidence directly from the White House proving that Former President Bush had planned the attacks and was in cahoots with Al-Qaeda. Less than ten feet away was a man hunched over a spot on the memorial fountain, roses in hand, sobbing into his loved one’s name etched in the dark stone.
Empathy is not a requirement for respecting the dead and those in mourning, but it certainly seemed to be lacking amongst the small crowd of “truthers” surrounding Ground Zero that day. A similar lack of empathy is undeniably present in conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, who openly (and loudly) claim that national tragedies such as the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 was a false flag, and that the parents mourning the loss of their babies are paid actors. Leaders of the Flat Earth movement have openly wished death upon scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson simply for promoting the widely-held scientific belief that the Earth is, in fact, round.
Certainly not all conspiracy theorists harbor such violent beliefs. In fact, an entire town in West Virginia has capitalized on their belief in the existence of the Mothman — a mythical half-man, half-moth who supposedly terrorizes local townspeople and kills livestock. My hometown of Chicago is notorious for its supposed chain of Mattress Firms acting as facades for an elaborate money-laundering scheme, and I have never seen anyone picketing on Halsted claiming that CEO John Eck deserves a bullet in the head.
“You dont find [violent] behavior among things that are peaceful,” says Jocelyn Smith*, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with over 35 years of experience; “[People who believe in fairies] are not going out attacking the fairy disbelievers. This behavior is almost always associated with some kind of violence or hate.”
The belief that the Earth is flat isn’t necessarily violent on the surface, but it perpetuates distrust in well-established science and in scientists themselves. Sowing doubt and facilitating attacks on educated individuals, particularly scientists, is a terroristic practice that spans far beyond modern-day America. The 18th century saw the rise of Luddites — a group of individuals in England who regularly met to conspire against and attack local factories, merchants, and magistrates believing that their government was attempting to replace them with machines. The senseless murder of thousands of teachers, college-educated individuals, government workers and more during the Khmer Rouge regime was a calculated attempt to silence opposing beliefs. QAnon — the American far-right conspiracy group that believes a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles run a global child sex-trafficking cult consisting of high-ranking officials and Hollywood superstars — is notoriously violent, having participated in shootings, targeted harassment and stalking, and the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
But conspiracy groups consist of thousands of people — certainly not all can be mentally unstable or suffer from some sort of pathology. Despite their behavior, one thing that unites these groups is their belief that they’re doing the right thing. They believe it is their obligation as human beings to spread the truth, be it the actual shape of the Earth or the happenings within Area 51. Their intentions could even be described as pure — after all, if you were convinced that Beyoncé was selling children on the black market to pay for her mansions and Lamborghinis, wouldn’t you be moved to petition for her arrest?
Therein lies the difference between neurotypical — or at least well-adjusted — people and hardcore conspiracy theorists: the pathology of the latter is evidenced by their inability to seek out alternative sources of information in pursuit of the truth.
“Mental wellness is characterized by the ability to think clearly and analytically,” Smith says. “It’s the ability to consider different points of view. Even if you reject it, someone who is rationally-minded can understand what has promoted their decision to choose an opinion, and can weigh opposing beliefs with equal consideration before choosing a side. Extremists don’t do that.”
Not all conspiracy theorists are extremists, however. A 2018 YouGov poll revealed that at least 2% of Americans firmly subscribe to the Flat Earth theory, which equates to over 6 million people. Surely 6 million people can’t possess the same exact neuroses — whether motivated by distrust in scientists (which has valid roots stemming from racist and inhumane experiments performed on unwilling participants), religion (when taken literally, the Bible alludes to a flat Earth), or simply a longing for connection — each individual’s belief comes with different considerations and goals for perpetuating that belief. Most of these theorists may never express themselves aloud, let alone participate in the harassment of NASA employees. The common thread that runs through them all is the desire for validation and belonging, and that’s tough to condemn considering those are basic human needs, at least according to Maslow. Theorists can become extremists, even terrorists, as long as they firmly believe they’re helping, says Smith.
“They’re looking for connection and reasoning, and will do almost anything to make a round peg fit in a square hole as long as it allows them feel as though they’re making a difference. If you give them a bogeyman (like the Illuminati or the Big Bad Government), they can focus their efforts on that even if there’s not an ounce of truth involved.”
The line between being curious about an unscientific, unproven theory and identifying as a staunch believer is paranoia and delusion, which, like many mental illnesses, can be directly impacted and worsened by one’s social and familial environment.
The negative impact of groupthink has long been documented and established. One may also make the connection between the phenomenon of mass hysteria — such as dancing uncontrollably literally until one’s death — and the irrational, violent behavior of QAnon believers. Survivors of mental or physical cults of belief are often those who were predisposed to rationality and mental wellness; in other words, those who retained their ability to question what they were being told. Critical thinking isn’t just a symptom of sound-mindedness, it’s also a symptom of comprehensive education.
When our teachers taught us not to rely on Wikipedia for information, they weren’t furthering some sort of agenda against online resources. Wikipedia is an open-source website, meaning almost anyone can contribute to almost any article. Differentiating between a dot-com and dot-edu or dot-gov was one small piece of the critical thinking puzzle instilled in us from our middle-school days, helping us to fill in the blanks of misinformation or improperly-represented information in order to prevent untruths from seeping into our essays. Debate classes saw us receive better grades for facts derived from reputable, peer-reviewed sources rather than mommy blogs or any site that included the phrase what the government doesn’t want you to know.
“Teaching research and critical thinking skills is vitally important so people can not only analyze information effectively but also corroborate and contextualize it,” says Educator Robert Williams. “Schools can play an effective role in teaching that skill to kids … but you have to continue practicing [it] as an adult for the education to matter.”
Just like practicing meditation and self-care is an important part of maintaining one’s mental health, practicing critical thinking and analysis can help prevent slipping into irrational or unfounded belief systems. Intentionally exposing oneself to different perspectives by reading a variety of types of literature is one easy way to do this — for example, if you’re a diehard Republican, try spending a few minutes a day browsing CNBC. If you’re staunchly pro-choice, now is a good time to read up on the upcoming Supreme Court consideration over Mississippi’s abortion laws. Just like neglecting to develop one’s stress-relief skills often results in unhealthy coping mechanisms and addiction, neglecting to develop one’s critical thinking skills can result in a loss of rationality and a proclivity for believing almost anything that sounds shocking and emotionally compelling.
With a solid educational foundation and a concerted effort to maintain one’s mental health, the tendency to develop wild, unfounded beliefs about the universe, the President, and Beyoncé becomes much more rare. Although it may be difficult to feel sympathy for those who continue to promote dangerous beliefs — especially those rooted in antisemitism, racism, and sexism — just like studying diseases, understanding how cult mentalities come about is key to preventing them from spreading. Whether believers are willing to pivot and change course is a matter of their own mental wellness, but continuing to practice patience and open-mindedness is a role all parties must play when it comes to reaching a common goal of reconciliation. There aren’t two sides to every story, after all — there are three: one perspective, the opposite perspective, and the truth.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the source.