How to talk to someone about conspiracy theories in five easy steps

How to talk to someone about conspiracy theories in five easy steps

How to talk to someone about conspiracy theories in five easy steps

These conversations may be difficult, but they are important. Credit: Aloha Hawaii/Shutterstock

People’s first instinct when engaging with conspiracy believers is often to try to debunk their ideas with factual and authoritative information.

However, direct confrontation rarely works. Conspiracy theories are compelling and often play on people’s feelings and sense of identity. While debunking conspiracy theories has been effective, it’s difficult to keep up with how quickly they emerge and how widespread they are. A study showed that in 2015 and 2016, the number of Zika virus conspiracy theories propagators on Twitter was double that of debunkers.

But research into how to talk to conspiracy believers is starting to show signs of fruition. We’ve developed some conversation prompts you can use with people you know or just meet. But first, if you’re going to address someone’s conspiracy beliefs, you need to consider the root causes.

People are drawn to conspiracy theories to satisfy three psychological needs. They want more security, to feel in control, and to maintain a positive image of themselves and the group. In times of crisis like the COVID pandemic, these needs tend to become frustrated and people’s desire to understand the world becomes more pressing.

However, conspiracy beliefs do not seem to meet these psychological needs and can even make things worse for people by increasing their insecurity and fear. Conspiracy theories not only affect people’s state of mind, they can also affect behavior.

For example, a month later, people who believed in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories — such as the idea that drug companies are covering up the dangers of vaccines — reported more negative attitudes towards vaccination and an increased sense of powerlessness. That’s why it’s so important to reach out to conspiracy believers.

What we learned

A key tool in reducing conspiracy beliefs is the power of social norms. People overestimate how much others believe in conspiracy theories, which affects how confident they are in themselves. A 2021 study found that addressing this misconception with information about what people actually believe diluted the strength of anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs in a sample of British adults.

Vaccination is also a promising route. Giving people factual information before exposing them to conspiracy theories can reduce belief in them. This approach could work well in cases like vaccinations, where people may not think much about the issue before it becomes important to them (e.g. when they have to decide whether their children should be vaccinated).

You can also vaccinate yourself. Research has found that the way people think about control can make them less likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories. People who are focused on achieving goals find conspiracy theories less attractive than those who are fixated on protecting what they already have. The authors of this paper argued that focusing on shaping your future fosters a sense of control that reduces conspiracy belief.

To help with these difficult discussions with conspiracy believers, we’ve developed some evidence-based conversation starters.

1. Be open-minded

An open-minded approach starts with asking questions and listening. It builds understanding with the person. Listen carefully and avoid defending your own beliefs. Ask questions like these:

“When did you first start believing in (the conspiracy theory for short)? And how did that affect you psychologically? What do these beliefs offer you?”

2. Be receptive

Work on what psychologists call conversational readiness to foster empathy that can bridge the gap between the beliefs you both hold. Say things like:

“I understand that …; So you say…; How does it make you feel?; Tell me more…; I listen; and thanks for sharing.”

3. Critical thinking

Affirm the value of critical thinking.

If your conversation partner already perceives themselves as a critical thinker, redirect that ability to a deeper exploration of the conspiracy theory itself. For example:

“We probably both agree that it’s important to ask questions. But it’s important that we evaluate all the evidence. We need to weigh the information and make sure we review the evidence that we agree with, as well as the things that we don’t like or that make us uncomfortable.”

4. Conspiracy theories are not the norm

Emphasize that conspiracy theories are not as common as people might think.

Reshaping social norms can help meet people’s need to protect a group with which they identify. Such as:

“It’s far more common than you might think for your neighbors to get vaccinated and protect themselves against COVID-19. People want to work together to protect our community. It’s about all of us trying to help people with diseases who don’t have the choice to get vaccinated.”

5. Think about what can be controlled

Encourage them to move forward and inspire them to put their energy into areas of their life where they feel more in control, such as:

“There are some aspects of our lives over which we have no control, but there are many areas where we have full agency. Let’s list some examples where we have power and independence that we can then focus on.”

These conversations can be difficult, but they are crucial. With an empathetic, understanding and open-minded approach, trust is fostered. Research shows that gaining a person’s trust is important to prevent radicalisation.

Reassure the person when they’re feeling insecure, make them feel more in control when they’re worried or powerless, and help them socialize when they’re feeling isolated.

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Citation: How to Talk to Someone About Conspiracy Theories in Five Simple Steps (2023, January 20), retrieved January 20, 2023 from

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