QAnon and Our Ability to Reason
What happens when the truth is it was all a lie?
In small suburban Chicago neighborhood in 1954, a doomsday cult led by housewife Dorothy Martin believed the end was near. Martin claimed to receive messages from an alien inhabiting her body, and she dutifully wrote them down for her followers. The messages were dire: a massive flood was to engulf the world, but the cult members would be saved by a flying saucer set to arrive at midnight on December 21st, just before the flood was to arrive.
When the clock struck midnight on that day, nothing happened. Although spaceships failed to touch down, something stranger happened. As the hours passed into early morning, the confused followers did not deny the prophesy or walk away. Around 4am, Mrs. Martin claimed to receive a message saying, “the little group, sitting alone all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Instead of abandoning their beliefs, the members found a new narrative and immediately began phoning newspapers to spread the word.
This anecdote came from Influence, a wonderfully informative book by Robert Cialdini about the power of persuasion. For the followers of the prophecy, their primary form of truth had been undercut — physical proof of a spaceship and a flood. So they had to invent a new form of proof to validate their beliefs, something that could explain what happened and persuade the skeptics they weren’t wrong: social proof. The more they could convince others to believe them, the truer their beliefs would become. As Cialdini states:
“The principle of social proof says so: The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct.”
From there, the power of narrative took over.
Cialdini’s lesson about this small cult 70 years ago is especially relevant today in the form of QAnon. Of the movement’s many conspiracies, the most consequential was to occur on January 20th, 2021, Inauguration Day. Since October 2017, an anonymous hero of the far right named Q had been posting about a deep state cabal of child sex traffickers embedded in the federal government and run by the Democratic Party. Trump was their savior, a president who would break the deep state and save the union. But when Trump lost the election in November, it was the equivalent of the Dorothy Martin’s flying saucer not appearing. So the postings by Q turned to election fraud, then a denial of elector certification on January 6th. When none of these events came to pass, the movement turned to one final day — Inauguration Day.
According to QAnon, the events on January 20th would unfold dramatically. As Biden and Harris were being sworn in, Trump would harness the military to appear just in time, arrest Biden, Harris and all other deep state actors, catapult himself back into the presidency and destroy the cabal for good.
Of course, the events of Inauguration Day were neither surprising nor dramatic: Biden and Harris were peacefully sworn in. Trump gave a final speech to a few hundred supporters at Andrews Air Force Base before quietly boarding Air Force One for the last time and retiring to Mar a Lago. No military coup, no arrests, no cabal.
The physical proof of January 20th was obvious to any rational observer. But to QAnon believers, the events of January 20th were as shocking as the spaceship no-show 70 years prior, and it left them with an existential question, “What’s next?” Those not anchored in Trump’s cult of personality and the QAnon conspiracy theory were left with a much bigger question:
“How can otherwise rational people believe in something so irrational?”
Identity and (Lack of) Reason
Being duped is a lonely and humiliating experience. Finding out our beliefs were wrong is an embarrassing proposition because, quite simply, we’re afraid of how others will judge us. This gets magnified when we stake our identity to those beliefs. Consider the parallel to sports fans; a casual fan rooting for Kansas City probably moved on from the Super Bowl loss as soon as it was over. But someone tied to the city or team had a much harder time dealing with the loss, because part of their identity is attached.
Now imagine if the entire belief system upon which your identity rests is disproven, or worse, ridiculed. Cialdini’s description of social proof provides one of the only ways out of the situation: in the face of shame and humiliation for being wrong, we’ll look for anything that will allow us to keep the narrative going, to let us continue or strengthen our commitment to our beliefs. When we look at the QAnon phenomenon in this context, it is not hard to see how or why people would believe in something so unreasonable. Humans simply want to be accepted, and they’ll go to great lengths to make that happen.
In the book, “Fooled by Randomness,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes how we are really good at fitting otherwise random events into a narrative that makes sense for us. We’re largely driven by our egos, so the narrative we create becomes our reality. Look at the creative ways QAnon has kept the narrative going. During Biden’s inauguration, they began finding signals in the strangest places, going so far as applying significance to the 17 flags at Trump’s sendoff speech, noting that Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. They manufactured a new failed date to rally around — March 4th — because that was the previous date presidents used to be sworn in. And the narrative continues…
Reason and Self-Reflection
That still leaves us with the million-dollar question: will people really go to such great lengths to be accepted and not humiliated? When it strikes at the heart of our identity, the answer is yes. The best way to internalize this is by reflecting on our own questionable reasoning in matters involving our identity. Have you ever sided with a close friend during a breakup, even when they did something pretty terrible like cheating? Ever stood up for a family member you don’t really like simply because they were family? When was the last time you questioned a deeply held belief about a controversial topic like abortion or immigration in the face of new facts?
As social creatures, our need to belong is so powerful that we’ll weave together fantastic stories to create the acceptance we seek. Instead of shaking our heads at QAnon, Mrs. Martin’s cult or any other group that seems unreasonable, we should extend a hand of nonjudgement and provide a different, more reasonable narrative that can help these people find new acceptance.