In the wake of the Capitol riots the country has been taking a collective look in the mirror. It’s not pretty.
Conspiracy theories, hoaxes, fake news, and the far fringes of the internet have erupted into all of our lives in a violent way. For many of us these problems are not far away, they are part of our family and friends.
For those of us in this situation, now is a critical time. What do we say to our QAnon friends and family?
Luckily there is a wealth of information in psychology to help us have productive conversations with conspiracy theorists. Conversations that are civil, compassionate, and move the person toward change. Given the state of things, everybody should get a little more familiar with the psychology. This article will help you do just that.
What follows are five tools I use as a psychologist that help people change their minds when they are stuck in unhealthy beliefs. They are primarily rooted in the scholarship on motivational interviewing and in the wonderful work of Steven Hassan, a former Moonie who has written extensively on cults and deprogramming.
Tip 1: DON’T Argue
Really, just don’t do it. It won’t work. You’ll think you are making amazing points. You’ll think you are winning the person over by pointing out the reasons why they are wrong. It will feel like you are making one slam dunk after another. But you always lose rational arguments with people who believe irrational things. Conspiracy beliefs feed on argument, debate, and division. No matter how good your argument is, it will do nothing but validate the conspiracy and entrench the person deeper into their views.
If you begin to argue, you have already lost.
Tip 2: Start with the Real Self
Hassan has an extremely useful tool for understanding how cults change people: they create a new self. As a Moonie Hassan described feeling as though he had two selves, his Moonie self, complete with a new name, new identity, and new purpose, and his real self. Your QAnon uncle has his new screen name, new online community, and feels he is fighting against evil. But his real self is still there. You need to begin by connecting with that real self.
In his work helping people escape cults Hassan starts his counseling sessions (which typically last three days!) by connecting with the person’s real self. With the person they were before they joined the cult. For your QAnon friend or family member, start by talking about fond memories of them from times before they were involved in Q. Remember together, laugh together, bond over those shared experiences first, then gently challenge the conspiracy theories. If they shift back to their cult selves, go back to evoking the real self.
Tip 3: Forget Breakthroughs, Focus on Process
One of the best evidence-based methods for helping people change is motivational interviewing. It is an approach that now has decades of research supporting it. And in all those years of research one myth about change has been busted over and over again: breakthroughs are bogus.
The big epiphany, the “aha” moment when the person begins shouting eureka and changes in a single landslide of realizations? That never really happens. The reality is that change is always gradual.
If you want to help someone change, don’t focus on getting the big insight to happen, rather, focus on smaller changes here and now. No one became a conspiracy theorist overnight, and no one will be free of it overnight. It takes time, so be patient and focus on the small steps in the process.
Tip 4: Use Reflections
A “reflection” in psychotherapy is when a counselor repeats back to the person what they are saying, feeling, or thinking. If you’ve ever been in therapy you know what I’m talking about. Every therapist does this. It is the first therapy skill we learn, and for good reason: nothing works better to help a person change at their own pace. But just mindlessly repeating back what someone said is going to fail in a big way. You have to be thoughtful about it, and more importantly, you have to be strategic about it by carefully choosing what gets reflected, and even more importantly, what doesn’t. That is because whatever you reflect is reinforced. So reflect change, openness, and the real self.
Tip 5: Be Generous with Yourself
We have all been wrong. We’ve all experienced the awful feeling of finding out we misunderstood something important, or took a stand for something that wasn’t true, or misread the situation. We have all been there. Usually, this isn’t as big as having an entire worldview that is out of alignment with reality, but sometimes it is. If that is you, share this with your QAnon friend. Be vulnerable. Let them know about a time when you got things wrong. Sharing your own story of how you realized you were wrong and what if felt like to change your mind invites the person to take that step with you and feel safe it changing their mind.
These five steps are not comprehensive. If you are talking with a QAnon family member, especially one that is deeply entrenched, I would recommend reading the work of Hassan and checking out the literature of Motivational Interviewing. The more you know about these things the better able you will be at helping them change their minds. But even if you only know these five tips and use them, you will have a big leg up in helping your loved one begin the process of change.
Conspiracy theories, hoaxes, cults… the world is getting stranger by the day. Help protect your child by teaching them critical thinking skills the fun way with this fun adventure story: