Why so many People Believe in Conspiracy Theories and Not in the Facts

If you are like me, you may be scratching your head at why so many people in the world seem to be able to completely ignore facts and data based upon research, but readily believe conspiracy theories or cling to old worn out practices. I first came upon this phenomenon when I attended the U.S. Air Force Academy from 1968-71. I was taking a psychology class at the Academy in which the research clearly indicated that encouragement, finding positives in others or focusing on the positive, was much more effective than being highly critical and focusing on the negative. It sort of stopped me in my tracks when the professor was teaching this principle because the whole organization was doing exactly the opposite, and as far as I can tell still are 50 years hence when there is overwhelming research to the contrary. When I started teaching the principles of encouragement in the early 90s to a group of teachers, there was still widespread distrust and almost religious belief that encouragement would lower achievement and the standard. As late as 2004 I had an administrator tell me, when challenged with the encouragement research, that it was the admin’s job to point out every negative so that it could be corrected. You can already surmise that the administrator never invited subordinates to find the negatives in herself nor intend to root them out. It was one way traffic from the top down. It is sort of like the leaders who were asking their underlings to do a suicide bombing, but not willing to blow themselves up or, for that matter, a country’s leader who feels that it is ok to criticize everyone who is against him, but cannot invite the criticism back. The facts and the research indicate that encouragement works to boost achievement and raise the standards, but my head scratching is about why it has not been widely accepted and practiced.

Encouragement is just one area. The latest conspiracy theories exist around the pandemic and of course, the U.S. election. Not too long ago, when I was meeting with one of my clients who had been a die hard supporter of populist leaders, some things in his experience began to shed light on how conspiracy theory based upon almost no data can take over a person’s mind. The first condition for falling prey to conspiracy thinking is significant anxiety. Anxiety is an emotion that sees a made up negative in the future. When we have anxious moments, our minds make up things that are not necessarily based upon reality. This then puts us in a highly protective mode of fight or flight. When anxiety is your “go to” negative emotion, it means that you have experienced some profound moments of abandonment or neglect in your life. What you need, when you have high anxiety, is confidence or energy like self-discipline, but your mind goes off into an imaginary world and then starts blowing up negatives and feeling like the world is out to get you. There is no rationality in the state, but it just seems so true. A populist leader knows how to take advantage of people’s vulnerable states by promising them that everything will be taken care of if you just do whatever the leader suggests. It is just as true in religious arenas as political. When you are anxious, you can ignore the obvious negatives in the approach or ignore your thinking mind, because the promises of the leaders bring a relief from the anxiety. Given data and the promises of a populist leader that are not very real, anxious people will choose the populist leader every time. The condition that leads to anxiety seems to be a significant period of abandonment, feeling alone. Abandonment or loneliness is the negative soup that causes the mind to believe irrational things.

Confidence and self-discipline are positive states, which are the actual things you need when you are in an anxious state, are founded on remembering how to do things that work in your life and then doing them. Anxiety takes you out of self-control which makes you vulnerable to a leader who promises you everything. It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you lean to. When you are anxious based upon abandonment, the tendency is to look for someone who is going to take care of your worry. While you may believe that the government is corrupt and out to get you and some of it may have some truth, what gets you where you want to go in life is a reliance on things that actually work.

I had another client who believed that she couldn’t make friends in the American culture, that she could only make friends in the Latin culture. She had this made up story in her mind that American culture is cold and distant because she experienced abandonment in her own family and when she was in middle school in the U.S.. To counter this kind of thinking I challenged her to drop the story and just remember what worked for her in building relationships. The very next day she started connected to an American who she had had difficulties with. The key is that she dropped her anxiety and the false story that goes with it, and adopted what actually works.

Last night I went skiing with my family to a local mountain. It is early in the season so the conditions made the skiing more challenging than when we have a good base of snow. We had to allow our skis to slide more on the hard packed snow before making a turn. It took a couple of runs to get used to the way things were, to relax with the conditions, and then to continue having a great time. We needed the confidence that we could learn how to deal with the current conditions. It showed me how silly it is to wait for the promises of a leader to make my life better. For the most part your life is in your own hands, not others, even when you have the worst leadership in your job or community or nation. If the conditions become challenging, you learn your way through them. You relax and do what works rather than fighting the conditions.

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