Conspiracy Theories: Some Observations

ICSA Today 12.2, 2021, pg. 2-8

Conspiracy Theories: Some Observations

William Goldberg

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been contacted by six distraught families with members who have either dropped out of school, abandoned their children, or become obsessed with QAnon conspiracy theories to the exclusion of all other interests. I know from conversations with others in my field that I am not alone.

In a 2020 survey of more than 4,000 Americans, 16 percent of those who did not rate QAnon favorably nonetheless found at least one of its fantastic claims to be plausible.1 Perhaps more to the point, a recent NPR poll2 found that 17 percent of Americans absolutely believe that a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring is trying to control our politics and the media. Another 37 percent responded that they were not sure whether this statement was factual. I would like to delineate these statistics another way. Fifty-four percent of the respondents either accepted the statement about the Satan-worshipping elites and the child sex ring as true or believed it is within the realm of possibility.3

What follows is a collection of observations I have made on the subject of conspiracy theories, mostly of conspiracy theories in general, and to a lesser extent, of QAnon in particular. I hope these observations are helpful as we try to make sense of this phenomenon.

Conspiracy Theories Are Not a New Phenomenon

I remember exactly where I was on campus at Rutgers University when I read in The Daily Targum about a theory that Paul McCartney was dead. When I saw the headline, I responded with my usual skepticism. However, as I read the voluminous purported evidence, my mind shifted as I began to consider the very real possibility that Paul had, indeed, died. The story was that he had been killed in a car crash, and that the

“corporate suits” of Apple Records withheld that information from the world to continue to capitalize on the band. The report indicated that Apple Records executives had secretly replaced the real Paul McCartney with the winner of a Paul McCartney lookalike contest. However, the Beatles, ever loyal to their fans, left clues to allow the enlightened few to recognize the hoax in the story.

There were many secret clues, some in the lyrics of Beatles’ songs: You see,

· "He blew his mind out in a car/He hadn’t noticed that the lights had changed/A crowd of people gathered ‘round. They’d seen his face before…”

Other clues were on the album-cover photographs:

· On the iconic Abbey Road cover, Paul was barefoot, symbolizing his death. The procession of his bandmates crossing Abbey Road could be seen as a representation of pallbearers.

· Paul’s uniform on the Sergeant Pepper’s… cover had the initials of the Ontario Police Department on the sleeve. The explanation was that OPD was police jargon for “officially pronounced dead.”

· In their song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles introduced their “new” lead singer as Billy Shears.

· If you played a part of the Beatles’ song “Revolution Nine“ backward, it seemed to say, “Turn me on, Dead Man.”

There were 50 other clues, none of which were definitive; but putting them all together made the idea of a hoax plausible. The combination had the elements of a good conspiracy theory. It was something meaningful, and it fit our narrative of how powerful people were attempting to manipulate us. After all, the Establishment was blatantly lying to us about Viet Nam, the most crucial issue to us at the time. Why wouldn’t they lie to us about the second most important issue in our lives, the Beatles? The theory included cartoon-like, powerful villains against whom we could join with others to fight with our consciously idealistic but unconsciously hostile thought-stopping cliches (e.g., “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?”). And we possessed the secret, esoteric knowledge that made us superior to the masses of people who were just so sheeplike that they couldn’t see the signs.

Now I’m aware that there is a tremendous difference in degree and outcome between these examples and the grotesque claims and results of modern-day conspiracy theorists. To my knowledge, no one has tried to run a car off the road or killed someone because of the Paul-is-dead rumor. No one has shot a rifle in a pizza restaurant, and no one has claimed that the Apple executives are kidnapping children and drinking their blood. No believer in the Paul-is-dead rumor was involved in an armed standoff with law enforcement, and believers never forced their way into Congress in an attempt to overturn the government. However, my point is that the dynamics of conspiracy theories have some continuity, and they are dynamics to which all of us might relate.

Some Modern Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories that a significant number of our fellow citizens presently believe include the following:

  • The earth is really flat, but scientists are promulgating the myth that it is round for sinister reasons.

  • The Sandy Hook and other massacre victims and their families are “crisis actors” who have been recruited to fabricate falsehoods for the ultimate purpose of confiscating everyone’s firearms. Similarly, George Floyd was a crisis actor, as are the doctors and COVID-19 patients portrayed in the mainstream media.

  • COVID-19 vaccinations will implant microchip tracking devices into your arm.

  • Masks will not prevent the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, they are designed to give you COVID-19.

  • Windmills give you cancer.

  • The overflow tents set up near hospitals are actually being used to smuggle children out of the country to be harvested for their body fluids, which the conspirators then drink for their own vitality.

  • George Soros, a philanthropist known for his international support of democratic ideals and causes, controls the media and financial institutions.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia congresswoman who espouses many conspiracy theories and was stripped of her committee assignments on February 4 of this year, has said that the California wildfires were started by space lasers funded by the Rothschilds,4 who, like George Soros, is a favorite Jewish target of the anti-Semitic right. Congresswoman Greene’s conspiracy views are an update of ancient conspiracy theories that expose a Jewish plot to undermine Christianity. Before George Soros was the chosen target, it was the Rothschilds who were said to control financial institutions and the media for the purpose of destroying Christianity. In Czarist Russia, it was the Elders of Zion. In Medieval times, the plotters were purported to be sinister Jews who used the blood of Christian children when they were baking matzas.

At a campaign rally in October 2020, our former president publicly accused hospitals of inflating the number of COVID-19 deaths in order to increase the hospitals’ insurance payments.5 In other words, the theory was that hospitals and their staffs in the United States were routinely and regularly committing widespread insurance fraud and medical malpractice, and nobody was doing anything about it.

Why Conspiracy Theories Might Attract Us

Conspiracy theories may give us a target for our grievances. Followers of QAnon believed former President Donald Trump was secretly working to foil a child-trafficking ring that consists of the media, Hollywood celebrities, and prominent Democrats. QAnon offered believers the delusion of a Great Awakening in which, under the president’s leadership, the elites—who many believe look down on “the masses” and hold unfair power in government—would be routed, and the Truth would be revealed.

According to later reports, QAnon followers were one of the leading groups involved in the attempted takeover of Congress on January 6th of this year. Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by a Capitol police officer that day as she was breaking into the House Chamber, wrote on Twitter the day before her death, “The Storm is Here.” That statement referred to a QAnon meme that stemmed from a comment by President Trump at a news event last year. He said, “The storm is coming.” When asked what he meant, he replied, “You’ll see.” QAnon members believed that the storm was going to be the day President Trump would finally arrest the Democratic political leaders, Hollywood figures, and media leaders engaged in the pedophile ring. On that day, these traitors would be detained, marched through the streets, and publicly executed.

Ms. Babbitt wrote on the day before her death, “They can try and try and try but the storm is here, and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours … dark to light,”6 which is another QAnon meme. Babbitt’s biography indicates that she was an Air Force veteran who became involved in QAnon after her business began to fail.7 She was aggrieved, and it appears that QAnon gave her an explanation for her grievances.

Some believers in conspiracy theories confuse coincidence with causality. The 5G cellular network technology was introduced around the same time as we heard the first reports of COVID-19. This timing led to a belief that the 5G cellular technology caused the virus. Believers in this conspiracy point to the fact that there is an overlap that can be seen when one compares a map of 5G technology with a map of COVID-19 cases. Of course, the overlap can be explained by the fact that both 5G technology and COVID-19 cases are more concentrated in urban areas.8 However the actors John Cusack and Woody Harrelson, among others, have been spreaders of the belief that the virus is caused by 5G technology.9

Last September, Republican congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine claimed she had discerned a secretive plot. She wrote on Twitter, “I find it interesting how the show The Masked Singer hit America in January 2019, a little over a year before they started forcing us all into masks. It’s almost like they were beginning to condition the public that masks were normal and cool.”10

Who May Be Prone to Accept Conspiracy Theories

In my experience, personality types who may be more prone to believe conspiracy theories include people who collect injustices, who are impulsive, and who are prone to seeing patterns where they may not exist. There also is an underlying paranoid aspect of their personalities.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Personality described a battery of standardized personality profiles given to 2,000 adults. The study measured personality characteristics and their correlation with belief in conspiracy theories. The researchers reported no correlation with levels of anger, sincerity, or self-esteem. They did, however, find a correlation with self-centeredness, entitlement, impulsivity, cold-heartedness, and elevated levels of anxiety and depression.11

On February 10, 2021, the Washington Post published the result of a survey that found that close to 60 percent of the rioters charged in the January 6, 2020 insurrection had some kind of major financial problems: Either they had declared bankruptcy, they owed the IRS money, or they had major debts.12 As with Babbitt, perhaps such individuals have a personal expectation of success and a readiness to blame outsiders, particularly minorities, when that success is not achieved. Believing there is a conspiracy to exploit and oppress us may be a balm for deep grievance, an internal narrative that permits us to make sense of a world that seems senseless, and often unfair. Also, escape into conspiracy theories can become a defense against the uncomfortable emotions of anxiety and depression, common feelings many of us have experienced during this time of COVID-19 and pandemic lockdown.

We like to think we’re rational, and that the conspiracy theorists aren’t; so let me propose that we rational people can have our emotional, nonrational side too. For example, do you remember the childhood myth related to the game of hopscotch, that “stepping on a crack” would “break your mother’s back”? Or how many of us would be willing to take a photograph of the people we love and then, with a pencil, poke out their eyes in the image? We often can still relate, at some level, to such magical thinking, even if it’s based on previous exposure to superstitions that others convinced us were true.

Or contemplate this unlikely scenario: Someone we love needs a heart transplant, and we are told there are two possible donors. One heart has a slightly better prognosis, but there is one drawback: It is the heart of a serial killer. Would that knowledge be even a small part of the equation as the recipient and family contemplate which donor to choose? If so, my hypothesis is that the choice is not rational in the context of a life-extending transplant.

About twenty years ago, I traveled to Israel. At that time, I had a colleague and friend named Patty who had terminal cancer. I consider myself to be a generally rational person who tries not to engage in magical thinking. However, when I visited the Western Wall, I placed a petition in the cracks, requesting that God heal my friend. I wrote the same petition on a bill that I dropped into the donations jar at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Furthermore, in full disclosure, because Patty was Catholic, I wrote the same petition on a bill that I dropped into the donation slot at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Do I think that my acts were superstitious? Yes. Do I think that they were examples of magical thinking? Yes. Do I think the only thing they accomplished was to give me a false sense of hope in my ability to change fate? Yes. Would I do them again in a similar set of circumstances? Hell, Yes!

Patterns Are Comforting

One fact about how we humans think is that we all unconsciously look for patterns, to make sense of our random universe. Indeed, that inclination is a factor that, as therapists, we consider in our work with our clients; that is, we note their characterological ways of dealing with issues and problems in their lives. When we notice those patterns, which are so often driven by unconscious assumptions, we sometimes point them out to clients to help them recognize their repetitive behavior. As therapists, our recognition of patterns helps us in our work.

However, sometimes we feel that patterns are significant, even when those patterns are not accurate indications of truth. Consider, for example, this question: Emily’s father has three daughters. The first is named April, the second is named May. What is the third one’s name? In fact, the answer is Emily. But many of us, detecting a pattern in the girls’ names, will make a quick assumption that bypasses our logic and our conscious reasoning, and respond with June.

I am not suggesting that we are all irrational, or that all of us would fall down the rabbit hole as conspiracy theorists. There is a difference in degree, and that difference has significance. But it is a fact that we look for patterns to make sense out of what seems a capricious and unfair world, both to be comfortable and to conduct ourselves safely. There is a difference between avoiding a dark alley late at night because we have learned that dark alleys at night often contain danger, and never leaving the confines of our home because we believe there are malevolent people on the outside. But both actions stem from the same desire to avoid situations in which we would be placed in harm’s way.

An Authority Figure May Relieve Us of Responsibility

Conspiracy theories combine a connect-the-dot game with an adventure hunt. They also tap into unconscious desires to return to a primitive, childlike state in which we can feel secure and protected by an omnipotent, powerful parental object. That parental object watches out for us but sometimes tells us to do things for our own good that don’t make sense.

Parents tell their children to go to bed when they’re not tired and to get up when they want to stay asleep. They make their children get shots that hurt and tell them that’s a good thing for them. They make them eat yucky vegetables and tell them not to eat good-tasting candy. Those acts don’t make sense, but children learn to accept them because they come to believe that their parents know what’s best for them, even if they don’t understand it.

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), Freud described the powerful relationship between the charismatic leader and the group members who experience the leader as a new father figure with whom they identify. Freud theorized that, through identification with the leader, the followers’ superegos (broadly speaking, their consciences) could be changed: Mutual identification of all the followers with the leader, which stems from idealization of the leader, contributes to the freeing of the followers’ moral responsibility from their actions—actions that they take at the behest of the leader. Freud pointed to Gustave Le Bon when he observed that people in groups will become involved in activities that they would feel constrained against doing when they are acting alone. We witnessed an example of the contagion of the crowd on January 6th, 2021.

Influence of the Information Age

In addition to primitive unconscious motivations for believing in conspiracy theories, we must recognize the manipulative aspects of the Information Age in which we live. Our instincts and defenses are manipulated by groups that attempt to influence us. Mao, in refining the techniques of thought reform, or brainwashing, developed a systematic approach that attacked the victim’s sense of self. In order to be reborn into Maoism, the truths that the victim relied upon to make sense of the world needed to be abolished and replaced by a new paradigm.

Robert Jay Lifton delineated the dynamics of brainwashing in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961/1989). One component of this technique Lifton has described is milieu control—a domination by the leader(s) of all communication in the individual’s environment. Families of conspiracy theorists will describe a decathecting13 from all other interests in the individual’s life. People who have accepted the conspiracy theories will spend uninterrupted hours and even days on the Internet watching videos and reading tracts. All other communications and relationships become irrelevant and insignificant.

A second component in Lifton’s view of brainwashing is doctrine over person—subordinating our own experiences, values, and beliefs to those of the group. Personal doubts or recognition of the internal inconsistencies of the conspiracy theories are regarded by the believer as arising from deficiencies in the mind of the doubter, or of unenlightened thinking.

A third component in the thought-reform process Lifton has described is dispensing of existence—the view that the only individuals who have a right to be considered in the true believer’s world are other conspiracy theorists. Anyone who has a different perspective is dismissed as a sheep, a snowflake, an enabler of pedophilia, unenlightened and foolish.

How Can We Help?

How do we, as helping people, approach someone who is a victim of this narrowed consciousness? I give you my thoughts here with humility, recognizing that the exit counselors or interventionists in our community are the real experts on how to help someone who is in a rabbit hole of false beliefs. I continue to learn from them, and you should too. But having said that, I do have some thoughts on the matter.

First, recognize that a direct assault on their “facts,” an approach we might use with other individuals, will not usually be helpful in this scenario. In his article “An Interpretation of Transference,” Jonathan Lear (1993) points out that all of us create our own polis (the Greek city/state) in which we live. Our polis or worldview gives us comfort in that it’s understandable to us, even though the outside world may not accept or understand our individual polis. Someone from outside the conspiracy theorist’s polis, who is trying to communicate with him or her, is unconsciously seen as a barbarian (literally, someone whose words are Baa Baa Baa). When we approach a conspiracy theorist with our reality-based arguments, we are likely to be dismissed.

The top fencers in the world don’t fear the second-best fencers the most. They are more fearful of the unranked person who doesn’t abide by the rules of sportsmanship or safety. Similarly, it’s more satisfying for all of us to have a discussion with someone who recognizes the importance of logic, reasonableness, and acknowledgment when another person makes a valid point. Those qualities are not valued by the conspiracy theorist, who looks for certainty and comfort, not for logic. Therefore, conspiracy theorists need to be approached with a recognition of common ground, not with an assault on their “facts.” Statements such as “You are someone who seeks truth,” or “I can see how much you want to protect children from being exploited” or “It’s upsetting to you that your family doesn’t understand how important QAnon is to you and that conflict distresses you and negatively affects your life” are more likely to build that common ground.

It’s been my observation from my work with numerous former cult members that their defensive clutching of the cult’s ideology was a reaction to their unconscious doubts about the cult and its doctrine. Almost universally in therapy, once they’re out of the group, they acknowledge that they had tremendous doubts while they were in it, and they fought to keep those doubts from coming to consciousness. (I have to recognize that I see a skewed sampling of former cult members. Those who never leave the cults or those who are not struggling with these issues don’t seek therapy with me. Nonetheless, it’s a fact that most former cult members whom I’ve seen can recall times when they doubted the doctrine. They learned to squelch those doubts with prayer, chanting, meditation, or thought-stopping cliches.)

I try to bring clients’ unconscious doubts to consciousness, even for a moment. I might ask them how their life has changed and whether they felt happier when they were involved with their work, their studies and their family. I ask questions, many of which I learned from Steve Hassan’s books. “I’m confused. You tell me that Donald Trump is going to coordinate a wholesale arrest of the liberal pedophiles and human traffickers. However, when you tell me that he knew exactly what is going on and had all the proof he needed, why do you think he didn’t act when he was in office and had power?” “If the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax, how do you account for the number of people in every country in the world who are dying?” “Is it possible that there could be another explanation than the one you’re giving?”

When I respectfully raise these questions, which, again, are the unconscious questions that I believe the client has but is repressing, I’m less interested in the answers they give than in the act, for a moment, of having them consider my confusion. And that is not different from what we do in therapy all the time, when we offer our clients the possibility of a different interpretation of the world than what they have used all their lives. Timing is everything. But we do not know what unconscious doubts the conspiracy theorist is wrestling with, so we don’t know when the client will accept something we ask.

Of course, the exit counselors in our community will tell you that listening to the testimony of former members of a cult can be a powerful tool in helping people to reconsider their cult membership. The same is true of conspiracy theorists, who put emphasis on not blindly following those they consider false leaders. When they hear about the journey of other people who once held similar beliefs to the ones they’ve adopted, those testimonies can be powerful in getting them to reconsider how they arrived at their positions. (You can Google and locate several websites with testimonials from former QAnon believers.)

Several years ago, I spoke to a cult member of a group whose members claimed that their leader, a particularly cruel and sociopathic individual, was a reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. After a lengthy conversation, the member gave me a gift that she told me the new Messiah wanted me to have, and I forgot about our conversation. Two years later, she called me to tell me that she had left the cult. She said that she couldn’t get out of her mind a question I had asked her. I had said to her, “Jesus was a humble man. Is your messiah a humble man?” Pondering that question (for 2 years) had led to her decision to leave, and she wanted to thank me.

My point in this anecdote is not that I was particularly brilliant in asking the question. I had no idea that it would affect her so much. My point is that she was ready to have that question brought to her consciousness; and out of pure luck, I happened to ask it at the right time.


[1] Brian F. Schaffner, “QAnon and Conspiracy Beliefs,” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, October 5, 2020.

[2] “Even If It’s ‘Bonkers,’ Poll Finds Many Believe QAnon And Other Conspiracy Theories,”

[3] “Even If It’s ‘Bonkers,’ Poll Finds Many Believe QAnon And Other Conspiracy Theories,”

[4] Sources verifying this statement are listed at

[5] “Trump Claims Doctors Are Overcounting Covid-19 Deaths To Make More Money; Physician Groups Say Otherwise,” Forbes, October 27, 2020.

[6] Quoted in the Washington Post (inter alia) January 9, 2021, and

[7] “Woman Killed in Capitol Embraced Trump and QAnon,” The New York Times, January 7, 2021 (updated January 20, 2021).

[8] Harmeet Kaur, “The conspiracy linking 5G to coronavirus just will not die,” CNN, April 9, 2020.

[9] “Even If It’s ‘Bonkers,’ Poll Finds Many Believe QAnon And Other Conspiracy Theories,”

[10] Joe Erwin, “Masked Singer is part of a coronavirus plot, would-be Pelosi opponent says,” New York Daily News, September 26, 2020.

[11] Bowes et al., ”Looking under the tinfoil hat: Clarifying the personological and psychopathological correlates of conspiracy beliefs,” Journal of Personality, August, 2020.

[12] Todd C. Frankel, “A majority of the people arrested for Capitol riot had a history of financial trouble,” Washington Post, February 10, 2021.


[13] Defined as a withdrawal of “one's feelings of attachment from (a person, idea, or object), as in anticipation of a future loss.”


Sigmund Freud. (1921). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag (International Psychoanalytic Publishing House).

Lear, J. (1993, August). An interpretation of transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 4 (739–755).

Le Bon, G. (1895/1960). The crowd: A study of the popular mind. T. F. Unwinn/New York Viking Press.

Lifton, R. J. (1961/1989). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. University of North Carolina Press.

About the Author

William Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, is a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst with more than forty years’ experience working with former cult members. He and his wife, Lorna, colead a support group for former cult members. This group has been meeting for more than forty years and is the oldest group of its kind in the world. In 2007, Bill retired from the Rockland County, New York Department of Mental Health, where he directed several programs and clinics. He is presently an adjunct professor in the social work and social science departments of Dominican College, and he is on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies. Bill is a frequent speaker at ICSA conferences, and he and Lorna have been the recipients of the Authentic CAN Hall of Fame Award and the Leo J. Ryan Award. In 2010, Bill was the recipient of ICSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.