Critical Balance – How to Escape the Rabbit Hole: Conspiracy Theories and Trust

Here is an excerpt from our upcoming e-book for youth workers on critical thinking and conspiracy theories:

Conspiratorial thinking is all about mistrust – distrust in authorities, in mainstream media, in what “most people” think. If you are to help a person escape the rabbit hole, you must take the time to build a level of trust between you – or all your efforts will be in vain.

The best way of creating trust is acting in a trustworthy manner and showing respect. If a person believes in a conspiracy theory, what reason do they have for it? Do not dismiss them, as most people would and probably already have. Instead, try to perceive the subject as if you knew nothing about it. Allow the other person to explain to you how they see things, and what their arguments are.

The listening in this phase is not just about acquiring strategic knowledge of your opponent’s defences in order to be able to overcome them. It is about genuine communication. Maybe they have some actually good arguments – maybe they have it right. Trust can never be one-sided. If you expect them to consider your arguments, it is only fair that you give them a chance first. In most everyday conversations, we don’t actually listen – we never wait for our turn to present our point of view. However, if everyone would just listen and then respond, we would have a chance of changing their and our own opinions. If an exchange of ideas is to take place, it must be preceded by the supposition that it is possible to learn from the other – that they might have something valuable to say.

Building trust is not a quick process. It requires repeated interactions, in which you will be carefully monitored. Are you consistent? Are you sincere in what you are saying? Are you willing to forgive missteps? If you are dealing with someone who is used to distrusting people, you should be prepared to be thoroughly tested. You should be aware of the fact that their assumption about you will be that you will betray them in the end – and they will try to provoke you into revealing your true face. This process requires a lot of patience, since it might mean that your well-intentioned gestures might be greeted with hostility. Make sure you are prepared to deal with frustration and do not fall into the trap of rejecting the other person. They might be trying to bait you into rejecting them because that is all they have encountered so far. Instead, be respectful. Take your time. If you are consistent, you will earn their respect, if not always their ears.

Before you consider the cognitive aspect of the conspiracies, try to understand what the emotional content behind it is. What genuine concerns cause your friend to be suspicious? Is it that governments and corporations tend to abuse their power if they believe they might get away with it?Is it that we are harming our environment?Is it that there are many threats to human health that we are unable to deal with?Is it that technology is changing our way of life too fast for our own good?

If you understand what the driving force behind their beliefs is, that can have two potential benefits. First, you will take them more seriously, because you will recognise that there is a grain of truth in their beliefs. Second, you might be able to find new, more constructive ways of expressing their genuine concerns that don’t involve conspiracy theories.