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QAnon: A historic test of psychological theory

HEADS UP PARENTS: This post is not really kid-friendly. Grown up eyes only.

The jig is up. The storm didn’t come. Q was a hoax. Those who believed in QAnon had a face-planting crash into reality this month, and it hasn’t been pretty. Here are just a few quotes from QAnoners recently:

  • “I just want to throw up”
  • “Great, now I’m the laughing stock of my family.”
  • “We were all punked”
  • “It’s done, and we were all played.”
  • “What happened!!! I followed the plan!!!!!”
  • “All the evil is being praised right now while we sit and watch. No arrests, no swamp reveal. Nothing.”
  • “We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up…”

If you don’t know what I’m talking about then congratulations, you’ve been sleeping better than the rest of us. If that is you then what I’m about to tell you will sound made up, but I swear this is 100% real. This is what QAnon adherents, who are a political force that currently have at least two representatives in congress, believe:

A group of satan-worshipping child abusers secretly run the world. These evil people form the democratic party, the mainstream media, hollywood, the deep state (i.e. civil servants), and pretty much the entire scientific community. Everything they have told you and taught you is a lie. A secret plan is underway to stop them. Within the government there are people preparing to round up and arrest all of these child-cannibal satanists in a single sweeping stroke called the “storm.” The storm will be led and masterminded by Donald Trump. A high-level person inside the government, calling himself “Q,” has anonymously leaked all of this top-secret information to the public on 4Chan and 8Chan.

And there you have it. It sounds simply too strange to be real. But it is real. Real to the tune of five-people-dead-at-the-Capitol real.

Now that Trump lost the election and the storm never came, the Q-heads are utterly flabbergasted. A few, like the now infamous Q-Shaman, realize they were duped and are saying so publically (probably in a bid to lower his sentence). Most seem to have gone quiet. Perhaps in shock. But many are posting ever more elaborate conspiracy theories to explain why the prophecies of Q have failed to come true. And this is where the psychology of QAnon gets very interesting. It turns out that there is a theory that explains their behavior right now.

The Historic Test of Cognitive Dissonance

There is a scene in my children’s book, Beyond Belief: The Adventure Begins, in which the hero of the story, a kid skeptic named Kenai, debunks a mega-church faith healer on live television. When his followers believe in the good reverend even more, the hero realizes that he is seeing something special. Something he has only read about: cognitive dissonance…

It was discovered by Leon Festinger, a psychologist who studied cults. Kenai remembered thinking that it must be the coolest job in the world to study cults. One cult’s leader predicted that the world would end on December 21, 1954. People in the cult quit their jobs, sold their houses, left their families, gave up their savings, and basically threw away their lives because they really, really, REALLY believed the world was ending. On the day of the predicted apocalypse, the world inconveniently did not end, which you’ve got to admit, must have been a little awkward at cult headquarters. But here’s where things get really weird. People didn’t go to the cult leader demanding their money back. They didn’t leave the cult or even gently ask the leader why they all just happened to NOT be obliterated in a planet-ending cataclysm. No, the people in the cult actually began believing the prophet even more. They made excuses, found loopholes, and generally found any way they could to keep on believing. Festinger thought that they did this because the stress of being so catastrophically wrong was just too much to handle. It wouldn’t just mean changing their minds, it would mean razing their entire worldview and starting from scratch. That’s not only a lot of work, it’s pretty scary to most folks. So the cult-members just stubbornly stuck with their wrong ideas, insisted they were right, and found any way they could to deny the undeniable evidence. The stress they were feeling and desperately trying to avoid was dubbed “cognitive dissonance” by Festinger. Since then scientists have measured it, created it in the lab, and studied it all over the world.

Festinger’s experience with that end-of-the-world cult, and Kenai’s with Twinkle’s followers, is nearly identical to what we are all experiencing with QAnon right now. The storm did not come. The evidence that the prophet is wrong is undeniable. And followers are finding any way they can to keep on believing.

So what exactly are the Q-heads up to right now? A common idea floating around on 4Chan is that the storm actually did happen, but that it was covered up in order to keep the public from realizing it. In this scenario Trump is still president and Biden is acting like he is president from a studio set to look like the oval office. Another theory is that Biden is Q, and the storm is on the way. Still another is that the QAnon phenom was a giant psyops operation concocted by the evil deep state to keep America’s patriots distracted. Another common theory is that Trump was actually a plant by the Democrats to throw the good work of the storm into disarray.

How do I know this? I’ve been lurking on the various QAnon sites and watching the meltdown in real time. To be clear, my interest isn’t purely schadenfreude (to be transparently honest though, it is a little of that), it is to witness a rare moment in which a bedrock psychological theory is being put to the test. Cognitive dissonance is often measured in labs, but rarely do we get a chance to see such a theory tested in such florid display among millions at once. The theory of cognitive dissonance clearly predicts what should be happening on the forums right now. QAnon adherents should not be reckoning with the facts. They should not change their minds. Instead, we should see a resurgence of the QAnoners around a new shiny “storm 2.0” conspiracy theory. Facts be damned.

And that is exactly what is happening. Right now. For everyone to see. Cognitive Dissonance, as a theory, is not only holding up in the midst of one of its most historic tests, it is turning out to be a thoroughbred champion theory. One that shines a much needed light of understanding on a truly bizarre moment.

In my next post, I will review some of the psychological literature on cults and show how it applies to QAnon. If you have a friend or family member who’s in the midst of cognitive dissonance right now because of QAnon, it may be a good time to talk to them about what is happening, but how do you do that? Where do you even start? I’ll review some of the same techniques psychologists use to help people shake off the effects of cult-beliefs like QAnon.

Stay tuned.



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