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The Psychology of QAnon Believers

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

QAnon has taken conspiracy theories to new lows, but belief in the untruths it peddles is more widespread than might be supposed. A study published in the American Journal of Political Science notes that in “four nationally representative surveys, sampled between 2006 and 2011, we find that half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory . . .”

That was before QAnon appeared on the scene.

Human brains are hard-wired to protect their own group against competing groups, and therefore more easily attribute the actions of competing groups to conspiracies.”

— Psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen

Reverend Morse and the Illuminati

There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories. Psychiatrist Karen Douglas says that belief in wild plots spikes during times of uncertainty and social upheaval as far back as the collapse of the Roman Empire.

At the end of the 18th century, turmoil arrived in the form of the French and American Revolutions.

In the May 1798, as insecurity ramped up, Congregational minister Jedidiah Morse got a conspiracy theory started from his pulpit on Charleston, Massachusetts. He gave a series of sermons in which he denounced the “Illuminati” for fomenting the French Revolution. He said the secret society aimed “to root out and abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government.”

There were secret societies all over the place, thundered the pastor, peopled by atheists. They were dedicated, he said, to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide (by declaring death an eternal sleep), advocate sensual pleasures agreeable . . . decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”

Much of this has a familiar ring to it in the 21st century.

Here is historian John Fea, “Today, many evangelical Christians, living with anxiety about perceived threats to what they believe to be the decline of a Christian nation, have turned toward conspiracy theories. Whether it is a ‘deep state’ working secretly with the intelligence community . . . an internet prophet called ‘Q’ or demonic forces seeking to thwart God’s plan for America, we have seen this all before.”

Reverend Jedidiah Morse.

Reverend Jedidiah Morse.

The Evolution of QAnon

There’s a message board on the internet called 4Chan where anybody can post anything anonymously. You can imagine the intellectual depth and level of civility to be found there.

In October 2017, a 4-Chan user posted a series of messages under the pseudonym “Q.” He used (or it might have been a she) this alias, saying he had a federal government security approval called “Q clearance” allowing him access to top-secret documents.

The Q-drops, as they became known, were unabashedly pro-Trump and started to be saved onto mainstream social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and others.

A conspiracy theory can normally be defined as a proposed plot carried out in secret, usually by a powerful group of people who have some kind of sinister goal.”

— Dr. Karen Douglas

Utterly bizarre conspiracy theories began appearing under the name QAnon; at their core is the baseless claim that the Democratic Party is part of a secret group of wealthy elites that is plotting to control society―the Illuminati that Jedidiah Morse railed against more than 220 years ago is resurrected.

Q followers believe that children are being “harvested” (their word) and tucked away in caves, so they can be killed in Satanic rituals. The blood of these kids is then drunk to provide a source of the chemical adrenochrome, said to be hallucinogenic―it isn’t.

(The drinking of the blood of children is a conspiracy theory going back at least a thousand years and was dredged up by Hitler and the Nazis as an accusation against Jews in the 1930s).

Further, former President Trump is a messianic figure who is engaged in an undercover battle against this cabal of child abusers that aims to take over the world.

It would be wrong to think of QAnon followers as fringe whack jobs. Pew Research reports that among Americans who know about QAnon, “20 percent say it’s somewhat or very good for the country.” At a rough calculation that amounts to about 25 million American adults.

QAnon on the Psychiatrists’ Couch

Karen Douglas is a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent and an expert on why people gravitate to weird beliefs. She says most people are wired up to believe that hostile entities have a negative impact on society.

Hands up everybody who thinks corporations unduly influence politicians to pass laws and design taxation to benefit them rather than the general public. Thought so.

Okay, so there is some evidence to support the belief that the business world has undue power.

Annual cost to the average American taxpayer to pay for the food stamp program: $36

Des Moines Register

Annual cost to the average American family to pay for subsidies to businesses: $870

Cato Institute

On the other hand, there is a complete absence of evidence that a Jewish laser in space triggered the 2018 forest fires in California. Nor is there a scintilla of proof that there is a tunnel connecting the Vatican to Jerusalem. Both of these are QAnon-generated stories.

So, how do people such as Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene come to believe such crackpot ideas? Dr. Douglas says people are drawn to outlandish assumptions to satisfy three psychological motives:

  • Epistemic―The need to acquire information about a situation, but people who buy into conspiracy theories have never learned to differentiate between good and bad sources. “They’re looking for that knowledge and certainty, but not necessarily looking in the right places.”
  • Existential―This refers to the need of people “to be or to feel safe and secure in the world that they live in.” When people feel they don’t have control of their situations they reach out to conspiracies that explain their insecurities. “Research has shown that people who do feel powerless and disillusioned do tend to gravitate more towards conspiracy theories.”
  • Social―People have a desire to feel good about themselves and one way of achieving that is to have knowledge that nobody else has. Dr. Douglas describes this as the notion that “I know the truth and every other person is a sheep.”

Psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen adds that believers in alternate realities display “feelings of uncertainty, coupled with the feeling that your life is not fully in your control anymore . . . however, conspiracy theories do little to reduce these negative feelings. On the contrary, conspiracy theories only exacerbate feelings of anxiety, laying the foundations for further theorizing.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Dr. Karen Douglas says belief in conspiracy theories is linked to “prejudice, violence, and terrorism.” Evidence of that was the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 that featured many QAnon believers.
  • Political scientist Michael Barkun says that attempts to point out fallacies in conspiracy theories only work to strengthen belief in them: “Rejection by authorities is for them a sign that a belief must be true.”
  • A conspiracy theory targeted Freemasons in the American northeast in the 19th century. It led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party, which ran William Wirt as a presidential candidate in the 1832 election. He got eight percent of the vote.

Sources

  • “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion.” J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, American Journal of Political Science, March 5, 2014.
  • “An Illuminati Conspiracy Theory Captured American Imaginations in the Nation’s Earliest Days—And Offers a Lesson for Now.” John Fea, Time, September 24, 2020.
  • “Nearly Two Centuries Ago, a QAnon-Like Conspiracy Theory Propelled Candidates to Congress.” Sophie Bjork-James, The Conversation, September 2, 2020.
  • “Most Americans Who Have Heard of QAnon Conspiracy Theories Say They Are Bad for the Country and That Trump Seems to Support People Who Promote Them.” Amy Mitchell et al., Pew Research Center, September 9, 2020.
  • “QAnon: What Is it and Where Did it Come From?” Mike Wendling, BBC News, January 6, 2021.
  • “What Do We Know about Conspiracy Theories?” Zara Abrams, American Psychological Association, November 18, 2020.
  • “Speaking of Psychology: Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories, with Karen Douglas, PhD.” American Psychological Association, January 2021.
  • “The Psychology of QAnon: Why Do Seemingly Sane People Believe Bizarre Conspiracy Theories.” Jan-Willem van Prooijen, NBC News, August 13, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

ptosis from Arizona on March 09, 2021:

Qtards who believe one prediction after another that fails to materialize from Q are just racists trying to rationalize their hatred of the other.

Q theory is just rehashed "Elders of the Zion'. SSDD

Amanda Grace from Colorado Springs, CO on March 09, 2021:

Oh, you did! I just wanted to add that point to the article, I hope that was okay. Great article!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 09, 2021:

Hi Amanda. Thank you for your comment, and that is the source I drew some of my information from. Copyright laws mean I can only quote limited passages and summarize the rest. I hope I did Dr. Douglas justice.

Amanda Grace from Colorado Springs, CO on March 09, 2021:

Nice article. I was reading about this very subject last night.

"And some psychological evidence suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when they do feel uncertain either in specific situations or more generally. And there are other epistemic reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories as well in relation to this sort of need for knowledge and certainty. So people with lower levels of education tend to be drawn to conspiracy theories. And we don't argue that's because people are not intelligent. It's simply that they haven't been allowed to have, or haven't been given access to the tools to allow them to differentiate between good sources and bad sources or credible sources and non-credible sources. So they're looking for that knowledge and certainty, but not necessarily looking in the right places.

The second set of motives, we would call existential motives. And really they just refer to people's needs to be or to feel safe and secure in the world that they live in. And also to feel that they have some kind of power or autonomy over the things that happen to them as well. So again, when something happens, people don't like to feel powerless. They don't like to feel out of control. And so reaching to conspiracy theories might, I guess, at least allow people to feel that they have information that at least explains why they don't have any control over this situation. Research has shown that people who do feel powerless and disillusioned do tend to gravitate more towards conspiracy theories.

The final set of motives we would call social motives and those refer to people's desire to feel good about themselves as individuals and also feel good about themselves in terms of the groups that they belong to. And I guess at the individual level, people like to feel... Well, they like to have high self-esteem. They like to feel good about themselves. And potentially one way of doing that is to feel that you have access to information that other people don't necessarily have."--Karen Douglas, PhD

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