The Psychology of QAnon Explained: Cognitive Dissonance

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Yesterday, after weeks of battling with YouTube, they removed the strike from my channel and re-posted my video debunking QAnon COVID conspiracy theories. In my video, I was debunking a QAnon channel by the name of Destroying the Illusion. In his video, he was explaining why he’s anti-mask and encouraging others to not wear masks as well. As someone who tries to teach people critical thinking skills, I feel it’s important to explain why videos like his are not only wrong, but they’re also dangerous.

If you need further evidence of what these QAnon videos are capable of, look at scenes from a recent protest that took place in St. George, Utah:

Well, this morning I was informed that the video from Destroying the Illusion was taken down, and I thought this would be the perfect time to make a prediction and discuss the psychology of cognitive dissonance.

I predict that not only will Jordan Sather from Destroying the Illusion say that YouTube took down his video because he’s right, but I also predict that on my YouTube channel, you’ll see QAnon members who now have stronger convictions that Sather was right.

Take it from a guy who lives in Las Vegas that if I was to bet you on this prediction, it’d be a bad idea for you to take it. Thousands of psychological studies over the years are on my side with this prediction, and today, we’re going to try and understand why. There’s a common misconception that people from QAnon and other conspiracy groups aren’t intelligent, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. By understanding the thoughts and behaviors of groups like QAnon, we can better understand ourselves to avoid the same thinking traps that they fall into.

When Prophecy Fails

Leon Festinger was a psychologist who came up with one of the most important psychological theories when it comes to understanding why we humans can sometimes be so irrational. Festinger and his fellow researchers tell the story of the origins of dissonance theory in their 1956 book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World.

In the 1950s, a group by the name of The Seekers believed that on December 21st, 1954, God was going to flood the Earth and aliens were going to save the chosen ones in their flying saucer. The Seekers were led by a woman by the name of Marian Keech, which was an alias to help protect her identity. Before creating this group, Keech followed Scientology, and she believed that she could communicate directly with an alien species from the planet Clarion. Keech started to gain followers, and over time, they started to proselytize others.

Members of the group quit their jobs, dropped out of school, and sold all of their possessions in preparation for the end of the world. Through her “communications” with the aliens, Keech told members that they needed to remove all metal from their person before being lifted into the flying saucers as well. The problem was that when the saucers were coming changed a few times, so the members were regularly told to remove any metal they were wearing.

When Leon Festinger and his fellow researchers heard about The Seekers, much like we’re now predicting with QAnon, he predicted that when the aliens didn’t come, it would just strengthen their beliefs. And to fully document everything, some of the researchers infiltrated The Seekers to have a first-hand experience of what went on. (By the way, I highly recommend you read this book if you want to learn more about this story.)

As you’ve probably guessed, on December 21st, the world didn’t end and the aliens didn’t come. Afterward, the researchers followed up with Marian Keech and the other Seekers, and Festinger’s prediction was correct. Keech and her followers believed that they ended up saving the world due to their faith, so their beliefs grew even stronger after the disconfirmation.

Cognitive dissonance explains why members of groups like QAnon and The Seekers have such a difficult time seeing the reality of the situation. Dissonance happens when the mind holds two incompatible beliefs, and in order to ease dissonance, the mind comes up with posthoc rationalizations. After researching The Seekers, Festinger found that there 5 conditions that can strengthen cognitive dissonance. When we understand these conditions, we can better understand what’s going on with the members of QAnon:

Of all of these conditions, Festinger believed the strangest factor was the last one; social support. Groups like QAnon strengthen their beliefs due to the fact that they all reinforce one another’s beliefs. As a recovering drug addict who has helped many people get sober, a saying that I’ve passed to others is, “Always travel in groups of three because it’s easy for 2 people to think a really bad idea is a really good idea.”

So What Can We Do?

I’m under no delusion of thinking that all QAnon members will see this piece and understand the problems with their beliefs. But, I do hope that I can make an impact on at least a few of them. More important, I do this work to help us all better understand ourselves and the world around us. I’ve had many of you leave comments or reach out and say “Thank you” because you better understand a loved one who fell into the QAnon rabbit hole. And others come to simply learn a little bit more about why we think and do the things we do.

Although people like Jordan Sather from Destroying the Illusion and other QAnon members are spreading dangerous ideas, none of us are safe from cognitive dissonance or other biases of our minds. One of the most well-versed people on this subject is professor Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia. He’s also the author of one of my favorite books The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt explains that we think it’s a scientist in our mind who argues our point, but in reality, it’s really more like a lawyer who is trying to justify our emotions and what we already believe.

In his book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, professor Drew Westen tells of a study he did where he presented people with information that challenged their political beliefs. Westen’s team used fMRI brain scans to see how the brain responded to this information when the person was asked to discuss the information they were presented. While you would think that people argue from the rational part of the brain to defend their beliefs, the emotional part of the brain was the part of the brain doing all the work. Like Jonathan Haidt theorized, our inner lawyer defends our beliefs, not the inner scientist.

While we may not be able to pull everyone out of the rabbit hole, we can all learn more about our own minds to catch ourselves when we fall into our own self-deception. Personally, I’m constantly reading books that help me better understand how flawed my thinking can be. Currently, I’m reading Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception by Neel Burton, and I just finished the phenomenal book The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. At the end of the day, none of us will ever be entirely rid of our own self-deception and ego defenses, but we can avoid falling into cognitive traps like QAnon by gaining knowledge and becoming more self-aware.

If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram@TheRewiredSoul. For more mental health blogs, check out www.TheRewiredSoul.com.

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