Philip Saragoza, M.D. & Stephen White, Ph.D.
In this feature, we discuss the challenge of identifying conspiracy theorists who pose a risk of violence – a topic we will address in our upcoming workshop, Violent Extremism, 2021: A Threat Assessment Update, May 10-13.
- On Christmas day, 2020, in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, lone actor Anthony Warner detonated a bomb from inside his RV, killing himself and causing considerable property damage to buildings in the area. Fortunately, there were no other fatalities. Warner’s beliefs included that the 9/11 terrorist attack was an inside job by the US government and that lizard aliens masquerading as humans control the Earth.
- Among those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6th was Jacob Chansley, nicknamed the “QAnon Shaman,” whose moment of dubious fame was sitting in Vice President Mike Pence’s Senate chamber chair, bare-chested, face painted, and wearing a large fur hat with horns. Chansley, who had appeared at a number of other socio-political rallies in 2020, is a proponent of the widespread QAnon conspiracy theory that a secret cabal of political and social elites engages in nefarious activities including Satanic cannibalistic child sex trafficking.
- On March 13, 2019, Anthony Comello shot to death mob boss Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali after attempting to make a citizen’s arrest of him for being a member of the “Deep State.” Among Comello’s other beliefs were that the C.I.A. had infiltrated the Mafia, the government was spying on him, and Democratic operatives in Washington were doing business with the Mexican drug kingpin known as El Chapo.
These individuals’ actions exemplify the potential danger posed by conspiracy theorists, a subset of whom will engage in violent attacks, problematic approaches, or other destructive undertakings. Adamant believers can generate much angst in workplaces, on campuses, and in other settings, especially given the highly publicized events we have witnessed in the last year. But here’s the rub: Surveys have shown that nearly half of the US population believes in at least one conspiracy theory (Sides, 2015). An NPR poll last December indicated that 17% of US adults believe a group of Satan-worshipping elites run a child sex ring and are trying to control our politics and media. Only 47% of respondents considered this belief to be “false” (Rose, 2020). Such statistics indicate that violence associated with or stemming from conspiracy beliefs is very rare. How do we identify then, potential attackers among all those who raise concern – a recurrent issue in threat assessment?
Definitions and Susceptibility Factors
Conspiracy theories have always been with us, but their proliferation in recent years is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is the power of the internet. Current researchers have identified factors that motivate their adoption. Conspiracy theories often provide explanations for daunting, complex situations for people who may feel desperate for answers, especially if they mistrust official or institutional sources. Perceived understanding can provide a sense of comfort or control to counteract feelings of powerlessness against existential threats posed by critical events (Douglas, Uscinski et al., 2019). Such reassurances may serve to elevate self-esteem – for example, feeling “special” for “knowing the real truth” about an ongoing crisis that runs counter to official reports. Distinctly contrarian beliefs may bolster the collective narcissism of an in-group whose members consider themselves the victims in a conspiratorial narrative that validates their perspective. Many scholars have posited the existence of a conspiratorial mindset or worldview – the idea that some individuals have a constellation of traits priming them toward conspiracy beliefs (Dagnall, Drinkwater et al., 2015); for example, they are prone to suspicion, tend to reject authority, and are cynical about interpersonal dynamics while expecting attempted exploitation by others. This is supported by the observation that individuals who already believe in conspiracy theories are much more likely to adopt new ones (Douglas, Uscinski, et al., 2019). Political views are also influential, as people are more likely to accept alleged conspiracies that reinforce their established ideological positions. Certain demographic characteristics contribute to the adoption of conspiracy theories, including lower levels of education; yet even those with advanced degrees are not immune from the logical fallacies often inherent in conspiratorial beliefs. There is no pure profile of the conspiracy believer.
Mental Illness vs. Extreme Overvalued Beliefs
The content of conspiracy theories will often stretch credulity, leading any reasonable observer to see such beliefs as bizarre and an overt sign of mental problems. An example would be the notion that the pandemic was a staged event designed to implement mass surveillance through microchips co-injected with vaccines. However, conspiracy beliefs do not in themselves signify mental illness or psychosis. The delusional beliefs commonly present in psychosis are typically self-referential and idiosyncratic, for example, “The CIA is targeting me and hacking all my devices.” In contrast, conspiratorial beliefs are often shared by substantial numbers of people within a subcultural group, for example, The Flat Earth Society. Their numbers have grown in recent years largely due to YouTube algorithms and social media providing them a funnel into a shared community. Accordingly, we might more accurately classify many conspiracy theories as extreme overvalued beliefs (EOB), a concept now being studied extensively by Reid Meloy and Tahir Rahman (Rahman et al., 2020), among others, and with implications for assessing violence risk. An EOB is a rigidly held, non-delusional belief, shared by others in a subculture. The belief is relished, grows more dominant and may lead to define the individual’s identity. Importantly, EOBs are more likely than delusions to lead to repeated action considered morally justified, especially given the reinforcement by others in the believer’s community. Intense emotional commitment may lead to violent behavior in its service. Things can get complicated, however: individuals who are paranoid may be more susceptible to conspiracy beliefs, and, if overtly psychotic, may personalize those belief systems to a delusional extent. This was the case with Anthony Comello, both clinically paranoid and a QAnon believer. He had allegedly come to view himself as sanctioned to participate in the unmasking and apprehension of members of the Deep State cabal that QAnon adherents believe in. Comello was subsequently found unfit to stand trial due to psychosis (Donnelly, 2020).
Conspiracy Beliefs, Extremism and Violence
Some who hold conspiracy theories may demonstrate the warning behaviors of pathological fixation on a cause or a person and identification with previous high-profile attackers, that lead to targeted violence. Here, the believer comes to view him or herself as an agent for a cause to be addressed through violent action, perhaps in order to correct perceived injustice at the hands of the conspirators. Such scenarios allows us to appreciate the nexus between conspiracy theory and extremism. Extremist worldviews are often characterized by drastic social categorization exemplifying “radical dualism,” i.e., groups that are all-good or all-bad, and highly blame-attributing narratives that position the virtuous in-group as victimized at the hands of the malevolent outgroup (Baele, Brace & Coan, 2019). For the subset of violent extremists, this worldview calls for dramatic action to correct the unjust imbalance in these intergroup dynamics, and to advance or restore the in-group to their righteous place in society. Likewise, conspiracy theories thrive on the concepts of radical dualism and explanatory narratives that vilify the out-group, i.e., the conspirators. Individuals may arrive at a mindset justifying violence to undo or oppose the conspirators.
Threat Assessment in Cases of Conspiracy Theorists
Remember that most conspiracy theorists are not violent. We must do the work of threat assessment, however, when scenarios of concern are brought forward; not only to assure safety but also to manage and minimize fear and disruption. Case assessment should proceed by compiling as much data as possible about all of the usual risk factors for targeted violence, as well as protective factors or buffers against violence, looking for warning behaviors signifying movement toward violent action. Then, turn attention to the individual’s conspiracy belief system. Specific areas of inquiry should include the following:
- Themes of radical dualism that vilify the conspirators
- A personal sense of grievance over the conspirators’ perceived actions
- Pathological fixation, i.e, indicators of increasing preoccupation with a conspiracy theory resulting in deteriorating personal functioning manifest in areas such as work performance or relationships (e.g., strained or lost relations with family, friends or colleagues)
- Identification, i.e., the individual feels a personal calling to involve him or herself in events as a “soldier for the cause” by carrying out action intended to counteract the conspiracy
- Heightened level of individual distress experienced by the subject stemming from his or her beliefs, and escalation in the perception of the gravity of the threat posed by conspirators
- Paranoia or idiosyncratic delusional beliefs, such as psychotic interpretations the individual may have developed that further personalize the conspiratorial narrative, especially through incorporation of people close to him or her, such as coworkers. A key issue with paranoia is whether the individual is considering a preemptive attack to protect him or herself from perceived harm by others. Differentiating between delusions and extreme overvalued beliefs can be challenging. In some cases, “ideas” can become delusions. Knowledge of the individual’s past experience and personality contribute to the accuracy of assessments. Of ultimate importance is the influence of the individual’s conscious beliefs and convictions, whatever their source or sources, on his or her intentions. What actions are they contemplating – against whom, when, and by what means? Seeking consultation with mental health threat assessment specialists when psychosis is present is highly advisable.
- Pathway behaviors, planning and operational preparations for an attack, as always demand immediate actions.
Case findings in these dimensions will shape interventions and case management strategies.
Minor inappropriate behaviors expressed by conspiracy theory adherents in organizational settings are in most instances effectively addressed by insistence on abiding by respectful conduct policies. Expectations for civility need to be reinforced in our current atmosphere of overheated discourse. One clearly learned lesson is that arguing over conspiracy theories rarely proves productive and has the potential to undermine a threat assessment team’s goals by reinforcing such beliefs and triggering further concerning behaviors. Instead, an approach that emphasizes the best interests of the person of concern is advisable – counseling and advocating for them to conduct themselves in a manner that optimizes their functioning at work and focuses their energy on preserving supportive aspects of relationships with close friends and family.
We hope you will join us, along with Reid Meloy and Molly Amman, for our virtual workshop,
Violent Extremism, 2021: A Threat Assessment Update, on four half days from May 10th through May 13th. For more information go to: https://www.wtsglobal.com/upcoming-trainings-talks/
- Baele S, Brace L, Coan T (2019). From “Incel” to “Saint”: analyzing the violent worldview behind the 2018 Toronto attack. Terrorism and Political Violence, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2019.1638256
- Dagnall N, Drinkwater K, Parker A, Denovan A and Parton M. (2015). Conspiracy theory and cognitive style: a worldview.” Frontiers in Psychology. Vol 6, 206.
- Donnelly F. (2020, June 3). Alleged mob-boss killer found mentally unfit to stand trial. Silive. Retrieved from: https://www.silive.com/news/2020/06/alleged-mob-boss-killer-found-mentally-unfit-to-stand-trial.html.
- Douglas K, Uscinski J, et al. (2019). Understanding conspiracy theories.” Advances in Political Psychology. Vol 40 (1), 1-33.
- Jolley D, Paterson J. (2020). Pylons ablaze: examining the role of 5G COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and support for violence. British Journal of Social Psychology.
- Koltko-Rivera, M. The psychology of worldviews. (2004). Review of General Psychology, 8 (1), 3-58.
- Rahman T, Hartz S, Xiong W, Meloy J.R., Janofsky J, Harry B and Resnick P. Extreme overvalued beliefs. (2020). Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 48 (3), 319-326.
- Rose, J. (2020, December 30). Even if it’s “bonkers,” poll finds many believe Qanon and other conspiracy theories. npr. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/12/30/951095644/even-if-its-bonkers-poll-finds-many-believe-qanon-and-other-conspiracy-theories
- Sides J. (2015, February 2). Fifty percent of Americans believe in some conspiracy theory. Here’s why. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/02/19/fifty-percent-of-americans-believe-in-some-conspiracy-theory-heres-why/.
- Van Prooijen J W, Krouwel A, Pollet T. (2015). Political extremism predicts belief in conspiracy theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 6 (5), 570-578.