Looking at the extremes in others’ beliefs and habits can help illuminate how we come to believe and act, too.
If you’re worried about conspiracy theories there are three things we can do to make them less potent if we are willing to listen to those who espouse them. Community (and connection, self-determination, and game-play are all part of what makes these ideas that might seem outlandish to some palatable and attractive to others. By understanding this we might better design environments that can better resist the harmful effects that some of these belief systems bring while creating a more positive life for those around us. We are all susceptible to the kind of belief systems that are rigid, inflexible and resistant to change whether or not we have evidence to support our ideas.
Q-Anon: A Case Study in Belonging and Belief
Truth and consequence are having a strange moment, fitting with the times. It is a time that philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists are finding a lot to talk about.
A recent article in the New York Times profiling ‘A Q-Anon Digital Soldier‘ provides an illuminating look at reasons why we all might be part of a different kind of conspiracy theory (that is, a theory of why we believe what we do in the ways that we do) if we are willing to change our perceptive gaze. By this, I mean approach this phenomenon like an anthropologist, designer or psychologist and with compassion and empathy. (This is not the same as agreeing with a position or justifying actions of others, rather it’s about understanding it).
The article profiles how a New York-based woman transformed from someone ordinary to something extra-ordinary in a way that has, in keeping with the times, become more ordinary with each year. She is a Q-Anon supporter (?) and someone who’s belief in this loose movement has grown to the point where she’s not only a believer, but a promoter. What makes the New York Times article so interesting is not just this woman’s belief, but how it allows us to look a little deeper to see how its evolved and what it looks like as part of her lived experience.
It’s also a mirror to all of us. Not because of content, but because of the way it points to not only what we believe, but how. There are lessons for all of us.
What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides.
Reading through this account — and others like it on other movements — is not the content, but the community around the content. Having something to believe in – a sense of purpose — brings meaning to our lives and with it heath and longevity. A sense of belonging is at or near the core of this. Q-Anon is providing a sense of meaning to people who feel disconnected and apart from the society they live in and fills a gap in connection (as well as logic). To be clear, there is a distinction between the experience of community and the content of the belief.
By understanding this role of community it brings me to consider how and why in times of turbulence we need to consider all that is disrupted and find and promote healthy, productive ways to create belonging. This is even more true with so many people distancing from each other due to migration and — at present – regulations or guidelines. If people felt that sense of belonging, the likelihood that they might feel that disaffection that draws people to harmful theories, ideologies, and people would be reduced.
For her, QAnon was always less about Q and more about the crowdsourced search for truth. She loves assembling her own reality in real time, patching together shards of information and connecting them to the core narrative.
If the idea of ‘assembling your own reality’ makes you shudder it’s probably because you’ve not thought enough about how you do it to yourself. Research from psychology on mindsets shows how we create our own reality for possibility by having either a growth or fixed orientation to the world. One is open to possibility, the other is focused on a set of conditions that define reality in a specific way. Another way to frame this is that one perspective supports greater self-determination than the other.
When we believe we have a say in how our lives operate, we create new opportunities. Self-determination is a critical factor in supporting learning and a sense of competence, change, and wellbeing. It’s also useful in framing health innovation challenges.
Coupled with community, the idea of skill-building, learning, and having a say in how her world was structured is one of the key attractors to Q-Anon. Advancing self-determination is one of the most positive means of generating behaviour change, health and community.
When she solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her. This collaborative element, which some have likened to a massively multiplayer online video game, is a big part of what drew Ms. Gilbert to QAnon and keeps her there now.
The idea of challenges and games is another way to engage people and promote health and wellbeing. When you think about it, a conspiracy theory is a model of truth-seeking and pattern finding and making. These are active, participatory, creative activities. Jane McGonigal, a game designer, has explored the role of game-play in promoting health and wellbeing, creating community, and encouraging self-determination. This is a means to and through the other two connectors to conspiracy theories.
What McGonigal’s work (and research that has built off of it) and system does is encourage game-play in the smallest of activities aimed at encouraging creative engagement with the world around us and providing a framework for action and behaviour change. Whether it is losing weight, exercising more, improving your focus, or connecting to others — every one of these activities can be transformed into a game.
The same mechanisms that are at play in Minecraft or seeking to hack your workouts is present in a conspiracy theory.
Changing the Game
The more we can recognize that these qualities are very human the more we can start to change them or promote something better. These same qualities can be generated to create pro-social movements, help promote products or services, or engage your audiences in learning in new ways.
This is changing the game, not just game-changing.
By knowing what and how we play and what we create in doing it we are better prepared to play well.