In 1973, when I lived in Ecuador, I survived two nasty accidents within the space of a few days. First, I slid off a glacier and fell roughly 90 feet while climbing in the Andes. I landed in soft snow and wasn’t hurt. A few days later, I flipped over in a Land Rover while driving a mountain road with a friend. The vehicle flipped onto its top, then flipped again and landed on its wheels. My friend and I got out, taped up some broken windows, and drove on.
How could I survive two near-fatal accidents in less than a week? My lucky sweater saved me.
A few days after the flying Land Rover incident, I conducted a mental inventory of everything I had been wearing in the two accidents. The only garment that I had on in both cases was a beat-up old climbing sweater. Clearly, the sweater had protected me from serious harm.
From that point on, I wore the sweater whenever I went climbing. I became quite superstitious about its protective powers. I knew I would be safe as long as it was close to me.
Was my interpretation of reality correct, objective, and reasonable? Most of us would say no. But the pioneering sociologists (and married couple), William and Dorothy Thomas say that it just doesn’t matter. According to the Thomas Theorem, first proposed in the 1920s: “It is not important whether or not the interpretation is correct – if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”
The Thomas Theorem can help us understand a range of topics, including conspiracy theories, availability cascades, and self-fulfilling prophecies. We all believe in conspiracy theories of one sort or another. Right-wingers may believe that global warming is a hoax. Left-wingers may believe that big business is a vast conspiracy of the rich against the poor. Whether or not the interpretations are correct, both left- and right-wingers act as if they are real. Their beliefs are real in their consequences.
If we don’t believe in a particular conspiracy theory, it seems completely irrational to us. How could anyone believe that? Anyone who does believe it must be a craven fool. If we know such people, we may try to talk them out of it. We deploy our best logic and most compelling arguments. Typically, we fail to convince them. In fact, we may just cause them to harden their position.
We fail because we misunderstand the nature of conspiracy theories. We think of them as flawed logic (at least, those we disagree with). But in reality, a conspiracy theory is simply a different view of reality. We all have models of reality in our heads. We all want to explain why things are. While all of our models are different, we each believe that our model is accurate. Some of us use theories of history to explain why things are the way they are. Others use religion or Marxism or astrology or conspiracy theories. We all have a belief system that explains everything to our satisfaction.
So how do you change a friend’s belief system? It’s not by arguing logically. Your logic doesn’t apply to his reality. The best approach I’ve found is to ask him to explain how the world works. Don’t ask why he believes it. Ask how it all fits together.
Chances are your friend’s theory of the world doesn’t fit together seamlessly. He probably can’t explain things as thoroughly as he thinks he can. He’s suffering from the illusion of explanatory depth. When he stumbles, he may realize that his theory isn’t coherent and exhaustive. Use questions rather than arguments; let him discover the discrepancies on his own. You won’t convince him otherwise.
Go ahead and give it a try. It may not work but it’s the only technique that has a chance. Just don’t try to take away my sweater.