A stronger social safety net could reduce the number of conspiracy theorists, researchers say

Authors of a new paper suggest that stress is leading to conspiratorial thinking and belief in things like QAnon

Published July 28, 2022 5:30PM (EDT)

Supporters of President Donald Trump hold up their phones with messages referring to the QAnon conspiracy theory at a campaign rally at Las Vegas Convention Center on February 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Supporters of President Donald Trump hold up their phones with messages referring to the QAnon conspiracy theory at a campaign rally at Las Vegas Convention Center on February 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

When future historians tell the story of the United States in the early twenty-first century, surely they will observe the widening political rift among left and right. Yet they may also come to view the past two decades of American political history as defined by the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories.

Surely, conspiracy theories aren't new to human civilization. In fact, they date back to the Ancient Roman era. But what experts widely agree on is that conspiracy theories today are more dangerous and more widespread — in part thanks to their ability to spread online.

Take QAnon, for example, a conspiracy theory based on the idea that a global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles secretly rules the world. QAnon encompasses a great deal of smaller and equally baseless conspiracy theories; one of them, known as #SaveTheChildren, dates back to Pizzagate — a completely false theory that emerged in 2016, claiming that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, her former campaign manager, operated a child sexual abuse ring.

That someone earnestly might believe in such a thing might seem absurd to most people. After all, years since it emerged, there is still no evidence of any child sex-trafficking ring, nor evidence of the other misinformation the conspiracy theory has generated. Yet, as Salon has previously reported, QAnon has ripped apart marriages, families and friendships. And QAnon is merely one recent example of a prominent conspiracy theory, as plenty of others related to vaccines particularly have lingered during the pandemic.

What makes someone susceptible to believing in a conspiracy theory, particularly a patently absurd one like QAnon? It's a question researchers and psychologists have been earnestly trying to answer.

Now, according to a new paper published in the scientific journal PNAS, one major driver of conspiratorial beliefs may actually be stress. 

In the paper, the authors argue that stress amplifies dichotomous thinking, also known as "black-and-white thinking." Something is either right or wrong; black or white; good or bad, with no room for nuance. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines dichotomous thinking as "the tendency to think in terms of polar opposites — that is, in terms of the best and worst — without accepting the possibilities that lie between these two extremes." While this kind of thinking is often used to characterize people with depression, the authors suspect it could lead to what drives people in believing in conspiracy theories, too.


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"Stress-boosted dichotomous thinking may thus well be a fundamental driver of belief rigidity,"  the authors wrote. "This helps to clarify the importance of empathetic listening and relationships, but the dominant role of stress also fits the observation that conspiracy theories tend to originate in times of uncertainty and crisis — and that the same is true for mental disorders."

The authors suspect that "dichotomous thinking will be more prevalent in societies where people are stressed and poorly educated."

"When we're in a threat response mode, the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is involved with higher reasoning, is not as active," Manly said. "So we are far more likely to be susceptible to irrational beliefs.

"A resulting rise in pathological beliefs, conspiracy thinking, and social prejudices may, in turn, hamper societal thriving, thus implying the potential for a self-reinforcing feedback toward societal failure," the authors explained.

Chronic stress can affect the body in a variety of ways, and even increase one's risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. While there are many well-understood physiological effects of stress, the psychological ones are not as well understood. Researchers have suspected that extreme stress can affect one's mental health, kill brain cells, and affect one's memory and reactions.

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Joy From Fear," told Salon that when people are under chronic stress, the body tends to go in a "threat response mode."

"When we're in a threat response mode, the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is involved with higher reasoning, is not as active," Manly said. "So we are far more likely to be susceptible to irrational beliefs, to emotional dysregulation to certain conspiracy theories that, in a non-stressful time, we may be far less likely to entertain."

Stressors that can determine a person's resilience can stem from a person's home environment. While that can be stress related to a partner or children, Manly said, it can also be a consequence of society and the lack of social services affecting the home.

"The home environment itself — and again, that includes everything from mental health status, to finances to health care resources — if we are stressed at home, we are far less likely to be able to sustain the stressors in the outside world," Manly said.

Rachel Bernstein, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and host of the Indoctrination Podcast, who works with people in cult recovery, told Salon she does believe the stresses of society contribute to conspiratorial thinking.

"Many of the people I speak with who have gotten involved in conspiratorial thinking approach most things the same way, with a need for absolute assurance and for things to be seen as right and wrong, good or bad, for people to be seen as trustworthy or absolutely not," Bernstein said via email. "There is very little tolerance for things that operate in the gray, yet most things do, so  conspiratorial thinkers have a hard time being a part of society for that reason."

The authors of the PNAS paper suggest an interesting solution: improving basic social services to ease societal stress, which could effectively decrease conspiratorial thinking in society.

Living through political unrest, financial insecurity, and a deadly pandemic has opened the doors for conspiracy theories to serve as a place for people to feel safer and receive definitive explanations to their problems, and the world's problems. 

"Given an assurance of safety through the illusion that you have accessed the answers and the truth has a calming effect, and many people who left those communities said they felt safe for the first time and that the world made sense," Bernstein said. "And they valued and relied upon the fact that they had a sense of connectedness and community sometimes for the first time in their lives and it was especially important during the physical separation and isolation brought on by the pandemic."

The authors of the PNAS paper suggest an interesting solution: improving basic social services to ease societal stress, which could effectively decrease conspiratorial thinking in society.

"The evidence we presented suggests that the prevalence of rigid beliefs may perhaps best be mitigated by strengthening educational systems and addressing inequity and the related problems of poverty, conflict, food insecurity, and social cleavage,"the authors state. "Put bluntly, measures such as a universal base income might go a surprisingly long way in reducing the resilience of harmful beliefs."


By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Antivaxxers Conspiracy Theory Mental Health Psychology Qanon Reporting