1. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    A Cult is a social group with non-mainstream beliefs or practices, often religious or social, that manipulates, controls or exploits its members. A cult is often headed by a charismatic leader.

    A Conspiracy Theory is a set of non-mainstream beliefs held by individuals or very loosely associated individuals. It is characterized by a belief that a powerful secret group of people is behind most important things that happen in the world, but might focus on quite particular and obscure topics.

    There is some crossover. Cults often promote conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theories often have charismatic promoters. But the main difference is that a cult is primarily about membership of a group, and a conspiracy theory is about belief in a particular world view.

    As I'm writing a book on how people get out of conspiracy theory thinking, an obvious thing was to look at advice people give when talking to people in cults.

    Be nice to them. Keep talking to them in a way that keeps them thinking. Eventually they will figure it out.

    That's a bit vague, but they say it's basically a technique known as "Motivational Interviewing"
    The language there might be a bit vague looking, but what they are talking about is how you get someone to change their behavior. The actual research behind MI seems largely related to substance abuse - where the patient may or may not want to quit (drugs, alcohol, smoking), but lacks motivation to do so.

    Obviously substance addiction is not exactly like conspiracy theory belief, or even cult membership. But there are similarities. Simply watching online videos about conspiracy theories can have a similar addictive nature - people often talk about consuming large quantities of conspiracy media when they first get into it, and then being regular consumers thereafter - often getting hooked on Facebook groups, or conspiracy promoters like Alex Jones.

    So maybe there are things to learn from the treatment of addicts and from cults.

    One thing that leapt out to me from the "How to talk someone out of a damaging cult" was "The most important piece of advice is to not criticise, condemn or judge". This resonates with the approach here at Metabunk where I ask that people be polite (which includes being non-judgemental) in order to communicate more effectively.

    Then in the more academic article we have:
    Now this is more about talking in person than online, and comes across a bit more "touchy-feely" than most online interactions. But point #3 there is still about being nice to avoid confrontation.

    Of course another huge difference is that with a therapy situation you've got someone who is at least thinking about making a change - they actually want to be there. The points about empathy and fostering a relationship don't directly translate to someone who is obsessed with a conspiracy theory and they might view your attempt to change their mind as suspicious.

    .... to be continued
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2017
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  2. Leifer

    Leifer Senior Member

    For all three (CCA), if they don't seek "help", then that nearly eliminates one-on-one professional help. Or there might the case where they seek help in one area, and it leads to help in another.
    Hard-core addictions usually or eventually need one-on-one, or live group help. (In my experience.)

    It's problematic that many people begin their CCA's on-line, but there aren't many ways out "on-line".
    Support forums can help, but until they become addicted to a particular forum, they'll feel like they are talking to strangers. (maybe that's a good thing, for a start ??)

    Last edited: Sep 2, 2017
  3. Ph_

    Ph_ Closed Account

    Be careful not to adhere too much to one style of deprogramming, try different techniques, be flexible and see what fits best.
    For example, Motivational Interviewing relies partly on leading questions:
    People can recognise the leading question style and are biased against it due to previous 'attempts', which makes them biased against most of what follows, so change tactics when you recognise that bias against leading questions.

    It also assumes neuro typical persons
    In the cases of (minor) personality disorders or traits you have to adjust accordingly.
  4. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Avoiding some kind of backlash reaction is a huge problem. If you are attempting to changes someone's mind, no matter how you do it, then that can be perceived as you trying to brainwash them.

    If you use some kind of technique, or method - even something as benign as "avoid conflict and reinforces the positive" then that runs the risk of being perceived as a brainwashing technique. I get accused of things like this, of "gaslighting", "neurolinguistic programming", or simply of steering the conversation away from "truth".

    The problem is that here we are, discussing how to more effectively help people realise they are wrong. If someone who does not yet realize they are wrong were to read this then they might view it as malicious people discussing how to more effectively plant false information in their brains.

    So there's this challenge - how to convey that your position is one of honest disagreement and a desire to help. I feel that being as open as possible works. I've been doing phone interviews with a variety of people for the book, and I naturally follow a non-confrontational approach - just asking them questions. I'm quite clear about what I disagree with, but try to be non-judgemental. I still very quickly slip into explaining things, but still keep it friendly.

    Of course I'm speaking largely to strangers, people who don't know me and may be very suspicious of my motives. It could be easier if the discussion were with friends of family — there the situation is (often) more like the therapy situation, where there's a degree of trust, and they understand that you want what is best for them even if you disagree with what they believe or do. So, in that more intimate context, more closely following something like Motivational Interviewing might be more appropriate.
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  5. Ph_

    Ph_ Closed Account

    It's almost like walking through a minefield of possible triggers that you need to avoid, and the triggers differ from one person to another.
    Examples that work for me:

    To reduce suspicion, be lackadaisical in your conviction while gathering information, as if their conviction either way is oke for you.
    Acknowledge their concerns/convictions, if possible even share that you have the same concerns/convictions and introduce a third (fictitious) person against whom they have to argue their concerns/convictions. (My neighbour said that blablabla, and that got me doubting)

    Find root causes that persons are unaware off.
    For instance, logical debate about whether God exists or not are usually useless against someone who is in a church and ties his conviction together with the fact that he has friends that help him, a whole social circle that works for him for years (or decades) because of his belief (he has seen how his friends react to non believers)
    With addiction as another example, there are causes of temporary escape from reality, piece in your mind that one person might need.
    Without substitutes for those it's hard to get the logic through.

    Sometimes you can only plant a small seed that you need to nurture and grow and give frequent attention to before it blossoms.

    Neurochemically speaking you can laugh together about anything that isn't connected, carefully avoiding making fun of them or their beliefs
    Eating a dinner together, or walk in the sun together etcetera can also give that slight edge due to endorphins.

    It's just that there is not one system that fits all.
    Being known also makes it more difficult, people have expectations and know where you stand for, with either correct or prejudiced knowledge of you.

    I think that being flexible and really understand what they stand for and why they stand for that is of key importance.
    And let them talk alot, encourage it.

    (And yes, i sometimes feel like a bastard for knowing this and employing it)
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  6. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    I was looking up other collections of advice for talking to people in cults. I think in general some of the advice can always be translated into conspiracy believers, but you have to know where the differences are, and where the advice is coming from. Here's an interesting list from a christian advising other christians how to talk people out of a cult (by which he seems to mean Mormons).

    Tip #1: Ask, “How much time do you have?”
    Tip #2: Pray, Pray, Pray

    Tip #3: Ask, “What Do You Mean By That?”
    Tip #4: Ask, “Can You Read This Out Loud?”
    Tip #5. Ask, “Can You Explain That to Me?”
    Tip #6. Find Common Ground

    Tip #7. Be Honest
    Tip #8. Avoid Rabbit Trails (irrelevant digression)
    Tip #9. Imagine You’re Them
    Tip #10. Show Some Respect

    Obviously much of his advice is useless to me, as I'm an atheist. But there's still the foundational (and religiously neutral) advice of finding common ground, being honest and respectful, and seeing things from their perspective.

    The questioning tips also ring a bell. Getting people to explain what they mean, or what they think something means, is very useful both in terms of understanding their position and also getting them to understand their position.
  7. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Another interesting take is the advice given by a cult "deprogrammer" (someone who helps with family interventions for cult members) when asked how to talk people out of voting for Donald Trump

    Here's the article in list format, with some paraphrasing, it's not really that specific to voting for Trump.
    1. Approach the topic compassionately (Framing the intervention as an act of personal care and compassion, otherwise it's just viewed as an ambush, and the subject starts off on the defensive.)
    2. Give them information (conveying new information to the subject, so they can make their own informed decision about staying with or leaving the group)
    3. Introduce divergent views (changing the information intake of a person in an insular community can help them realize what they're missing)
    4. Appeal to authority ( identifying people she respects, and seeing which of those people have spoken out in opposition to [the cult])
    5. Untangle myths ( pointing out mistakes and contradictions in the group's ideology.)
    6. Be respectful and loving, not smug and condescending (don't underestimate the intelligence of the person you're talking to. Recognize their motives as genuine)
    "Respect" comes up again. And in common with other lists the basic idea is maintain effective communication (by understanding where they are coming from, establishing common ground, respecting their motivations, and not being a dick) and supplying relevant information (things they got wrong, things they don't know about, and things other people say).
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  8. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    At perhaps another end of the spectrum, advice on how to get someone out of the Amway cult (Amway is a multi-level-marketing organization that many people say employs cult-like tactic)

    Which of course is no advice at all, just wait, as most people who get into Amway get out within a year or so.

    While this seems like useless advice, it might in fact be quite pragmatic. Until they actually have the practical experience of being in the cult, and what that actually means, then everything else is just talk. Does this translate in any way to conspiracy beliefs? Perhaps to a degree - when people first take some steps down the rabbit hole it's all new to them, and they have a hard time getting real perspective.

    The conspiracist equivalent of the starry eyed Amway newbie might be someone who watched "A New Pearl Harbor" or "Loose Change" a few days ago, and has since been on a YouTube awakening binge. It still all seems like a revelation to them, and they are still really in "consumption" mode - they are "doing their own research" purely for the dopamine hits they get with each new supposed revelation or confirmation.

    While I don't think that such newly-minted conspiracy theorists are entirely immune to reason, it might be that there's an initial period of such intense conspiracy intake that it's best to let them settle down into some kind of stable knowledge set before attempting to address any of it.
  9. deirdre

    deirdre Moderator Staff Member

    I still think the majority of new conspiracy theorists just move on on their own, as they will get bored with the topic. So trying to talk them out of something will most likely only cause them to dig their heels in deeper in defense.
    If I had a family member newly spouting this stuff I would just listen and pretend I'm interested but throw in a lot of "yea but..." discrepancies or "that doesn't sound right" talk. But then people in real life know me, and I can get away with that without causing their defenses to go up because I'm always like that on every topic and I have a casual vibe.

    Ultimately, I don't think there is a convenient list or formula that fits all. or all situations. It depends on the conspiracist, their history, which bunk they believe and don't believe. Strategies would change whether it's a stranger online or someone you know well etc.

    For online interactions, I still think a 'debunker' should just give sourced facts like an encyclopedia and not try to 'convince' anyone of anything unless the CTer himself/herself advances a more personal relationship. And again, keep interactions and posts short. (with real life interactions too).. by the time you get to point #24 they have forgotten what you said about point #1-20. Give them a point or two and let in sink in for a few days before giving more points. ie. don't let them gish gallop.
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  10. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Yeah, there's no silver bullet, or list of silver bullet points. When thinking about how-to advice in talking to conspiracy theorists I boiled it down to three points:

    1. Maintain effective communication
    2. Supply relevant information
    3. Give it time
    All of which is rather generic. You can break down the first two into in a variety of tips, but really it's about having a good quality dialog over time.
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  11. Trailblazer

    Trailblazer Moderator Staff Member

    Wait until you've spent all your money and maxed out your credit cards - great advice! :confused:

    The analogy with conspiracy theories would probably be "wait until you've alienated all your friends and family completely". Once people have used up all their capital, either financial or social/emotional they only really have two choices - come crawling back to their existing support networks, or cut themselves off completely and throw themselves on the mercy of the cult.
  12. Rory

    Rory Senior Member

    Or be a lonewolf. Or find a new support network. Or a new cult. Or kill themselves.
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  13. lydi

    lydi New Member

    Another interesting parallel is trying to help people with schizophrenia. Dr. Xavier Amador, whose brother had schizophrenia, studies the phenomenon of anosognosia, or lack of self insight, which results in people's not recognizing that they have a problem. Many years ago, Dr. Amador wrote about his work on anosognosia and his experiences with this brother in a book called I Am Not Sick, I Don't Need Help. In that book is also information about a method of communicating with people who have anosognosia, for example to help people with schizophrenia to stay on their medications. That system is called LEAP and there is now a LEAP Institute.
    Very similar to the other information provided here on how to communicate with people who are obsessed or sick, LEAP stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree, and Partner. Dr. Amador is now also a frequent media consultant. I also highly recommend Dr. Amador's work for people who are dealing with teenagers or elderly parents, who i think of as often being in a kind of schizoid state, teens being totally dependent on their parents but also trying to become independent persons, and elderly parents still being parents but losing ability to do things they have done all their lives and not recognizing that loss.
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 16, 2018