My neighbourhood toy shop was a special place. There were floor-to ceiling piles of board games, stuffed animals, and no organisation system. A crowded narrow path allowed you to move through the room. One misstep and the whole inventory would collapse like a house of cards.
Every time I got a vaccine shot, my mum took me there and let me pick something under five euros. It was our ritual. She waited patiently as I went through the store, hunting for my next treasure. So when my next vaccine appointment came, I did not think about the needle piercing my skin, but about the plastic dinosaur I would be buying later.
A few years later, suffering from low self-esteem and depression, my mum took refuge in the internet. There, she met people who patiently and lovingly convinced her of the veracity of several conspiracies. She became an anti-vaxxer.
“I really wish you wouldn’t get jabbed,” mum told me at the height of the pandemic, in the saddest possible voice. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Do it for me,” she added after a pause.
I tried, and failed, to persuade her—a high-risk person, the only parent I have left—to change her mind and get the vaccine. Eventually, exhausted and dejected, I replied: “I am doing it for you—and for everyone else who is at risk.”
I know that conversation broke both of our hearts. Frustrated and upset, I decided to understand more how to approach future conversations with my mum, in order to avoid conflict, and have a more constructive outcome.
Though each case is different, experts agree that behind belief in conspiracy theories are often important psychological needs that are not being satisfied.
The first is “epistemic,” says Dr. Karen Douglas, a professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent. It is “related to the need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty.”
“Another is existential. It has to do with the need to feel safe and to have some control over the things that are happening.”Yet another need is social, Douglas continues, “which is related to the need to maintain a positive view of the self and the groups that we belong to.”
When someone is in a crisis, Douglas maintains, negative feelings come to the surface. Fear, uncertainty, or the feeling of being out of control can push people to try to make sense of the situation, and increase the likelihood of believing in conspiracies. They offer straightforward, if unlikely, explanations about the state of the world that satisfy our need for clarity, safety and community. “This is one reason why we seem to be seeing a lot of conspiracy theories at present,” says Douglas. “People are scared and uncertain about the pandemic and are looking for ways to cope.”
It can be difficult to talk to people who hold beliefs that are fundamentally incompatible with our own worldview. As my own failed attempt at persuading my mum to get the vaccine shows, the wrong approach can be alienating and counterproductive. Many people who believe in conspiracy theories feel attacked or ridiculed by others, become more defensive, and further retreat into their ideas as a result.
“The first thing people ask you is, ‘did you get the shot yet?’” says Marisol, 48, who lives in California and was not convinced that the vaccine was either effective or safe. While some of her family members shared her views, others, including her two children, did not. “That attitude immediately creates a family conflict. They see you differently, and are condescending.” After our first conversation, Marisol decided to get vaccinated so she could visit her daughter in London.
For others, disagreements can exacerbate isolation. Veronica, 48, doesn’t want to get vaccinated and believes it’s a matter of personal freedom and respect. She sees her loved ones’ constant questioning as an attempt at control and opposes it. “You end up putting some distance between yourself and the people who are always asking you the same thing—including my family.”
Yet talking is the only way we can hope to get through. How, then, can we avoid increasing that distance—so we can maintain a healthy relationship with the people we love, despite their belief in conspiracy theories?
Don’t be dismissive
“It is important to keep calm and hear the other out,” says Dr. Karen Douglas. “Show respect for them and their views rather than dismissing them.” Their views are as important to them as yours to you. This does not mean you have to say you agree, nor should you pretend to do so. But you should refrain from saying—though you may well be thinking it—that their ideas are “crazy,” “made up,” or “nonsense.” Instead, actively listen to see the logic behind the belief.
Don’t be threatening
Try to keep the conversation focused on them in a non-threatening manner. For example, don’t say “I don’t agree with that” when presented with their viewpoint. Instead, ask them “why do you believe that?”
This may not always work. Someone who has strong beliefs will have “done their homework,” Douglas explains.
“They usually know a lot more about the conspiracy theory and associated ‘evidence’ than other people do, because they have spent a lot of time looking things up and working through information.”
Focus on shared values
Yet even in the most extreme cases, it’s important to look for common values that unite us. In these conversations, “it is important to remember that the person can feel worried, alone, and marginalised,” Douglas says. These are feelings we can all relate to. Spending time together, being understanding, and providing a safe space for them to talk, might make them open up about their real motivations and let down their defences.
Encourage critical thinking
We all tend to think we are critical thinkers, so questions about the methods of research could lead to reflection. Not as a way for you to attack their beliefs, but to help them find possible bias in the reasoning. This way it is not about you being right, but about both of you figuring out the truth together. For example, don’t say “this source of informa- tion is lying to you or is wrong.” Ask instead, “where did this person learn that?” or “did you know of this person before watching this video?”
These questions will not be a one-time miracle remedy, but, “those conversations will then build up over
time,” says Dr. Daniel Jolley, a senior lecturer in Psychology at Northumbria University.
By remembering that belief in conspiracies is often a coping strategy, Jolley recommends focusing on the journey the person has taken to what they believe, rather than on the belief itself. Asking questions and being there for the person is more effective than confrontation.
Ask the person, “what is this belief offering you?” says Jolley, and then follow up. It’s most likely that many of the feelings of fear, confusion and stress that have led a person to embrace conspiracy beliefs are feelings we’ve also felt at some point during the pandemic. Showing empathy, Jolley explains, can take you a long way to making them feel better. It may not happen instantly, but by becoming part of the support system they need, and that the belief is currently providing, you can create trust.
In the end, Jolley concludes, we should remember that “we all have a bit of conspiracy in each of us.”
My mother did not become an anti-vaxxer out of the blue. Conspiracy groups made her feel special and gave her a purpose. In hindsight, that hard-headed conversation would have never solved the problem. But perhaps time and offering empathy and support might help. That’s what I intend to find out.