Some people live under the shadow of conspiracy. They think that the reality in which they live is characterized by lies and cover-ups. They believe the conspiracy theories and don’t trust anyone who doesn’t.
This means they tend to isolate themselves from the world around them and only interact with others who share their ideas. To describe how and why this transformation happens, the concept of the rabbit hole was recently developed. It’s a metaphor based on the story, Alice in Wonderland.
Although many of us view conspiracy theories with skepticism, for these particular individuals they’re real, absolute, and undeniable certainties. In fact, the beliefs that gravitate around the conspiracy form a fundamental element of their identity.
In effect, these people fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy. Their beliefs are ruminative thoughts that gravitate toward conspiracy. Moreover, they frequently give rise to intolerant behavior.
Behind the rabbit hole
The rabbit hole syndrome is a recent theory. Its authors, Robbie M. Sutton and Karen M. Douglas have based it on a section of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
In this book, Alice, seeing the white rabbit wearing a waistcoat with a pocketwatch, burning with curiosity, follows him into his hole, without doubting for a moment how she’ll get out. The rabbit hole suddenly dips and Alice trips and falls down what appears to be an extremely deep well.
This metaphor of the rabbit hole is explained in an article in the journal, Current Opinion in Psychology. The researchers wanted to explain how an individual can fall into the conspiracy theory trap. They explained a sequence of steps that occur when an individual falls into one.
“Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.”
1. An involuntary process
Individuals don’t voluntarily embrace conspiracy theories. Their attention merely has to be captured by them (as in the rabbit example).
Conspiracy theories like UFOs, supernatural experiences, and a flat Earth are born, grow, and reproduce because they’re seductive. The believer thinks they’re in a privileged position compared to those around them, who they consider have been deceived.
At first, they’re drawn to the mystery and the fun of the weird and eccentric. However, without them realizing it, this contact has the potential to become a fuse that ignites further conspiracy beliefs in them. In effect, what began as curiosity, ends up transforming them. In other words, contact with conspiracy theories can have a domino effect. Examples of this can be found in the conspiracy theories that emerged surrounding COVID-19 (Sutton, 2022). Believers don’t realize how the mere fact of coming into contact with these theories changes their way of seeing the world.
“They may not realize what is happening to them in these early stages of rabbit hole syndrome.”
-Robbie M. Sutton-
2. A ‘cognitive tachycardia’
At the onset of rabbit hole syndrome, the individual may be skeptical of the type of information that society has discarded. For example, the belief that the world is flat. However, when they enter conspiracy circles and contact the people within them, the ‘contagion effect’ occurs.
Thus, their beliefs which are usually normal, become conspiratorial. At first, it appears to be a slow process. But, after a while, these beliefs revive and increase with extraordinary speed. Moreover, they become more numerous and increasingly powerful.
Once this red line is crossed, the believer tends to isolate themselves from the real world and associate exclusively with other people who think the same way. Indeed, they turn their backs on anyone who thinks otherwise. They get involved in a spiral that consists of reading and seeing increasingly more information related to the content of the conspiracy. This reinforces their conspiratorial beliefs even more.
“They tend to identify as critical and free thinkers which, in turn, fosters a deeper commitment to these beliefs.”
-Robbie M. Sutton-
3. An ‘armored’ mind
In the later stages of this syndrome, the individual’s beliefs begin to crystallize and harden. Consequently, it’s extremely difficult for them to change and restructure them.
Interestingly, the researchers point out that the evidence about this last phase is scant. That’s because it’s difficult to find participants who are willing to undergo studies on conspiracy theories. This is due to the fact that, for these individuals, the conspirators are the others, not them.
Once someone has incorporated conspiracy beliefs into their cognitive system, they affect many other areas of their lives. Therefore, it’s common for their identity and belief system to undergo a metamorphosis. They separate themselves from those closest to them and blend in with people who share their conspiratorial beliefs. Also, they’re arguably ‘immune’ to any evidence against their beliefs.
“At this stage, commitment to conspiracy beliefs can be entrenched by embracing radically transformed epistemologies.”
-Robbie M. Sutton-
As you can see, it’s enough to feel fascinated by something that’s different to fall down a conspiracy ‘rabbit hole’. Then, once the first contact has been established, believers find themselves trapped in a bottomless well, as happened to Alice. Moreover, once they’re in, they find it hard to get out, because their beliefs have been transformed in a really profound way.
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