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Here is how you can deal with conspiracy theory conversations

There many discussions now about conspiracy theories. About QAnon, Covid and BLM, for instance. Here is a summary about how to deal people believing and promoting them. It was published in Dagens Nyheter, September 17th. Its written by the psychologist Martin Forster.

The other day I met a dear friend I had not seen in a while. We have kept in touch via social media, some text messages and so on. Some things he shared were a bit strange, but it made me even more motivated to meet and talk about life and the world.

When we met he told me about many frightening connections that he had read online and that he was completely convinced were true. Things that I would dismiss as absurd conspiracy theories that spread to cause insecurity, fear and powerlessness.

My friend was panicking and wondering where to go to escape the dangers he experiences.

My friend was panicking and wondering where to go to escape the dangers he experiences.

My friend's anxiety and fear made me sad and at the same time unsure of what to do to help . I wanted to take my friend by the hand and say "trust me, all that is a lie". But I think it would only make things worse. There is a lot to be worried about in the time we live in - but it's awful to see someone be so afraid of something that I perceive is made up just to be intimidated. This in turn scares me, but maybe it's me who's wrong?

Do you have any advice?


"A friend"

Summary of Martin Forsters response

Thanks for your letter. I think it's nice of you to try to help your friend, who is obviously not feeling well from the ideas that have taken root in his mind. On the contrary, people who try to listen to conspiracy theories are often dismissed or ridiculed. The lack of understanding from the environment drives the person to instead seek out like-minded people, who are only a few clicks away.

This process is an important reason why some get lost in conspiracy theories. It is also related to the social climate in general, as conspiracy theories have proven to be more common in societies characterized by polarization.

Your way of acting therefore gives hope, because you reach out a hand instead of distancing yourself. If society as a whole can show the same empathy and kindness for odd perceptions, without legitimizing them for that reason, the breeding ground for conspiracy theories is weakened. Over time, your caring and kindness may help your friend open the door to alternative perspectives.

I will return to how you can try to help your friend over the threshold.

Research shows it is quite normal to have false or unfounded ideas about how things are.

Research shows it is quite normal to have false or unfounded ideas about how things are. I want to emphasize that conspiracy theories should therefore not be treated as a valid version of the truth. The point is rather to reduce the stigma. In order to shake off such perceptions, they should be treated with empathy.

At the same time, just listening and showing empathy is seldom enough. Should you also try to question your friend's ideas?

Not entirely. Research has also shown that false notions can be reinforced when confronted with arguments and facts, but only in certain circumstances. There is also a lot of research on better ways to influence the perceptions and attitudes of others.

I'll try to summarize it in some tips on how to talk to your friend.

First, your friend will probably be more open to alternative approaches if he or she can formulate them himself. Before you give your view on the matter, you ask questions to broaden the perspective. "Is there any other possible explanation for this? What does that explanation mean? What speaks against? ” Try to have a dialogue where the questions are not only about what would speak against the conspiracy theory and for the alternative explanation. Reason without confrontation.

Second, it's good to encourage your friend to take other people's perspective. I guess your friend has come across people (online) who have expressed beliefs that the friend himself does not believe. What has the friend felt in such situations? How would he talk to that person? What arguments would he raise? How can it be that some people believe in that conspiracy theory?

Third, once you have your own point of view, it is better to talk about what you believe, rather than talking about what is wrong with your friend's theory. You thus present an alternative approach, which reduces the risk that the friend will feel questioned and start sharpening his own arguments for the conspiracy theory. Another point is to avoid that the conversation is largely about the friend's performance, because the content of the conspiracy theory then risks being repeated and worn out.

This is the effect Donald Trump uses when he tweets a lie, which countless journalists then repeat in their perhaps critical articles. In the end, the public only remembers the false statement.

Fourth, it's good to keep your version short and simple. Sprinkling with facts and arguments is seldom a good strategy. A simple conspiracy theory can be more attractive than a complex and elusive alternative explanation.

Fifth, you should pay attention to whether the conspiracy theory is related to your friend's wider worldview or identity. For example, if someone believes in a theory about a government that deliberately destroys the environment with a hitherto unknown poison, the person will be more reluctant to listen to facts about whether he is also a strong environmentalist.

In such cases, it is important to reaffirm fundamental values ​​and perceptions, as in this example, that the environmental issue is important and that many governments act irresponsibly.

In addition to being empathetic, the conclusion of your question also shows that you have an open mind. I think that will facilitate your conversations, compared to if you had a black and white view of true and false.

At the same time, of course, you must be prepared for your friend not to give in an inch. If someone has invested a lot of time and effort in a conspiracy theory, it can be very difficult to lead the mind into other paths. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is keep in touch with your friend, even if he is stubborn with his ideas. He can get a more balanced view of life and start to feel a little better as long as various internet forums is the only interaction.

Martin Forster, psychologist

At www.forster.se/referenserjuni there are references to research concerning the answer.

If you want to explore more on how to deal with difficult conversations with people that have different opinions or world views, do sign up for a online Fika seminar here.

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