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

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