OSU Professor Weighs in on QAnon Appeal

The appeal of QAnon, a set of conspiracy theories that took off online, may relate closely to people’s views of themself and the way attitudes are formed.  

QAnon is the broad term for a set of conspiracy theories that center on false allegations that the world is run by child sex trafficking, cannibalistic Democrats including celebrities, entertainers, and religious figures, and that President Donald Trump is breaking up the ring and bringing its members to justice. The alleged members include Hilary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Pope Francis.  

The number of QAnon followers may be in the millions, and more than two dozen candidates for congress have endorsed, promoted, or given credence to QAnon content online. Followers can participate in decoding and sharing messages online, but some have taken to the streets and become involved in standoffs, and shot mob bosses they believed were involved.  

The FBI has labeled QAnon a domestic terrorist threat. Yet, with all evidence to the contrary, theories continue to persist. 

While there is no one factor that explains everything for everyone, there are several concepts in social psychology that generally explain why and how people come to believe in things such as QAnon.  

Bias and the Unconscious 

Dr. Frank Bernieri, a professor of psychology at Oregon State University with an interest in social psychology, says part of the reason people believe QAnon may be due to the fact that our view of the world is subjective and driven by our internal biases.  

We are not capable of perceiving the world as it is,” he said in an email. “Instead we perceive it through the filter of our own knowledge. 

Additionally, Bernieri said the way we view ourselves and how we think is influential to the way we experience the world.  

“What most people don’t realize is that our own requirement for self-esteem (the “I am not a bad person.”) and self-verification (the “I can trust what I know”) greatly distorts our attention, perception, and information processing because these beliefs must be supported by the outcome of everything we experience, feel, and think about,” he wrote.  

So, why don’t we notice the first two phenomena 

Our brains operate using two different systems. One is conscious and incorporates everything we experience and control under awareness. The other operates completely under our awareness.  

The reason we are not aware of the first two facts is because nearly all of our information processing and behavioral choices are driven/caused by unconscious processes deep in the brain that we don’t have direct access to,” Bernieri wrote.  

Just as we cannot control our blood pressure, we cannot control what happens in our unconscious mind. 

“Likewise, almost everything we think, see, and do, is programmed in portions of our brain that our consciousness can’t access directly or control,” he said.  

Attitude  

An attitude is a three-component set of emotions, behaviors, and beliefs about something such as an event, object, or person. People’s attitudes can be due to both unconscious processes and reason, Bernieri explained in an OSU lecture.   

The strength of an attitude has to do with the degree of personal experience someone has had in that area, how certain they are of the attitude, and how extreme the attitude is. However, there is no way of knowing if your attitude was formed because of reason or because of the unconscious, as both feel the same, according to Bernieri.  

The only way to infer how an attitude came to be is by determining what caused an attitude to change.  

If a good quality argument promotes an attitude re-examination or change, that would infer the attitude was based on reason.  

If an attractive source, long argument, or general consensus can promote an attitude change, that would infer the attitude was due to unconscious things such as habit, emotion, or motivation. 

Bernieri said fear was an excellent way to promote attitude change, especially when paired with instructions. Meaning, a mother with young children who was on the fence about QAnon could potentially be motivated to believe the theories because she was worried about the possibility something could threaten her children, and found relief in accepting the theories that if she voted for President Trump, her kids might be safer.  

Self-Affirmation  

The filtration system used in how everyone perceives reality is complex, and because we do not perceive reality exactly as anyone else, we must maintain ourselves and our own beliefs. We want to be able to believe that we are good and have control over our lives, so we strive to maintain this belief in a number of ways, one of which being our own perception.  

Our experiences and our thinking have evolved to validate our world more than discover it, Bernieri wrote.  

Analyzing why someone believes something may mean taking a look at why they must believe that.  

“If you want to understand why someone is a Christian, why someone believes the earth is flat, someone believes immigrants are taking America away from us, or why someone believes President Trump is under assault by Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global sex-trafficking ring, then you simply have to figure out all the implications – good and bad – this belief would have for them (personally, professionally, socially, mentally, emotionally, interpersonally, religiously, etc.).” 

Our brains need justification, even if the justification is logically faulty, in order to preserve how we feel about ourselves.  

Everything that people believe, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to a typical outside observer, makes perfect sense when you figure out what all of the consequence might be if this person does not believe it,” Bernieri said. “Imagine the horror, for example, that person would have to deal with for the rest of their life if they woke up one day and suddenly realized that their Mom was a mean witch, their Dad a stupid selfish jerk, their religion a scam, their family a bunch of rejects, their country illegitimate, or suddenly realized that they were the bad guy who deserves not to live.” 

Because the consequences of realizations like that may bring discomfort, we shy away from them consciously and our automatic cognitive processes try to make sure as many uncomfortable things as possible never see the light of day.  

What Can We Conclude 

“When a conspiracy theory helps us explain (preserve) our existing beliefs about things that are really important to us, then we embrace them whole heartedly. 

“So, we are driven to convert as many others as we can. It’s called a social proof. The more people I can convince to believe in alien abduction, the more confident I am that it’s true.  This is why these things fly around social media. In the absence of evidence, logic, and reason, the only thing left to support a crazy belief is to convert as many people as you can to that belief.” 

Bernieri concluded by saying the evidence, theories, and technicalities of these matters on this subject would make a book, and claims his input is, “just an opinion formed by psychological science.” 

QAnon in Our Backyard 

The sheer number of people supporting QAnon would make Bernieri’s “book” extremely relevant, especially in light of the coming election.   

Joe Rae Perkins, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in Oregon on the ballot for the November election, is a self-proclaimed believer in QAnon. Perkins expressed regret in having taken down a video where she praised Q and said, “I stand with Q and the team.” 

Perkins is not alone. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll shows that 22% of voters intending to vote for President Trump believe the theories are at least partially true, and 15% believe they are true. Comparatively, 4% of people likely voting for Biden partially believe the theories and 3% believe they are true.  

Not only playing a role in the election, QAnon seeped into the wildfires in Oregon. Authorities had to beg that people share only verified information about the fires when law enforcement agencies described their 911 dispatchers as being overwhelmed by people calling about Antifa members in custody for setting fires, a rumor that has since been found to be promoted by the account behind QAnon theories.  

By: Hannah Ramsey