Conspiracy: Theory or Delusion?

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One person’s theory is another person’s delusion. Two people can falsely believe the same thing in very different ways. They diverge when faced with the facts. One will change their belief to fit the facts, which is the rational thing to do. The other will deny that the facts are real, even believing that someone has altered the facts to mislead people.

Very often, when people who hold a conviction are faced with contrary facts, they double down on their belief. If they believed something important would happen on a certain day, but it did not, like Donald Trump being restored to power, they just change the date, as evangelical Jeff Jansen has. Emotionally, there is too much at stake for them to be wrong. Despite relentless reality testing, 60% of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump. This is not a conspiracy theory; it is a shared delusion. It is not a theory because they will not allow reality to have any sway.

When fact finding and reality testing will not dissuade someone, it helps to follow these steps of inquiry:  1) What do you believe? 2) Why do you believe it? 3) How strongly do you believe it? 4) Why do you feel so strongly?

There are two types of ‘whys’ here. The first, why do you believe it, will consist of some facts or reasons. The last, why do you feel so strongly about this, will be more personal and emotional. There may even be an emotionally charged experience from the past that feeds it. When this is voice within a supportive context, the person may be willing to give up the false belief.

So why do so many Republicans still believe there was a conspiracy to steal the election from Donald Trump? It is deeper than the fact that he and media sources repeatedly pushed the claim. It is not just a lost election when you have demonized the other party and its leaders. Not when you have projected the worst you can imagine on them, like Trump was taken down by a secret ring of Satan worshipping pedophiles. Not when you believe that if he lost, you would lose your way of life. And since your way of life is what God wants, you believe, then the forces against you must be evil. Losing the election cannot happen, so it did not happen.

Social scientists have been reluctant to call conspiracy theories delusions because some conspiracies are true. But after the facts are in, VW conspiring to cheat emission standards has moved from being a theory to being verified. The claims that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump has been tested and tested and tested. To hold it now is no longer a theory, it is delusional.

You support a delusion by invalidating any source of information that might contradict you. For Donald Trump and these conspiracy beliefs, that includes bashing science so science cannot contradict him. One of the problems with science for someone like Donald Trump is that they refuse to believe what they can’t understand. Years ago, he said he couldn’t understand how the chemical he sprayed out of a spray can could possibly damage the ozone layer because it was so far away. The chemical was invisible, and the ozone layer was invisible. To a narcissist, “If it doesn’t make sense to me, it can’t be true.” And with the assault on science, truth and facts, the narcissists feel free to define what is true or not as it suits them. This is characteristic of repressive regimes. Remember Richard Nixon? “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Science and reality testing are exercises in humility. Believing what contradicts reality is narcissistic. To call such beliefs theories is to give them status they do not deserve.