As COVID-19 has spread across the United States and around the world, it has been followed by a spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Given the proliferation and endurance of these theories, it’s worth taking a look at the psychology behind them.
Black helicopters, fluoridation, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 9/11 and Sandy Hook have all been targets of conspiracy theories that range from ridiculous to disgusting and cruel. So why do people cling to these preposterous falsehoods?
Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman says that attachment can often be traced back psychologically to a foundational negative experience.
"Our threat detection system goes off if we feel that we are being mistreated … on purpose," Rockman explains. People will then put up barriers she describes as "coping mechanisms that look like a lot of intellectualism and sometimes … can go over into hyper-intellectualism, where we are obsessing over finding the answers."
Rockman says that obsession detaches people from reality and can then become a "behavioral addiction."
She recommends resisting the temptation to try and change someone's mind about a conspiracy theory. The more someone is challenged, she says, the less likely the person is to consider information that disproves the theory.
Instead, Rockman suggests "becoming curious about what the person is saying,” not condemning.
"It's not our assignment to figure out what our role is in that person's life and this experience," Rockman says. "I think it's our assignment to show up as the most authentic, compassionate, reasonable, loving version of ourselves and to speak truth unequivocally, without question."
Listen to the interview below or read the transcript to hear why Rockman advocates communication over confrontation when faced with conspiracy theories.
Note: This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman: I think that it [embracing and sharing conspiracy theories] plays with the human mind, the human brain, the human experience of self-preservation, in a really tenuous way. It causes people to feel a degree of uncertainty that causes them to want to latch onto something that feels tangible.
Our threat detection system goes off if we feel that we are being mistreated [or] misaligned on purpose. Once that threat detection system goes into gear, we're going to put up barriers. Sometimes those barriers are coping mechanisms that look like a lot of intellectualism, and sometimes it can go over into hyper-intellectualism, where we are obsessing over finding the answers.
KUT: Does any of this scenario about conspiracy theories have to do with control?
Rockman: I think that a lot of it is about control. And I think that we have to at least consider that we have the ability to influence but not control. And we have to consider being sensitive to when we are influencing and when we need to step back and lean out of the quest for control.
That being said, the best thing that you can control is your reaction and your response. That goes back to the acronym W-I-N — what is happening in the now. Getting back in the here and now, the present moment. Because too much forecasting, projecting and planning for impending doom of any kind activates the nervous system so significantly that it can actually lead to poorer health outcomes as well as mental health outcomes. And guess what? It can also interrupt enjoyment of your life in the here and now.
KUT: You brought up the idea of over-intellectualizing or overthinking, over-examining.
Rockman: If we use [conspiracy theories] as a way to disconnect from what we're feeling or disconnect from reality, it becomes a maladaptive behavioral pattern. In some ways, it can become a behavioral addiction. Rumination comes to mind, where you continue to bring up the same thought philosophically over and over and over again, a process of thinking deeply about something. But it becomes harmful because it's repeated, and it becomes disordered thinking.
KUT: There are a lot of articles out there around this theme, which is something like: How do I talk to somebody who believes a certain conspiracy theory, or how do I have a civil conversation and not just a screaming argument with someone who thinks that the moon landing was faked?
Rockman: For some, conspiracy theories become almost like religion. It's like, "Do not move me off this post, off this mountain, because this is going to threaten everything that's important to me or everything I believe, or how I guide my life or my affairs."
I think that for all of us, if we could, think about becoming curious about what the person is saying, curious and not condemning. When we have that to kind of guide our conversations with people, we can begin to let go of the “a” word, which is “agenda.” Whenever you have an agenda for another person, when you go into the conversation, you're kind of setting yourself up to build walls of defense. And when you erect walls of defense because you have an agenda, it's just going to cause them to erect theirs higher.
I can sit across the room from someone that has a completely differing political affiliation; mask-wearing or not beliefs, religion, all of it, and be comfortable. But that comfort starts with being comfortable within oneself first. That takes a little inner work. I think most of us would rather try to micromanage other people than work on ourselves.
KUT: It definitely seems one thing to sit across from somebody whom we don't like the same kind of car as. It’s really different to sit across from someone literally who doesn't think that wearing masks is necessary to help stop the spread of COVID-19, or someone who thinks that the Sandy Hook school shooting of young elementary school students was a hoax and was faked. How do we bring that curiosity to the table when the other person has beliefs that are repugnant and just flat-out wrong?
Rockman: It's not our assignment to figure out what our role is in that person's life and this experience. I think it's our assignment to show up as the most authentic, compassionate, reasonable, loving version of ourselves and to speak truth unequivocally, without question.
What is done with that after, and the domino effect of that, is sort of not our work. If enough of us show up doing that on a consistent basis, it moves the needle. It changes the outcomes. And ultimately, it impacts the culture with more truth, authenticity, compassion and more of a collective consciousness so there can be something called unification.
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