Recently I was reading an article published in Psyche magazine talking about the way in which conspiracy theories bypass the rational mind. Though the article makes some extremely valid points, I disagree with the main premise that conspiracy theories are entirely irrational. In fact, the reason I believe conspiracy theories to be so compelling for many is because they employ a form of semi-rationality where the recipient is tricked into believing the theory to be rational while in reality it is mostly built upon misinformation, emotional appeals and lies.
The way in which such an approach would function is roughly the following. The recipient would first be asked, some extremely valid and rational questions, or pointed towards inconsistencies in various stories told by, government agencies. Take, for example, the Q-anon conspiracy. A part of this theory revolves around the idea that certain people are being silenced by being hung with a tie from a doorknob. The official story is that these deaths are suicides. Certainly a strange way to go out, the theorist would say, making an appeal to the rational part of the human mind. They will ask for instance, “whoever would kill themselves by hanging from a doorknob? It seems like an odd place to choose”. They’ll follow this up by a list of notable individuals who have died from this method of hanging, pointing out the similarities between them and the information Might supposedly hold on high ranking government officials. Suddenly, the idea that these people might have been silenced appears rational. This of course comes with the belief that those spreading the story of suicides are no-longer to be trusted.
This part of the process is, in a sense, entirely rational. That is, the part where we wonder and ask questions. It is the conclusion, however, that remains irrational. The conspiracy theorist knows this and therefore makes an appeal to emotion rather than rationality. This is where I agree with the article I mentioned earlier.
For instance, coming back to the “execution by doorknob” example, the conspiracy theorist will claim that every single one of these people have some sort of information about a child molesting underground cabal. This, of course, appeals to some of the most fundamental protective instincts the humans have. The recipient’s emotions are used to drive them over the edge to reach a conclusion that lies no-longer within the bounds of rationality, but it still feels rational.
In short, though, this emotional aspect is used to push the believer to be over the edge, the strength, I believe, actually lies in the rational basis. After all, when asking questions about the theory as a whole, they will ultimately returned to the rational basis of “merely asking questions”, therefore making it fairly easy to convince themselves that their are not just crazy conspiracy theorists, but in fact defenders of the silenced truth.
This leaves one final point to be mentioned, which once again relies on this rational basis. The conspiracy theorist who tries to convince others of their viewpoint does not do so out of some sort of malicious intent. Instead, they believe to be employing others to take the route of rationality (and truth) as well. While in actuality they are acting from an emotional position and without knowing it. They are unknowingly emotionally manipulating others into believing the theory, just as they have been themselves.