The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories and those who Believe in Them
Understanding the Mind of the Believer
Having been, some decades ago, a total conspiracy believer and now working full-time as a therapist, I wanted to share some of the insights I have garnered, over the years, from seeing both my own mind in “conspiracy mode” and that of others.
There are a few reasonable articles on the psychology of conspiracy theories around, particularly coming out of the States. Joe Uscinski and Robert Brotherton have done some great work. I don’t believe, however, that as a psychological culture, we’ve really got to grips with this phenomenon yet. So I wanted to lay out some of the psychological principles I’ve found to be very useful when considering why some people get so wrapped up in this world.
This is not an article aimed at academia and I am not from that world. I hope that this piece will prove readable to anyone interested. I will draw on both traditional Freudian psychology and modern neuroscience in a fairly pick-and-mix fashion.
This article will be in four parts:
Part 1: The Mind of the Believer
Part 2: The World
Part 3: Healing
Part 4: The Good that Conspiracy Theories May Do
As a therapist, I have helped people find the truth within themselves regarding conspiracies. I have assisted people who were totally in this world question their beliefs and start to come back to themselves. I consider I have been successful in this for an assortment of reasons.
Firstly, I have been there myself and know what it’s like.
Secondly, I never come from a position of trying to convince someone their belief is wrong.
Thirdly, I do not consider that I know a definitive truth about reality myself, so I feel I am open to new theories.
Finally, people who come to me are likely open at least slightly to the proposition that they may have gone off somewhere and need to come back. So, I have a head start here.
If you have loved ones in the conspiracy world, I hope you will find this piece useful. If you are immersed in this world, I hope you find this piece useful. If you’re just fascinated by conspiracy theories, I hope the same. If you believe you know the definitive truth, then good luck to you!
Okay, let’s get to it. I am going to carve a path out from the world of psychology towards the world of conspiracy and we shall see who is willing to walk towards me from the other side.
Part 1 - The Mind of the Believer
My Life in the World of Conspiracies
In the late 1990s, someone passed me a copy of David Icke’s “And The Truth Shall Set You Free.” Looking back, this moment marked a huge turning point in my life. I am deeply grateful for it and to Mr Icke for writing that book. He laid out in clear language an alternative version of modern world history in a manner I found utterly compelling. It all made sense to me. An evil cult had humanity in its grasp and they wanted to suck everyone into their final evil plan - total control over the whole world, the creation of a “prison planet.” Over the course of a couple of weeks, I felt the whole of human history being rewritten inside my brain. It was like shedding a skin I didn’t know I had.
In his book, Icke provided a meta-narrative, a view-from-above. Seemingly separate events - World Wars I and II, the Wall Street Crash, the Bretton Woods agreement, the Vietnam war, the Club of Rome - were all tied together in a manner that made it seem ridiculous that they could ever have been considered unconnected. My brain was on fire. Even though I had never previously been much interested in history, suddenly I was enraptured by the twentieth century. How could we all have been so stupid as to not connect the dots? From every angle, it just seemed totally clear that we were all being bit-by-bit manipulated into some psychopath’s control fantasy. A world where personal freedom would be unknown. A world where the individual would have no chance. A world of pure top-down control.
It was a huge awakening. And, as I shed the skin of history, so I simultaneously began to experience the huge potential I was. I saw how I had put myself in a tight little box many years before. I had chosen inside to just grudgingly endure whatever life threw my way, occasionally granting myself relief with alcohol and drugs. Now, even though I couldn’t really care less about history, or indeed humanity, Icke’s book was somehow setting me free.
After a few weeks, and with this secret knowledge now grounded in me, I knew one thing - I must tell others. I must seek out fellow believers and also demand non-believers listen to my truth. None shall be spared. All must get it and wake up, before it was too late.
Personal computers and the internet were new things in those days. But I had access. I had an old desktop running Windows 95 and it soon became my best friend. Conspiracy groups were becoming rife on Yahoo forums and I jumped right in. In my friendships, I spared no one too. I would send copies of Icke’s book to anyone I thought might be amenable. I would steer conversations with friends towards twentieth century history and proceed to launch into lengthy diatribes about how we’d all been fooled. People soon learned to keep clear of certain topics around me. I began to use my latent literary skills to write my own conspiracy material.
The internal pressure that I felt pushing me deeper into the world of conspiracies maintained itself for the next couple of years. I felt my being flooded with a latent anger that coursed through my veins, apparently the result of my realisation of how we’d all been conned. I wrote material. I drove some people away. Most of my friends at that time were anyway drug and alcohol acquaintances.
Then, slowly, things started to change. One thing was that I actually began to notice a palpable sensation in my head whenever I was really getting on it with people about conspiracies. Like some unconscious part of me was getting my attention and saying “Hey, look!” When I didn’t get on it quite so hard, but rather remained more centred, the sensation didn’t happen.
In addition, I found myself strongly questioning just why I was spending so much of my time online in the world of conspiracies. Had I formerly been really interested in history? Or in humanity? If I was honest, I knew the answer was no. Realising this, I began to ponder about what it was that was actually motivating my behaviour.
My growing realisation that my life didn’t have to be simply endured and blotted out with substances gradually led me into therapy workshops and a new circle of friends. I started to resolve some of the myriad issues I was carrying around from childhood. I began to realise that actually, I could take more control of my life and make it more successful and more nourishing. I realised that I didn’t have to be a victim. I began to drop some of my druggie and criminal friends and hang out with people less in the grip of low self-esteem.
Over time, the level of conviction I felt that we were all being lured into some evil trap began to be challenged from within. I saw that the emerging world of the new millennium was not all bad. Technology was also bringing good stuff. Why was there now so much information freely available if the great plot was to imprison everyone? Why was it becoming possible for people, from all walks of life, to step up and find new, enriching lives for themselves if we were supposed to be building a prison planet?
As the 2000s continued, bit by bit I felt my allegiance to the conspiracy scene dissolve away until it remained only in the very background. I began a new life for myself as a therapist. I repeatedly took on the challenge of letting go of my past and stepping into the new.
However, although I shifted the whole conspiracy scene from the front to the back of my mind, I was aware of certain changes that had taken place within me and that remained.
Firstly, even though I hadn’t previously been aware that my vision of world history was a big part of my psyche, I realised that this actually was the case when it was so deeply challenged. Although I was now letting go of conspiracies theories, nevertheless my mind was now a great deal more open than it been. I felt as though I’d been through a kind of bizarre rite-de-passage ritual. Ostensibly, it was about conspiracies, but on a deeper level this material merely facilitated a letting-go of a vision of the world that had kept my mind in a box. This was similar to my first experiences with psychoactive substances back in my late teens.
Secondly, as with drug experiences, I had become more aware of just how controlled the culture I’d been brought up in was. The education establishment and the mass media literally ran the show. I realised that, in all likelihood, many millions of people had never in their lives had a single thought that wasn’t simply planted there, one way or another, by education or the media. It was staggering.
Thirdly, I was much more tuned in to the way in which shifts in culture were invariably ushered in by the mass media. Although I had now dropped many of David Icke’s other ideas, his notion of “Problem - Reaction - Solution” still resonated with me. Whenever there was an unpopular policy that a country or culture needed to implement, it was invariably done via this mechanism. You simply made it the solution, found a problem and then used the reaction to bring it in.
For example, if you wished, say, to introduce far more widespread surveillance of citizens, then simply announcing that you were going to do this would not go down well. People would be concerned, civil rights groups would be up in arms, and the underlying authoritarian nature of the government would be exposed.
Much better to find something that wider surveillance would be a solution to, say street crime, and engineer the outcome you wish. Thus, the media would find cases of street crime and publicise them considerably, creating an uproar, and getting citizens to demand that the government take action. At that point, a government minister would announce the action, which of course was that planned all along - more surveillance!
Thus, although I ceased to feel an inner tug to believe in conspiracies, I nevertheless considered that it had both opened my mind and changed how I saw reality.
Doing therapy for most of the 2000s, I came to further unravel the psychological underpinnings of my time in the conspiracy scene. Working as a therapist during the 2010s, I got to see how certain threads of childhood experience were frequently present in many conspiracy believers.
Trust in Authority
The absolute #1 psychological issue I see evident in many conspiracy believers is an intrinsic distrust of authority. It’s endemic within this group and somewhat inevitable. If we accepted what authorities, such as our governments or global bodies, told us as true then we would of course be less likely to believe conspiracy theories. Thus, we will find few conspiracy theory believers who also profess a high trust in authority.
How much we trust authority is largely determined by the conditions of our childhood and particularly the relationship we had with our father, or other care-giver fulfilling a similar role. Our DNA preconditions us to expect our father to be a certain way. We expect him to curb our more extreme behaviours, and to at times lay down the law, but in a firm but loving way. We expect him to support our growth into adulthood by giving us clear boundaries that support our development. We are small and we know we cannot fight back against his rule. But if we perceive him as using his natural authority wisely then we will generally comply, and will come to love him. People who had a such a relationship with their fathers as kids rarely exhibit many issues with authority as adults.
When however, the father is not adequately present, or when he admonishes us without showing love or care, we may develop the belief that authority is simply wrong. We may go along with his rules on the surface, behaving compliantly. But, on the inside, we secretly resolve that he will never “get us” - we will remain free and not bound by his uncaring will. We develop a deep, instinctive distrust of authority but on the outside behave compliantly. Until, that is, a sudden shift in the way power is manifested in our world takes place and our unresolved issues with authority come to the surface.
The emergence onto the world scene of Covid-19 created a situation where everyone was being told to be rapidly compliant to new rules. If we didn’t lock ourselves down, if we didn’t wear masks, then we were told that everyone would suffer. This event inevitably provided a huge trigger for anyone suppressing childhood issues with authority. Indeed, it would be hard to conceive of a more triggering situation than to suddenly be confronted with government officials and scientists, on television, telling everyone that they must comply with strict behavioural regulations for the good of all.
Repressed psychological issues exert a charge, akin to an electrical charge, deep within the psyche. When triggered, the charge moves up towards the conscious mind creating anxiety.
In this situation, where the latent authority issues of millions of citizens are being brought right up to the surface, and given the degree of access to the internet and social media that we now have, it is inevitable that conspiracy theories spread literally like wildfire.
The charge of energy repressed within the psyche drives us to seek a means to justify non-compliance with the new rules. In the mind of someone with such a charge, obedience to authority will feel disproportionately disempowering. Even if they comply on a behavioural level, they will seek without ceasing to not surrender on a mental level. Their agency detection system (ADS) works overtime to find a way to do this.
Hyperactive Agency Detection
As primates, our brains are wired to look for simple causes - agency - when under stress. Evolutionary psychologists believe this is because, for our ancestors, the danger of not finding agency far outweighed the benefit of taking more time to work out what was really going on.
If we consider a rabbit, say, that was slow but thorough in ascertaining if it was really in danger when it heard a scary sound, it would likely not live so long. It might get it right 4 times in a row, and not run away. But, on the 5th, whilst it was busy assessing the situation more deeply, the fox would get it. The rabbit that simply assumed negative agency would be more likely survive. Thus, it is proposed, that natural selection has furnished us with what is usually termed Hyperactive Agency Detection.
Whenever our sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight response) is triggered, our Agency Detection facility assumes that a single, simple danger is present. More complex dangers are not something that it has evolved to consider.
Thus, for someone with unresolved authority issues, who has been triggered by outside circumstances, they are acutely vulnerable to finding the simplest explanation possible that avoids them having to deal with what is really going on for them emotionally. This is usually a theory that claims it is all caused by one bad guy. Or, if a “one bad guy” theory is really not tenable, then a small group of bad guys - a cabal or cult.
This “one bad guy” theory allows us to justify non-compliance with whatever authority is currently telling us to do.
For someone with a high level of unresolved authority issues, to submit to authority would feel like a total loss of their own power. It would literally feel like they were being made into a powerless slave. Even being told to wear a mask, or to practice social distancing, could easily trigger this. They would doubt that, having lost their sense of personal power in this way, it could ever return. Thus, they will resist compliance with all their might because, as children, they simply had insufficient experience of the value of good authority. They never surrendered and came back to realise it was okay.
Once we understand the huge significance of this, we are a long way down the road to understanding why some people find conspiracy theories so utterly compelling, and others not. Having little or no positive experience of authority as children leaves us terrified of losing our own sense of agency, and thus utterly vulnerable to believing conspiracy theories.
Before continuing, I would like to point out that simply having a bad experience of authority as a child may not be the only way we can develop issues with authority as adults. It is also possible that some people may be genetically predisposed to issues with authority but I am unaware of any research here.
Bolstering Up the Theory
Adopting a conspiracy theory as a fact gives a big psychological payoff. It provides a justification for non-compliance, either physically or mentally, with authority in the outside world. The core fear, as we’ve seen, is surrendering to authority.
The original wound manifests as a huge “charge” in the psyche, a kind of no-go area. Fear accumulates around this wound. Once triggered, we seek a means to avoid direct confrontation with this charge. We do not want to experience all that anger and pain inside - especially the pain. If we submit to the situation facing us - whether that is agreeing to wear a mask, believing that JFK was shot by a lone gunman, or that there was no covert US involvement in 911 - then that surrender would feel as though it would cause a total loss of agency within us. It would feel like surrendering to the harsh or absent authority of our childhood.
Thus our mind seeks urgently for a way to justify non-compliance. Once it has found and adopted a conspiracy theory to fulfil this unconscious psychological need, what it will next do is to seek to bolster up this position. This typically takes place in two ways.
Firstly, we seek out further conspiracy material that offers a wider context in which to ground our primary belief. This might take the form of a theory of overarching control. An example of this would be the notion of a powerful cult or cabal, with tendrils everywhere, who have been seeking to enslave humanity for aeons. It might also take the form of related conspiracy theories that come together to create a web-like alternative history of the world in the mind of the believer. The tendency of the mind to be attracted to material that reinforces pre-existing beliefs is often referred to as “confirmation bias.”
Secondly, we will usually also seek co-believers - those who share our belief in conspiracy theories. This could take the form of going online and sharing about the latest theories or updates to existing ones. It also often takes the form of trying to recruit others to our viewpoint. Meeting people, in person or online, we may make a slightly edgy comment to see if they “bite,” to see if they perhaps share our beliefs or concerns. If they respond sympathetically, then we know we have a co-believer.
These means of bolstering up our sense of rightness in our belief act psychologically to keep repressed feelings down, to keep the charge beneath the surface.
The Payoff for the Under-achiever
A common aspect of the more overarching conspiracy theory is the notion that, if we could just get rid of the bad guys, then life would be spontaneously wonderful. The idea is that the overarching control group - the cult or cabal - are holding everyone down, suppressing their natural development, so that they can maintain their position of power.
Personally, if I look at society, I would agree that there is a great deal more that could be done to lift people up and support their development. However, the fact that this isn’t happening does not necessarily infer the existence of an overarching conspiracy.
But, if a conspiracy theory is presented to an under-achiever who also has authority issues, now it can have a double whammy effect. Not only does the theory explain why society is apparently being driven towards deeper levels of social control, but it also explains why that individual has never made much of their life. It’s not their fault! It’s all the fault of the evil cabal. If those guys were gone then they would of course have a successful and productive life.
Without delving too deeply into the psychology of motivation and success, something I also write about, it’s enough to say that this is largely fantasy. Yes, society could do more to educate us about success and obtaining meaning from life, considerably more. But we will still have to do it. And simply blaming an externality merely reinforces our own state of victimhood.
Having an outside agency to blame is simply a way to not take more responsibility for our own lives.
The Challenger at the Dinner table!
Reading an recent article on conspiracy theories, I was struck by the image the author presented of the slightly weird uncle who starts talking about conspiracy theories during Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, I know this character and have been him myself. Though not whilst in uncle role.
Something that is characteristic of the conspiracy theorist is that they will often seek to challenge the opinions of non-believers during social gatherings. Socialising with friends, they steer the conversation round to 9-11, JFK, Covid or their favourite theory and proceed to tell everyone all about it. They take on challengers to their theory and the whole conversation frequently ends up feeling hijacked by one person.
It is still not clear for me exactly what the psychological roots of this behaviour are. I do perceive a few elements though.
A need to demonstrate “uniqueness.”
A desire to challenge the perceived authority figures in the room.
On a deeper level, there may even be a desire to be challenged back and to finally capitulate to the feelings repressed inside.
The need to feel Unique & the Protection of Inner Space
Another well-recorded aspect to the conspiracy theory believer is a need to sense themselves as unique. However they behaved towards authority physically throughout their childhood - whether they fought back or submitted - at a mental level they will invariably have fought. Though perhaps only in their inner world.
Either because of the way that authority manifested in their life, or because of some pre-existing personality trait, they simply did not trust authority to much depth.
Along with this lack of trust comes a deep need to sense oneself as unique. Their resistance to authority at a mental level is resistance to a perceived invasion of their inner space. What they believe they are protecting in their inner space is their uniqueness, their essence. When suddenly triggered by a confrontation with authority, they will protect their inner space by refusing to obey and by seeking ways to assert their uniqueness.
The aspect of their inner space that they seek to protect is that experienced in surrender. Because as children, for whatever reason, they did not trust authority enough to surrender, they have not experienced what it is like. They do not know what it is like to fall and be caught, to let go and be held. The need to regularly project themselves as unique is borne out of this fear of surrender.
Part 2 - The World
What is Real Anyway?
The notion of there existing a real world is critical to society. Finally, if we don’t broadly conform to some form of “consensual reality” then we will not get our needs met.
We might realistically assert that the world of our senses, that we all share with one another, is real, or at least appears the same to the majority of us. However, can we say the same about how we each interpret this world? Or about what actually happened in the past? Is the world of our interpretations really as fixed as the world of our senses appears to be?
I submit that it is not. We each have built our own inner models of how to interpret what is going on around us. We each live in our own world.
Education practices and mass media have, in reality, given each culture a sufficiently uniform vision of how the world is to allow the average citizen to at least have a realistic go at getting his or her needs met. However, the huge conformity in how most Westerners, for example, interpret the world does not mean that it really is so uniform. Rather, this has been created simply through so many of us being immersed in the same educational and ongoing news media.
At the age of 22, I dropped out of society. I lived on sofas, on the streets and then in squats. I wanted to see what life was like outside of what I felt intuitively to be a very closed vision of it that most of my peers seemed to ascribe to. I came into contact with the brutal, street-level hierarchies that existed in 80s London for the underclasses. I was a punk. I got involved in crime. I got involved in alternative politics. In my thirties, I became a devotee of conspiracy theories, and later involved in therapy and spirituality.
My notion of reality was constantly tested throughout this time, no more so than in my time around the conspiracy scene. One thing I came to see clearly was that the word “culture” truly did come from the word “cult” - in more ways that one.
All societies, all cultures are cult-like. They are a gathering together of people in a shared vision of reality and how life should be. The belief that the society you are in currently is “normal” and that other societies are “weird,” “bad,” or “cults,” is finally nothing more than one aspect of belonging to any one society. We usually protect our culture from invasion, and part of this is by viewing alternatives pejoratively. In a more enlightened world, perhaps, people could try out different societies or cultures and simply choose the one that worked the best for them. Or take each as a learning, a way to develop experience.
One consequence of this enclosed, “cult-like” aspect of all societies is that, just as we share hopes, dreams and visions of the future, so we also share fears. The culture we are in has programmed us to be a certain way, invariably without our consent, and any experience or behaviour outside the bounds of our cultural norms will be treated fearfully.
Thus, on a psychological level, conspiracy theories which posit a version of reality at odds to the prevailing culture will create fear and suspicion in the minds of non-believers. Seeing specific conspiracy theories sweep over a culture, such as QAnon material has done in modern-day America, will generate considerable pushback from those who are concerned that their culture is being rendered in two by this invasion.
Concerned citizens understandably seek to assert an objective truth as both a means to “de-program” believers and to prevent others from being drawn in. But, in trying to re-establish order, they are up against a variety of forces.
Rationality Alone Will Not Save Us
In considering why conspiracy theories seem so enduring, we must consider that any resilient conspiracy theory will, of its nature, be hard to absolutely falsify. If it was easy to falsify, it likely wouldn’t endure.
What is even more troublesome is that falsifying anything is actually a great deal harder than most of us have been taught! Even in the West, with its deep reverence for science and rationality, it is proving by no means easy to categorically falsify conspiracy theories. Certainly not to the satisfaction of many believers.
This is due in part to the fact that interpretive reality is not only personal but also can be skewed to our unconscious predisposition, as we saw in Part 1.
However, a secondary issue with establishing truth lies once again with how our brain evolved. Yes, we have a great capacity for rationality. Western science has indisputably made huge advances through the way we have harnessed objectivity and rationality in the observation of phenomena. But these functions of our “higher mind” are unfortunately subservient to mid-brain and brain stem functions - those that we inherited from our evolutionary past. When our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is triggered by any perceived threat, our access to rationality is severely limited.
We saw in Part 1 how the more rational bunny rabbit would not outlive the more reactive one. Likewise, through natural selection, our brains have furnished our nervous system with the capacity to simply cut off access to our rational mind when under threat, a process sometimes referred to as “limbic hijacking.”
Understanding this, let’s now look at what happens when, in a real life situation, a threat triggers this whole process into action…
1) Spring 2020: Widespread concern about Covid-19 causes governmental bodies to rapidly invoke behavioural practices to control its spread. Citizens are asked to abide by a series of measures - maintaining social-distancing, wearing masks or remaining indoors.
2) For those citizens with repressed authority issues, their autonomic nervous system (ANS) registers a deeper threat from the stance of authority than from that of the virus. Their bodies course with adrenaline in preparation to fight or flee. They rapidly adopt conspiracy narratives from the internet or social media to justify non-compliance, either mentally, physically or both. Their access to rationality is severely restricted in this state of threat-dominated readiness.
3) The government, media and concerned citizens try to increase adoption of anti-Covid measures and to stop the prevalence of conspiracy narratives. They do this by promoting scientific articles about the pandemic and trying to build a rational consensus towards compliance. However, whilst for the majority this does deepen the conviction that measures need to be followed, it appears to have little effect on the believers in conspiracy and so further polarises the situation.
4) This is because, as we have seen above, trying to use rationality as a means to push back against narrative warfare being mediated by the ANS is largely a waste of time. The majority of those who believe in the conspiracy do not change their mind and may even double-down on their position.
5) Change can only happen once the ANS-mediated sense of threat has diminished in the brains of individual conspiracy believers. This is the threat they perceive from authority. This usually will happen over a period of weeks or perhaps months, because it is hard to stay at this level of ANS arousal for long periods of time. At this point the believers will usually be okay to comply behaviourally with Covid measures. But, internally, in their belief system little will have changed. It is simply that they perceive that the immediate threat from authority has now passed.
Some Conspiracies are Real
The usual reaction that non-believers have to conspiracy material is that it is simply stupid or ridiculous. This is a means to create psychological distance from the suggested reality of the material and a normal human defensive behaviour. However, it is unequivocally the case that some conspiracies are real.
As mammals, a big part of our psychology relates to dominance and hierarchies. Power attracts us. And the desire for power often leads to conspiratorial behaviour. It’s hard to imagine Machiavelli, the Rockefellers or the Borgias getting too far up the hierarchical ladder without a great deal of conspiring. In these days of corporate takeovers and transnational expansionism, is it hard to believe that a lot of deals are worked out in the dark?
It is thus natural for us to ask the question, “Who benefits?” when presented with a situation that feels suspicious to us. If there is a clear beneficiary, it is of course tempting to believe in a conspiracy. Even if a logical explanation can be found, it is also the case that it is not necessarily correct.
In his famous book, Case Closed, investigative journalist Gerald Posner demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald could have killed John F. Kennedy. However, this still does not demonstrate that he necessarily did. Likewise, even if there is a clear beneficiary, and a clear path by which an event could have occurred, it is not necessarily the case that a conspiracy has taken place. It’s good to get clear here.
Before closing this chapter, I would like to re-iterate that all societies, all cultures, are cult-like, in that they are closed-in worlds that large numbers of people inhabit. They only don’t appear that way when we have become so wrapped up in one that we have lost much of the sense that things could be different. When we don’t have a point from which to observe our own culture objectively, we inevitably react defensively to anything outside of it.
This reactivity is inevitable, but it can also hamper considerably that culture’s means to heal itself and develop. We tend to use the word “weird” when actually “different” might be more useful.
Part 3 - Healing
I wanted to write something about how one might go about healing family situations or friendships that have been torn apart by conspiracy beliefs. The distress non-believing family members and friends usually feel is often doubled in intensity by this specific type of situation.
Firstly, we feel the loss of connection with the person, who now may spend much of their day on the internet, absorbed in conspiracy material. They seem to have entered their own private world. They may also be openly critical of us or others, or simply avoiding even getting into any discussion with us.
Secondly, the world they are getting wrapped up in may appear deeply weird and scary to us. We may find ourselves doubly triggered by the loss of connection, and by the sense that some unseen, scary force has taken possession of our friend or loved one.
What we will see is that it is this sense of fear surrounding conspiracy theories, whilst entirely natural, greatly exacerbates not only the sense of disconnection but also the difficulties in creating healing.
Offer Connection Rather Than Opposition
If you are concerned about a family member, relative or friend who has fallen into the world of conspiracy theories and you wish to reach out to them, there is one question you are going to have to ask yourself before you begin.
Am I trying to create a connection with this person?
Or am I seeking to assert my version of reality upon them?
This can be a deep question, and it may not be simple to answer. You may sincerely wish to have this person back in your life as they were before, but you may also be highly triggered by conspiracy material, and feel your own mind simply pushing it away through fear.
Is this is you, then you need to decide whether you want connection on its own terms, or whether you also need the other to share the same beliefs as you. If it’s the latter, in my experience, you are unlikely to get far in recreating the connection.
This does not mean that you need to become a conspiracy theorist in order to reconnect. But it will require you to realise that simply trying to be rational may not get far.
I mention this because what most concerned relatives do is to try and offer evidence that demonstrates that the conspiracy theory is not correct. They build up, from science or history, what they believe will be an overwhelming case for their perspective and then present it to the person. This rarely has any positive effect and often makes things worse.
In many ways, in doing this, you have become sucked into a game of trying to prove who’s wrong and who’s right. It’s really not easy to create much healing in this way.
What is invariably a better approach is to go just for the connection in a structured manner. Here are the steps that I believe will best help you to move forwards positively once you have sat down with someone to have a conversation.
1) Assert emphatically the person’s right to believe whatever they wish. Take an actual position for them. Show them respect. This is especially important if you are parents talking to one of your children.
2) Assert gently your own right to believe what you wish. If you have done Step 1 well, often this will be met with little resistance.
3) Now that you’ve created respectful boundaries, and got rid of the “I’m right, you’re wrong” aspect, you can move forwards towards connection. Open your heart and say how you have been missing the person. Do not go into the conspiracy material. Just keep it totally human and heart-to-heart. Maintain your sense of respect for them to believe whatever they wish, but allow them to hear what you need from them in terms of connection.
4) This may be a journey, it may take more than one sit-down together. But I have found this approach to often pay off. You need to accept that it may be beyond your control to change what they believe. But when you do this, connection does become much easier. And, paradoxically, the chances of them slackening off on their conspiracy beliefs actually increases.
5) If your attempt to create respectful boundaries around your belief systems is not working, you may have to gently pull back for a while. Where the person is at may include them experiencing a need to “convince you of the truth.” If you feel this is happening during your sit-down, do not get sucked into a fight. Simply keep your heart open, explain that you don’t wish to continue at this point, and withdraw. Stay in the “higher ground” of seeking connection rather than trying to assert who’s story is right. Over time, I believe this approach will work, even with die hard conspiracy theorists. Keep coming back to standing up for mutual respect and it will work out.
If you are, or have been, strongly into conspiracy theories, or as a therapist you have clients from this background, this section will contain some information on strategies that can be employed.
The intention of therapy here is not “stop someone believing in conspiracy theories,” but rather to allow them to investigate more deeply what is going on in their psyche.
There are at least three strong markers that you can look for, to give you an idea of whether you are likely in the grip of an unconscious charge.
1) You experience a huge fervour for the material. This might take the form of becoming obsessive about reading conspiracies online. It might include getting into areas, such as science or history, that perhaps previously you had little interest in.
2) You feel compelled to seek like-minded believers or recruit people to your belief.
3) You feel extremely triggered by the notion of having to comply with authority.
Let’s take a closer look at these. The fervour that many conspiracy theorists exhibit is essentially a way that the mind is using to channel the unconscious charge that has been activated. What has happened is that something going on in the world has activated a stored charge in the person’s unconscious mind and this is triggering a strong anxiety reaction.
Rather than go directly into this reaction and just feel it, what happens is that the mind seeks a way to justify non-compliance. This non-compliance will always be mental but may also include being physically non-compliant. Mental non-compliance is simply a refusal to believe what authority is saying. Physical non-compliance is refusing to do what authority is asking.
The conspiracy theory fulfils the psychological need to justify non-compliance. But there is still this huge charge of repressed energy that has been triggered. The mind elects to channel this charge into activity. Thus the conspiracy believer may find themselves filled with energy, possessed by a huge fervour for the conspiracy. It may seem to them that they are on fire with it.
If this charge can be dissipated then the person will much better know how rational their theory actually is. Therapies such as emotional expression, Bioenergetics, myo-fascial release and Rolfing are a few of the options that have the specific aim of removing charge.
The nature of these types of therapy, however, mean that this process will unlikely be complete in one session. There has to be an actual physical release of what therapists usually call “holding patterns” and this does take time. But whilst it might take some months or even years to liberate and integrate all of the stored charge, once some has gone the individual will usually begin to become more suspicious of their reasons for adopting conspiracy beliefs.
Once the charge has been significantly released, the person will be able to more rationally evaluate the conspiracy material. This does not mean that they will necessarily become compliant. They may rationally evaluate it and conclude that it is valid. But it will mean that their mind now no longer has an unconscious need to invest in a theory. They can be open to a range of alternative possibilities and rationally evaluate each one.
Dispelling the charge of repressed energy from the unconscious will also release the need to recruit others to one’s belief, or to spend hours reading more and more conspiracy material. These behaviours serve merely to bolster the original story.
In addition to the approach of releasing charge, individuals can also work on any issues they have with trusting authority. There are specific confrontational therapeutic structures that allow someone to become more relaxed and trusting of authority. It can also be really useful to simply have someone to talk to about your relationship with authority, as a child, and now.
Complying with authority is finally triggering for pretty much anyone, in my experience. Ultimately, we will need to feel actual love for the authority to fully comply, at a mental level, in our beliefs. But there are degrees here. If you recognise that you have a very high level of triggering from being asked to comply with simple requests then it will be good to investigate more your relationship with authority.
What Governments Can Do
For most people these days, their government is the highest perceived authority that plays an active role in their life. When considering the events in modern history which have provoked the most adoption of conspiracy narratives - the assassination of JFK, 9-11 and Covid-19 - the role of government has been critical.
Finally, the job of government is not to pander to conspiracy theorists but to seek to investigate and assert the truth of a situation in as transparent a manner as possible. They are the great authority figure who finally we all need to come to terms with, and it is not appropriate in my opinion for them to overly soften their role or their stance.
However, this said, being in this role of high authority also confers a level of healing agency upon government too. Without pandering to conspiracy theorists, they also can use this paternal power in a wise manner that may help the situation.
Prior to the emergence of Covid-19 in 2020, the event which likely triggered the most conspiracy material in recent history was the destruction of the twin towers of the New York World Trade Centre in 2001, an event now usually known as 9-11.
Sometime in the wake of that disaster, and the wealth of conspiracy material it generated, I took note of something very interesting that I saw happen.
Within a few years of 2001, it was clear that many Americans were deeply distrustful of the official version of events. Conspiracy theory videos, such as Loose Change or Zeitgeist, topped the viewings list on internet video sites like Google Video or YouTube. Content creators making badly edited videos in their bedrooms on laptops were actually getting as much exposure as mainstream media news broadcasts.
As the years passed, it seemed that, instead of dying down, the fervour for conspiracy theories about 9-11 was actually increasing. Most theories centred around claims that the impact from the hijacked airliners could not have caused the World Trade Centre buildings - WTC-1, WTC-2 and especially WTC-7 - to have collapsed in the way they did. The alternative theory was that these buildings were subject to controlled demolition through explosive charges having been pre-set within them.
Midway through the 2000s, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published its report on the 9-11 disaster, looking in detail at how and why the buildings collapsed in the way they did. Highly recognised physicists, metallurgists and construction experts all weighed in with their views. What I found particularly interesting, from a psychological angle, was the way that the NIST report did give time to addressing the leading conspiracy theories. It actually went into them and provided counter-evidence to the claims.
Whatever one might personally believe to be the truth, this taking seriously of conspiracy material by the presiding authority to my mind will have considerably ameliorated the situation in America. Symbolically, the father is giving attention to the wayward kids. He is listening to what they say and giving them respect. Regardless of what the father finally says to be the truth, this is an act of healing. Authority is behaving respectfully and this will release some of the psychological charge that accumulated through this not happening adequately in childhood.
I don’t know of any evidence as to whether the publication of the NIST report did cause 9-11 conspiracy theories to die down. But I would personally be willing to bet that this was the case.
Part 4 - The Good that Conspiracy Theories May Do
In writing this article, I consider that I have been pretty heavy on those who uphold conspiracy theories. I have not delved deeply into the “mind of the conspiracy sceptic” - the person who staunchly denies all conspiracies. This person most definitely also exists and, in my experience, frequently has their own psychological bias driven by childhood experience.
Instead of going into that, to conclude this article what I would like to do is to speculate a little on how conspiracy theories may actually fulfil certain useful functions in our world.
How Cultures Reap what they Sow
In their popular 2005 book, Freakonomics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, observed and wrote about many interesting macro-phenomena in our emerging world. One that struck me in particular was the “goes around, comes around” aspect of Nicolai Ceaucescu’s long rule over Romania. Ceaucescu illegalised abortion early into his dictatorship. Levitt hypothesised that the generations of unwanted children that this action created finally led to there being enough revolutionaries to overthrow and execute Ceaucescu a couple of decades down the line.
In similar manner, we might consider whether American culture in particular is somehow “breeding conspiracy theorists” through its child-rearing practices.
As the leading exponent of modern industrial capitalism, US culture has for generations provided a childhood inevitably deficient in fathering. Most Dads are away at work for a great deal of their children’s upbringing. In addition, they may understandably be tired each evening upon returning and find themselves simply unable to optimally fulfil their paternal role. For the kids, this situation is a long way from what they naturally expect. Our primate ancestors had fathers who were much more present.
It is somewhat inevitable that this situation generates kids who frequently have a bad connection with authority and who thus may be more prone to select conspiracy theories as a means to understand the world.
Certainly, in Asia, for example, issues with authority appear a great deal rarer. The average citizen in Thailand, for example, where I have spent some time, appears way more respectful to people in authority, be they police officers, government officials or bank clerks. There may well be subsidiary reasons for this, but I would personally be fairly sure that childhood experience of the father is a big aspect.
There may thus be a “goes around, comes around” aspect to American industrial capitalism. In the short term, great wealth has been generated. Of that there can be no doubt. But will the following decades cause America to topple from its high perch under the weight of conspiracy theories, rather in the way that Ceaucescu finally reaped what he sowed? It’s food for thought.
Cultural Evolution via Narrative Warfare
There is a reason why certain stories, myths and narratives attract us specifically, as we have seen in Part 1. When we have a stored energetic charge in the psyche from our childhood experience, in order to avoid coming into contact with that charge, we will adopt as real any narrative that allows us to do just that.
If we have authority wounds and the narrative means that we don’t have to surrender to authority then it will be disproportionately attractive to us.
(This actually does not only apply to authority issues, but to any psychological issue that leaves an energetic charge in the psyche. Thus, to avoid feeling a charge of anger, for example, some may find Buddhist stories compelling.)
This happens on a personal level, but also on a societal one. Child-rearing practices finally result in the creation of differing groups of people, based around the charge held unconsciously in the psyche, and the strategies employed to avoid feeling it. At some point, a type of memetic, or narrative, warfare begins, as holders of differing types of charge (or adopters of differing avoidance behaviours) become proponents of different belief systems.
They face off, usually on social media. Finally, this progression looks something like this:
childhood upbringing, leading to…
stored emotional charge and strategies to avoid feeling it, leading to…
adoption of differing narratives as truth, leading to…
Conspiracy Theories can Open the Mind
I personally witnessed just how invested I actually was in my culturally-inherited version of history when I began to take seriously conspiracy theories. Aside of experiencing a high level of personal energy through the triggering process written about earlier, I also, over the course of years, became far less defensive when confronted with alternative cultures and alternative histories. I could rationally evaluate alternative ways of living without being highly triggered because they were different from my own upbringing.
Without being aware of it, being brought up in 60s and 70s Britain had heavily indoctrinated me to be “a Brit,” and had given me a simple vision of the world. I was so much in it that, even though I didn’t fit in very well, it didn’t really occur to me that my way of going through life might not be the only option. I just assumed that it was my fault that my life appeared sub-standard and dropped out.
Many people I have spoken to from alternative scenes in the West have had their time around the conspiracy scene. Most of those that came out do relate how expanded they finally were by the experience. Like taking psychedelic substances, I do often feel that people who have simply followed the path that their culture laid out for them have missed out on life. There is an inner tension and usually a reliance on culturally-sanctioned strategies such as tobacco, alcohol, blaming and complaining. You have to be willing to come a little way off the narrow track in order to develop.
Whilst many conspiracy theories might undoubtedly not be true, this does not mean they mightn’t be without benefit in a culture that so simply programs the average citizen to work and expect little from life.
Conspiracy theories as “Spiritual Pushback”
Okay, let’s get a little more out there now. Imagine for a minute that some of the more prevailing conspiracy theories actually are true. Imagine that the world really is run by an elitist cult who control the mass media and who are slowly trying to draw all of humanity into a vast web of control, from which none shall escape.
If such an organisation did exist, say at a human level or in some spiritual dimension, how would it likely be structured? Well, my experience of organisations is that they tend to be structured pretty similarly. We all know the top-down structure of the modern corporation. There are individual cells that work on different aspects of the business, and these are drawn together in a hierarchical structure that allows the overall direction to be controlled. It seems to work efficiently.
When the FBI have uncovered organised crime networks, they have discovered that these organisations structure themselves in a remarkably similar manner.
Thus, efficient structure seems to be ubiquitous. So it is therefore reasonable to assume that any elitist, world-controlling organisation that might exist would also be filled with different characters fulfilling different roles and organised hierarchically. As in any continually evolving organisation, there will be younger, more progressive types and those who instead hanker after the old ways.
Say for a moment that our proposed evil organisation do undertake horrible rites and rituals, supposedly to help forward their evil plan, as is held to be true in many popular conspiracy theories. Now, what is going to happen when large numbers of regular citizens begin to believe that this is happening?
Mass beliefs of this type act as push-back, just as they do in the corporate world. Companies seen as polluting the environment, for example, begin to change their ways in the wake of large numbers of citizens becoming aware of their behaviour.
Thus, it is not unreasonable to assume that the widespread adoptance of specific conspiracy theories acts to empower those in evil orgs who are more progressive. Every senior executive worldwide these days knows that being able to adapt to a rapidly changing corporate environment is a prerequisite for survival. I see no reason why the heads of an elitist evil organisation would think any different. Seeing that some of their old ways of behaving are becoming conspicuous, so the heads will empower the more progressive types within their orgs to create change, less their whole enterprise become uncovered.
This line of reasoning is of course highly speculative. But I would be willing to bet that, in his 30 year career as a conspiracy researcher, David Icke has caused considerable change in the upper echelons of society behind the scenes. Big powerful organisations will absolutely do what it takes to survive and if this has to be done in secrecy then that is how it is.
We might even hypothesise on a deeper and more long-term level. What if there were a plan to slowly bring humanity up from its humble beginnings and to create a global state of peace, prosperity and spirituality? But that this plan had to be undertaken in relative secrecy in order for it to work? This is what some who have researched the origins of America in the eighteenth century have concluded. In such a situation, and given that a small number of people would inevitably be wielding vast power, perhaps conspiracy theories are a way to push into the organisation, to create change and ensure that it doesn’t stray too far from the positive path that it is meant to be on.
In all these things, we will almost certainly never know.
Thank you for reading this article.