If someone you loved started going around saying that the U.S. government is run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles, you might be confused. How could they believe something like that? Many Americans have faced this very question over the past four years as the QAnon conspiracy theory has gained popularity.
Adherence to the conspiracy has only become more perplexing since the inauguration of President Biden debunked one of Q’s key claims: that President Trump would win a second term and purge the U.S government of criminals and pedophiles. The predicted “Storm” failed to materialize and in August 2021, former President Trump will not be reinstated despite what ardent supporters of the conspiracy believe.
While many Americans abandoned QAnon in the aftermath of January 6th when the man believed to be behind “Q,” Ron Watkins, stepped down and encouraged his followers to accept the results of the presidential election, many others dug in their heels. The popularity and persistence of the QAnon conspiracy can be explained in part by cognitive biases.
People may first be attracted to disinformation like the QAnon conspiracy theory because of negativity bias. Humans are hardwired to focus on and remember the negative, whether that’s a rude comment from a friend or a frightening story in an online forum. This instinct may well have served early humans fighting tooth and nail for survival but, in modern times, it all too often leads us to see monsters where there are none.
Once an idea has taken root, humans are subject to confirmation bias. Studies show that people tend to discount evidence that contradicts what they already believe and cherry-pick facts that support their views. This effect is worsened when we turn to echo chambers on social media, environments where users are only exposed to others who share their own beliefs.
Another cognitive bias, sunk cost, is also relevant to understanding the loyalty of Q’s followers. People are hesitant to abandon things they have invested a lot of time or money in, even if their continued investment doesn’t make sense. For example, the manager of a company looking for oil might continue to drill in the same spot after it becomes clear that finding oil is unlikely. It is difficult for the manager to accept that the project was a waste of money and move on, although that would be a financially sound decision. We want to protect ourselves from feelings of loss but, in the process, we can make things worse for ourselves. Many QAnon followers have incurred significant sunk costs. They have cut off friends and relatives, lost jobs, and even stormed the Capitol. Admitting that they were wrong would mean admitting that these consequences were for nothing. It would come at a huge psychological cost.
It is important to understand the cognitive biases that prop up conspiracy theories for two reasons. First, when we understand why conspiracy theorists believe what they do, we unlock the tools to help them abandon these falsehoods. Confirmation bias should be combatted with increased exposure to alternate perspectives. Family and friends can reduce sunk costs for conspiracy theorists by demonstrating a willingness to restore damaged relationships.
In addition, understanding cognitive biases gives us the tools to help ourselves. Even if we don’t believe in QAnon, we’re subject to the same psychological biases as those who do. As we move through the world and consume information, we should be conscious of the way our biases may make pieces of disinformation and misinformation appealing to us.