When I worked as a car salesman, my General Manager used to say, “Anyone who walks through the door already wants to buy a car. It’s your job to convince them of that.”
It took me some time to figure out what he meant by convincing someone of what they want. With experience, it became clear. Nobody gives up their Saturday afternoon to visit a car dealership just to browse. They walk in the door to be sold, even if they won’t admit it to themselves.
His theory proved accurate. Almost every car I sold occurred after the buyer waltzed in and announced, “I’m not ready to buy today. I’m just looking.”
They may have believed they were just looking, but their subconscious had other ideas.
The same concept applies to people who buy into nonsensical conspiracy theories. Nobody buys into outlandish theories about satan worshiping cabals without first kicking tires and taking test drives to find meaning.
According to Rob Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, nobody is immune to conspiracy theories. He writes, “We habitually seek order and consistency, and to be ambivalent is to experience disorder and conflict… Buying into a conspiracy is the cognitive equivalent of seeing meaning in randomness.”
There’s always a reason, something missing in our lives that makes us susceptible. An emptiness or grievance that sends us roaming the showroom floor, reading the stickers in the windows, subconsciously begging the salesperson to sell us an idea that explains our place in the world.
Even if we steer clear of the nonsense, people we know and love fall prey to it. A few days ago, a friend of mine pointed me to a video about the January 6 riots, which he claimed would open my eyes to all the bullshit firehosed from the mainstream media.
Proof. On C-Span. Unfiltered.
I had already seen parts of it — a snippet of Wisconson senator Ron Johnson spewing a bunch of junk (around 1:48–1:55 in the video), framing the capital rioters as innocent victims.
My friend’s unfiltered proof was accompanied by commentary he cut and pasted from a fringe news site, drawing conclusions as if he were playing connect the dots blindfolded.
It’s frustrating to watch reasonably intelligent people lose themselves, but I’m one of the lucky ones. Some friends occasionally poke me about hacked voting machines, creative coronavirus theories, and the mythical machinations of the deep state. But at least you can still interact with folks caught up in garden variety conspiracies. It’s the ones who fall for the looney hype of QAnon and the like that frighten me.
We’ve set the bar low, haven’t we? Feeling privileged when family and friends only fall for the ridiculous conspiracies but not the horrifying ones.
Read the subreddit of QAnon casualties — people who’ve lost family members to the movement. You’ll feel relieved that your crazy uncle only believes in UFO cover-ups rather than a sex-trafficking ring run out of a Pizzeria by Hillary Clinton.
Most of the folks on these forums seek support from others who have reclaimed their lost family members, pleading for solutions that nobody can give.
The challenge is formidable.
No buyer’s remorse
Convincing someone to change their beliefs is a lot like selling cars, and it’s hard to sell someone a car unless they’re in the market for one.
Like my General Manager used to say, everyone who voluntarily walks in the door is looking to buy, but you can’t kidnap someone off the street and expect to sell them a new car.
Once we fall for a conspiracy theory or misinformation, we have a vested interest in maintaining the belief, especially when it supports our worldview. There’s no buyer's remorse, which makes it difficult to pull someone out of the maelstrom once engulfed.
All the selling in the world won’t convince him to change his mind unless he walks into your showroom by choice. You can’t persuade someone who’s dead set against change. It’s not that they’re stupid or lack intelligence. They’ve merely found meaning and will fight like hell to hold onto it.
Smart people fall for conspiracy theories too
According to Brotherton’s research, the ranks of conspiracy theorists include only slightly more high school dropouts than college graduates. That explained the behavior of a coworker of mine. She sat a few desks away from me, always complaining about illegal immigrants scheming to steal, rape, and kill innocent Americans.
She was college-educated and financially stable. Her kids were grown up and successful. In a random conversation, you might describe her as the nicest person in the world. But as Trump’s presidency progressed, she became more and more fearful of immigrants, even though she lived in a quiet suburb of New Jersey.
Anytime she brought up her political nonsense, I evaded. Her purpose wasn’t to elicit an honest debate, only to provoke a confrontation. It’s a battle you cannot win with facts. It goes back to the lesson I learned long ago when working at the car dealership.
It’s nearly impossible to persuade someone by kidnapping them off the street and saying, “Look. Here’s what I want to sell you.”
They need to at least show-up and browse before you can sell them. Like in the car dealership, they may say they’re just looking, but if they’re there, there’s at least a piece of them looking to buy if presented with the right deal.
That’s what made Trump successful. He may not be the many things he claims. Still, he’s a fantastic salesman, capable of pulling people into his showroom using the time-tested technique of stoking anger and fear over a perceived (or real) injustice and identifying a scapegoat. “You’re losing your country to <fill in the blank>. If we don’t fight back now, it’ll be gone forever. This group <fill in the blank> are the ones responsible.”
Once you’ve fallen for the gambit, you identify with the good guys. You direct your ire at the supposed bad guys who scheme against you. When you reach that place, your mind is primed to believe anything that supports your worldview. As Brotherton writes, “Conspiracy theories tap into archetypal narratives about good versus evil.”
Can you rescue a conspiracy theorist?
It’s best not to fight someone lost in an alternate world. They’ll twist everything you say to suit their narrative. If you insist on trying, you need patience.
Facts don’t work. There’s too much ambiguous information for your conspiracy touting cousin to prove you wrong. According to Brotherton, “We use bias assimilation to interpret ambiguous events in light of what we already believe.” They’ll dismiss any fact you throw at them with reinterpretation or alternate facts.
At worst, attempts to debunk can result in the backfire effect, hardening their already irrational belief. Unfortunately, it’s easy to pull someone into a world of fantasy when they’re looking for meaning but near impossible to pull them out when they’ve already found it.
The conspiracy theorist needs to start kicking the tires of a new brand, desiring a new worldview, and opening themselves up to persuasion. Until then, most efforts will backfire.