Jan 22 2021

Q Shows How Pernicious Conspiracy Theories Are

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, we find faithful adherents who have been waiting literally to the end of time for the return of their prophet. Now that’s dedication – but more on point, that is some extreme motivated reasoning. It turns out, the prophet does return to usher in a new age of utopia, literally with 1 second left to the universe.

While this is humorous fiction, it does highlight a reality of human psychology. Over the centuries there have been many doomsday or other cults who instilled their followers with the firm belief that something dramatic would happen at a specific time. This could be the second coming, the apocalypse, the rapture, or beaming onboard alien spaceships. The point is that something undeniably huge was supposed to happen, something you cannot pretend did happen when it didn’t. Cult followers who likely gave up their lives, all their worldly possessions, their relationships outside the cult, and often their reputations – all for that one glorious event – then have to face the reality that it did not happen. Often the cult leader will say something along the lines of, “Oops, I forgot to carry the 2, the world will end next Tuesday. But this is only a temporary reprieve, and does not change the fact that the leader was wrong, and can no longer claim infallibility.

When smacked in the face with undeniable reality, what do most people in these extreme situations do? Our initial instinct (probably from imagining ourselves in that situation) is that, as painful as it may be, reality will finally settle and they will have to admit the whole thing was a scam. But of course that is not what typically happens. Most people in that situation double down, dedicate themselves even more fanatically to the cult’s core beliefs, and go on a recruiting drive. Psychologically it is clear why they might do this – the fantasy is easier to deal with than the harsh reality. What really surprises people is the nimbleness of the mental gymnastics necessary to maintain false belief directly in the strong headwinds of reality. This is where motivated reasoning comes in.

We are now witnessing this moment of reckoning with another cult – Q-anon. Make no mistake, this is a conspiracy theory based cult. Believers in Q have been lead to believe absurd things, the core being that the world is being run by a ring of Satan-worshiping pedophiles (we known them as Democrats). Perhaps even more improbable is the claim that Trump is secretly a genius who has been tirelessly working to save the world. Everything that has happened over the last four years, from the Mueller investigation to the impeachment, was a false flag hiding Trump’s true agenda. And like the Cylons – Trump had a plan, even if we did not know exactly what it was.

The dramatic moment that Q adherents have been waiting for they call “the Storm”. This was the point that Trump exposes the Satanic overlords of the world, arrests them all, and then engages in an orgy of executions and imprisonment, ushering in a golden age of ‘Merica the way it is supposed to be (I guess without liberals). Like the adherents from the Hitchiker’s Guide, Q believers kept waiting and waiting, but the Storm never came. They had to alter and adapt their narrative to unfolding events. No matter what happened, it was all part of the Plan. Trump lost the election – that was part of the plan, I guess. The Jan. 6th coup attempt failed – that was the plan also. Everything came to a head on inauguration day, which was 1 second before the end of the universe for Q. Believers gathered, certain that at the last moment Trump would come in, with those troops he cleverly made sure would fill the capital, and arrest Biden and his entire cabal, and take his place as president for another four years.

As we know, this did not happen. Trump slinked away to Mar-a-Lago, and Biden is now president. No one should be surprised that Q followers will not just put down their signs, take off their Q T-shirts, shrug and go on with normal lives. The press is reporting the shock of this disappointment but saying that some followers are disillusioned. Give it time. Motivated reasoning sometimes takes a day or two. They’ll get there. (Mostly – it is possible some people may quietly give it up.)

The Washington Post, for example, reports on a Q-believer named Tiffany:

But after a night of processing the day’s events by reading QAnon promoters’ posts, she said she believes that everything is still humming along according to plan — and that Trump’s election loss was all part of Q’s master strategy to expose the evildoers who corrupted the vote.

“Things have just started,” said Tiffany, who spoke on the condition she’d be identified only by her first name for fear of harassment. “They had to ‘commit’ the crime to fully lock the deal.”

And she sticks the landing – and is rewarded with a nice shot of dopamine as a massive rationalization washes over Tiffany’s brain, erasing all that nasty cognitive dissonance. How long can this be sustainable? Indefinitely – the Q-conspiracy will evolve, adapt, and morph into whatever its adherents can make up to keep the narrative going (people are clever this way – just look at the final season of Lost). This is a real concern, because Q has already demonstrated a willingness to engage in violence and to undermine our democracy. They have been radicalized, and are now a loaded weapon ready to be exploited by the next puppet-master.

It’s easy to make fun of people who have been lead to believe truly absurd things, such as the flat-Earthers or Q-anon. But we do need to recognize that, for the most part, these are normal people who have been sucked into a psychological pit of quicksand. We do need to have a bit of humility, and a “there but for the vagaries of fate go I” mentality. Q is exploiting mostly generic human psychological tendencies and cognitive pitfalls. Conspiracy and cult-like thinking are mental traps, and they have been dramatically boosted by social media algorithms and weaponized by extremists.

It is true that studies show there are statistical differences in certain cognitive styles that predispose to conspiracy thinking. Primarily, those who score higher on tests of intuitive thinking vs analytical thinking appear to be more susceptible to conspiracy thinking. Conspiracies also attract those who have real mental illness, or who can be considered to have a delusional disorder. But surveys also show that most people who believe in one or two grand conspiracies do so selectively, usually because they are in line with their preexisting ideology. A small subset, however, believe in pretty-much all conspiracies because they are dedicated conspiracy theorists.

This still leaves most people who get sucked into a grand conspiracy theory as regular people, who at most have a predisposition but are otherwise just fine. This presents a challenge to our post social-media society – have we created a monster. Have we created a drug that is so addictive it will unravel the fabric of our society? And more importantly, what do we do about it? What Q shows us is that we cannot ignore this phenomenon, pretend it is a curiosity on the fringe, or that it is confined to a minority of “kooks”. These are all dismissive attitudes. Q has mainstreamed the most extreme conspiracy nonsense, and has lead to an actual siege on our capital, which posed a serious (although thankfully avoided) threat to the lives of our representatives. Q believers have been elected to federal office. They are not going away, and may become even more radicalized going forward.

Conspiracy theories are pernicious, and they need to be recognized and treated like the threat they are.

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