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Why Conspiracy Theories Become Therapy for Older Americans

Why do so many people end up believing these ideas? And why are they tearing so many families apart? In a mental health crisis, conspiracy theories start to work like medication

Conspiracy theories used to be a lot more fun. Or at least, the idea that JonBenét Ramsey was alive and living as Katy Perry (because they have the same shark eyes) once seemed like harmless internet fodder. The ridiculous theory surfaced in early 2016 — and was covered by Billboard, Rolling Stone and CBS News — not to legitimize or spread it, but to amuse people under the assumption that no one would buy into it.

Then Boomers had to get on social media and ruin it for everyone, including — worst of all — 74-year-old Donald Trump, who has spent the duration of his presidency propping up conspiracies. The far-reaching consequences of this are pretty clear: Approximately 25 percent of Americans think the coronavirus was planned by a group of all-powerful elites like Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci (Boomers in particular are more likely to be corona-deniers).

More frighteningly, more than half of Republicans believe in the QAnon conspiracy, a group that anecdotally appears to be disproportionately made up of Boomers and believes that Trump is secretly saving all of us from a group of liberal pedophiles

Trump alone, however, cannot be blamed for us living in what Politico calls “The Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories.” A conspiracy theory is defined as a way to explain tragic or harmful events as the result of the actions of a small, powerful group that goes against widely accepted facts and conclusions. Despite suspicions about the CIA coining the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1960s to dismiss suspicions about the JFK assassination, the first documented use dates back to the 1870s. Yet it wasn’t popularized in the U.S. until almost 100 years later, in a 1964 essay titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by historian Richard J. Hofstadter, which outlined how conspiracy theories are a political pathology that lead to irrational democracies and totalitarian leadership — exactly why extremist leaders like Trump are such fans of them.

Ever since, an increasing number of mental-health experts have argued that these theories are born out of psychological pain that they provide relief from. Furthermore, conspiracy theories are often linked to varying levels of depression, anxiety, psychosis and childhood trauma. To that end, ex-QAnon followers frequently share a history of mental illness, which they typically get help for after abandoning their conspiratorial beliefs. 

The thing is, studies show that Boomers tend to have lower insight and education about mental health compared to Gen Xers and millennials; they also avoid therapy and other forms of treatment at higher rates. (Though millennials tend to report more anxiety and depression, many experts suspect that older generations experience similar issues, they just underreport them and never get help.) 

It’s not surprising, then, that when these adults try to make sense of the world, they find refuge in conspiratorial rabbit holes. For many of them, going to therapy may be just as stigmatizing as getting called a conspiracy theorist. After all, the term “conspiracy theorist” has only been around for a few decades, whereas the “mentally ill” label has been demonized, criminalized and left people vulnerable to imprisonment, experimentation and violence for centuries. All of which is to say, experts are growing concerned that Boomers are facing a severe, medication-resistant form of depression, perhaps because they’ve been ill for so long. 

Of course, when medication doesn’t work and therapy takes months or years to provide any kind of relief, conspiracies offer instant gratification, or “a sense of control over their lives and a sense of superiority over others,” David Ludden, a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College, tells me. “This is one way to assuage feelings of social isolation and low self-esteem, although it’s not especially effective in the long-term.”

To those who believe vaccines cause autism or that the coronavirus was made in a lab, these theories provide easy answers to some of life’s most awful questions. “In that sense, they’re using conspiracy theories as a form of psychotherapy,” Ludden explains. Moreover, when that theory makes believers part of an in-group and provokes fear and hatred toward others — Chinese people or Democrats, for instance — the subsequent tribalism becomes just as infectious as the conspiracy theory itself.

As such, conspiracy theories usually pop up most frequently when large groups of people are traumatized at the same time — e.g., following wars and assassinations or during a crippling pandemic. “The rules today are different than they were for Baby Boomers,” psychotherapist Nick Bognar tells me. “It’s much easier to believe that there is a broad banking conspiracy than to believe that things are really hard, and it’s possible that you might just not understand the world around you as clearly as you once did. So much of this stems from people feeling disconnected from the rest of the world, and then filling in the gaps in their understanding with something made-up.” 

There are reasons to believe that childhood experiences could also make Boomers more vulnerable to conspiracy theories. They grew up in an era where corporal punishment was common place — as many as 94 percent of parents thought it was acceptable to hit their children in 1968 — and conspiratorial beliefs are associated with anxious attachment, an attachment style that forms in childhood, usually as a result of some form of abuse or neglect. “There are many parallels between the lacerations of childhood trauma and ways in which they are mended by conspiracy beliefs,” psychologist Sabrina Romanoff explains. “This includes the need for validation, being certain in reality, consistency in belief system, security, control and maintaining a positive image of oneself.”

Along those lines, per social psychologist Karen Douglas, who has studied the connection between childhood trauma and conspiracy theories closely, data “seems to suggest that there are three psychological needs that draw people toward conspiracy theories.” The first she calls an “epistemic need,” or a need to be knowledgeable and certain. The second is an existential need — the desire to feel safe and secure. And the third is the need to be viewed in a positive light by peers. As a result, “narcissistic people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories than non-narcissists,” Douglas warns. Thus, when they feel alienated, it’s that much easier to radicalize people with narcissistic personalities en masse. 

That’s not to say that only narcissists are vulnerable to conspiracies, Romanoff notes; there are many other personality traits that can put people at risk, too. “These folks are predisposed to have a low tolerance for uncertainty and high need for control,” she explains, a combination that’s hitting many people especially hard in quarantine. “This need is so great that they’re willing to bend reality and facts to have the need for order and predictability satisfied. In these situations, they often conflate reality as it is with reality as they want it to be.”

Obviously, it’s dangerous to write off conspiracy theorists as merely mentally ill. Likewise, not everyone who struggles with childhood trauma will develop conspiratorial beliefs, and lumping them into the same category might stigmatize mental illness further. However, if it’s a question of how so many people end up believing these ideas — and how they’ve torn so many families apart — investigating how people self-medicate with conspiracies is as good a place to start as any. 

“With these scars tended to directly [via therapy], individuals will be less susceptible to seek out external modes of processing in order to have these needs met,” Romanoff says, comparing it to the difference between going to a mainstream hospital or an underground veterinarian to treat a gunshot wound. “The vet will likely stitch you up, but they’re not qualified to treat the magnitude of the problem and will only likely lead to follow-up complications.”