This post is for anyone whose loved ones have gone down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, taken on QAnon beliefs, gotten “woke” or “red-pilled,” and you can’t understand why. If you’ve lost a spouse, children, siblings, parents, friends, professional colleagues, or respected teachers you used to trust to conspiracy paranoia, I’m so sorry for your loss. The truth is that you’re not likely to alter someone’s point of view with facts if they’ve been seduced into cultish conspiracy thinking, especially if the facts you use (mainstream science journals, mainstream media) are part of their conspiracy paranoia. What you can do is calm your own freaked out parts and let your sad parts grieve. And let your loved ones know that if they wake up from the trance of “conspirituality,” you won’t shame them with “I told you so” or humiliate them for being duped. If it’s authentic and they haven’t burned too many bridges, let them know you’ll still be there to welcome them back if they change their point of view, just as you would if a loved one joined a yoga cult or converted to Scientology or got hoodwinked into NXIVM. Keep in mind that people who get seduced by cultic groups are not stupid; they’re often smart, talented, beautiful, gifted people. They also tend to be vulnerable because they’ve been traumatized, usually long before they experience more trauma in the cult.
It makes sense that when reality is as painful as it is right now, people might be vulnerable to attaching to an alternate reality, one that’s focused on the “Great Awakening” and being a “lightworker.” Reality is full of COVID, systemic racism, social isolation, financial devastation, wrecked businesses and marriages, #MeToo accusations, climate crisis, escalating natural disasters, the threat of the extinction of our species, scary elections, understandably angry protestors, and sometimes scary, violent riots, armed white supremacists and other armed militants, the threat of Civil War in the US, and a necessary comeuppance for countries that are built on criminal land theft, slavery, and oppression of marginalized people. For those who can’t handle reality psychologically, conspiracy thinking may be a welcome (if destructive) distraction.
First, it should be noted that conspiracies really do happen all the time. We depend on whistleblowers and reputable investigative journalists to root out corruption and expose such conspiracies to the public through high quality journalism. Proving such conspiracies and bringing the perpetrators of criminal corruption to justice is no easy task, but it does happen. So it’s not necessarily paranoid to have suspicion that people in positions of authority may be deceiving the public. We, the gullible public, are deceived all the time by propaganda that makes us accept corrupt agendas (like the Iraq war). There are a lot of crooked criminals out there who are not being imprisoned (just look at the Wall Street bail out of 2008).
So it’s not totally off base to think that powerful authority figures might be lying to the public because of hidden agendas and corrupt motives. It makes sense that a lot of people don’t trust authority these days. To be suspicious of the intentions and purity of our authorities makes sense when our authorities have lost the public trust and can’t agree upon what is in the public interest. Whenever public trust in authorities wanes, conspiracy theories sprout and paranoia can ensue.
To understand the psychology of all this, it helps to know that susceptibility to conspiracy thinking is often rooted in black and white thinking—something is either all good or all bad. Reality is much more abstract than this. Things like pharmaceuticals or vaccines can be both good and bad. They can save lives and they can harm people. True AND true. Journalism can be both sloppy fake news and brilliantly incisive crime-busting investigative journalism. Journalists are just people and the profit-driven mainstream media is inherently motivated to keep its advertisers happy. There are also many reputable journalist allies who put their neck on the line all the time to expose corruption and educate the public after brave whistle blowers seek them out.
It’s true that billionaires can have undue influence over global affairs because money can buy you power and influence in this world. And it’s true that the 1% can use their influence for personal and political gain in ways that should land them in jail but often don’t. It’s also true that billionaires can be philanthropists who try to use their wealth to influence the public good for noble intentions.
It’s true that pedophiles often pose as good guys (like Catholic priests) and it’s true that the Catholic church conspired to cover up systemic, institutional pedophilia. It’s also true that there are many noble, trustworthy Catholic priests who are not pedophiles. It’s true that most pedophiles are children’s fathers, uncles, and brothers. It’s true that it’s harder to hate your incestuous family members who inflicted criminal pedophilia on you than to project your hatred onto famous people you baselessly suspect of pedophilia. It’s true that we need to save the children, but it’s also true that conspiracy theorists are interfering with the gritty, messy, feet on the ground activists who are breaking their necks trying to stop sexual trafficking of children and protect them from pedophilia.
It’s also true that people who think in black and white have a hard time holding such paradoxical realities. To think about the complex issues in the world requires a level of nuance that has become quite uncommon in our polarized, black and white world right now.
Where does black and white thinking come from? It tends to ride shotgun with mental illness, especially personality disorders. In short, it’s a trauma symptom and therefore deserves our understanding and our compassion. When people are hurt, especially when they’re hurt with early childhood developmental trauma and attachment wounding, there can be a tendency to polarize into immature cognitive processes like black and white thinking. To accept that someone like a spiritual guru or a healer might be both a gifted visionary and a flawed perpetrator of psychological manipulation and sexual abuse, for example, requires more mature kinds of cognition. For those whose cognitive ability got stunted by trauma, such seeming opposites are hard to hold. This makes traumatized people particularly vulnerable to cults, and that’s how otherwise sensible people can go off the rails. And whenever you get into the territory of cults, conspiracy theories start to run rampant. Because someone power hungry (or usually a group of power hungry someone’s) has to make followers so terrified of reality that they’ll believe any alternative narrative that scares them less than what is actually real. And in case you hadn’t noticed, actual reality is quite frightening right now. I sure wish utopia was one blink away too. But it’s not.
Many cults bond over shared beliefs in a potential utopia that revolves around the charismatic visionary cult leader, who is often fighting against some alleged conspiracy—good versus evil. This kind of “spiritual warfare” pits the cult members against outsiders, feeding the black and white thinking that insiders are all good and outsiders are all bad. Groupthink, gaslighting, and psychological manipulation cause such black and white thinking to escalate until it reaches delusional proportions. “Insiders” then have to turn a blind eye to anything that puts a crack in their certainty that insiders are on the side of good while outsiders are part of the conspiracy and therefore cannot be trusted. Cult leaders and members may be obviously abusive, inaccurate, or motivated by greed, sex, control, or power, yet others will look away in order to maintain the illusion of goodness. The attachment to such an alternate reality can become close to psychosis in its depth of paranoia, delusion, magical thinking, distortion, denial of reality, and grandiosity.
But consensus reality carries on, nonetheless. Over time, consensus reality almost always breaks through and the person who got swept into the conspiracy theory bumps into cognitive dissonance. In the beginning, they might be able to keep such dissonance at bay by doubling down on their faulty beliefs and thinking errors, locking themselves into groups that share their distorted thinking. But as consensus reality starts to put a crack in their certainty, these folks will need you to gently welcome them back to consensus reality with kindness, which can be hard when someone has treated you unkindly because you didn’t go down the rabbit hole with them when they tried desperately to convert you. If you can, protect yourself from being harmed by these folks. Set boundaries to keep yourself safe. But use those good boundaries to keep your heart open. If you shame or humiliate them, you’ll only traumatize them further and make it harder for them to recover.
If a loved one does crawl back out of the rabbit hole wounded, they will need professional help, if they will accept it. There are therapists who specialize in helping people who got swept into cultic groups and then escaped. Find one of those and help your loved one get help so they can heal the traumas that made them vulnerable in the first place.
Recovery (after healing trauma, which IS treatable), reclaims the mature ability to hold paradox, to apply nuance, to resist black and white thinking, and to refuse to polarize in immature, child-like ways. Then we can see more clearly the light and darkness in all institutions, all systems, and all humans, including ourselves. Therein lies our ability to feel genuine compassion for ourselves and each other while taking firm stands for what is socially just, morally good, and as pure in its intentions as we flawed humans can get.
Until your loved one is ready for recovery, however, all you can do is tend to your own wounds. Losing a loved one or respected colleague to cultic dynamics is a tragedy. Feeling sad, disappointed, disillusioned, and devastated is natural, and all emotions are welcome here in what I hope can be a sanctuary for anyone who is ready for nuance, paradox, and critical thinking with open hearted care.
*If you want to understand cult psychology better in a time when mass delusion is rampant, especially in spirituality, yoga, and wellness circles, listen to the Conspirituality podcast or watch the plethora of good cult documentaries out right now—NXIVM (The Vow), Scientology (Going Clear), Osho (Wild, Wild Country), and Buddhafield (Holy Hell). Or read Karla McLaren and Janja Lalich’s Escaping Utopia, which spells out how to detect cultic dynamics.