Use Empathy Before Facts When Debating a Conspiracy Theorist

How do you go about debating an issue with a conspiracy theorist? Political scientists say facts will end the conversation before it even begins--empathize with them if you want a meaningful discussion.

People around the world subscribe to all kinds of conspiracy theories. There's a fascination to stories about the magic bullet and aliens crashing out in the desert. But we imagine people with tin hats, sitting on the outskirts of town when we think of the conspiracy theorist, but this image may only be a caricature of the truth.

Eric Oliver and Tom Wood, both political scientists at the University of Chicago, have been researching conspiracy theorists for eight years, sharing some of their insights in an article for New Scientist. They've found that half of Americans subscribe to at least one of the more common conspiracy theories out there. These beliefs are held across all political ideologies and education levels. Though, some more readily adopt these beliefs more than others.

Some conspiracies have a bent, which make them more appealing to one side or the other. For instance, Oliver and Wood say that more conservatives tend to believe Barak Obama's birth certificate was fabricated, while liberals tend to subscribe to the belief that 9/11 was an inside job by the government to rally the nation and start a war.

That brought them to wonder why these conspiracy theories affect so many of us—no matter our political leanings or socioeconomic status. They surmise it must be in our primal psychology. They write in their article for New Scientist:

“The brain did not evolve to process information about industrial economies, terrorism or medicine, but about survival in the wild. This includes a tendency to assume that unseen predators are lurking or that coincidental events are somehow related.”

The story our minds' weave are simple with a good guy and a bad guy. There's no misunderstandings or messy rivalries that could clutter up the narrative. Oliver and Wood say that these theories are all fine when it comes to aliens crashing in the desert. But when politicians are trying to talk about important issues that have an affect on the public, it's difficult to sustain a debate. The discussion ends before it even begins. Then the question becomes, how do you begin to have a meaningful discussion with a conspiracy theorist about these issues?

It all comes back to psychology. Oliver and Wood say that facts will not dissuade them, it will only shut down the discussion that much faster—instead empathize. It's true, other studies have shown people feel threatened when facts conflict with anyone's beliefs. People will throw back untested assertions—anything to defend the world they've come to understand. But when we understand and appreciate the emotional reasoning behind the belief, we may be better equipped talk about the issue in a way they'll comprehend.

Read more at New Scientist

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Ultra-processed food causes weight gain – firm evidence at last

Junk food causes weight gain, but it's not just about the calories.

Surprising Science

We know we should eat less junk food, such as crisps, industrially made pizzas and sugar-sweetened drinks, because of their high calorie content.

Keep reading Show less

10 new things we’ve learned about death

If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.

Culture & Religion
  • For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
  • Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
  • Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
Keep reading Show less

Like the emperor’s new clothes, DNA kits are a tailored illusion

A DNA test promises to reveal your hidden history — but is it all smoke and mirrors?

Surprising Science

Most people remember the emperor: a vain ruler, swindled into paying for a nonexistent magical garment, parades in public, only to be embarrassed by a little boy. To me, the story is really about the swindling tailors.

Keep reading Show less