Life

How to Talk to a Family Member Who Doesn't Believe in Vaccines or Lockdowns

Here's how to de-escalate the inevitable Christmas confrontation about the coronavirus vaccine.
December 15, 2020, 9:00am
A protester at the Million Mask March anti-establishment protest at Trafalgar Square in London
A protester at the Million Mask March anti-establishment protest at Trafalgar Square in London. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images

Ah, Christmas – tis the season for joy, gratitude and forgiveness, but tis also the season for screaming matches over turkey and brussel sprouts. Nothing can push your buttons like a loved one, especially if you’re diving headfirst into enforced family time with anti-lockdown uncles, 4G truther dads and siblings who spent lockdown mainlining old Alex Jones videos on YouTube. 

So what should you do if a relative brings up conspiracy theories at the dinner table? I spoke to some experts on how to de-escalate a situation in which someone in your family begins spouting absolute garbage over the festive period. 

TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND ASK YOURSELF THREE QUESTIONS

‘AM I DOING THIS BECAUSE I LOVE BEING RIGHT?’

If so, putting them down probably won’t help, says Dr John Grohol, a psychologist and the founder of website Psych Central. “Sometimes, we think ‘it’s really important for me to be right in this argument because I know truthfully that conspiracy theory doesn’t exist.’ But you’re doing it more for your own reasons there, right?” 

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‘HOW MUCH DOES THIS BELIEF NEGATIVELY AFFECT THEIR LIFE?’

Grohol adds: “My older mother, who’s not really into technology or the understanding of science, doesn’t believe that Americans landed on the moon and that there was a moon landing… [But] it doesn’t really impact her life at all. If it comes up in conversation, it’s an awkward few moments, but that’s it.” 

Basically, if they’ve not been ostracised for wearing a tinfoil hat to a baby shower, conspiracy theories might just be an interesting – albeit high stakes – conversation starter for them.

‘DOES ANYTHING ELSE IN THIS PERSON’S LIFE INDICATE POOR MENTAL HEALTH?’ 

“Research suggests that people are more susceptible to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs are not being satisfied,” says Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “Specifically, people need knowledge and certainty, to feel safe, secure and in control, and to feel good about themselves and the groups they belong to. When these important needs are not being met, conspiracy theories seem to hold some appeal.”

So if you know someone’s been researching conspiracy theories, maybe you should stick the kettle on and ask how they’re actually getting on. 

HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN SAY TO SOMEONE WHO BELIEVES IN CONSPIRACY THEORIES

‘IT’S DEFINITELY AN INTERESTING TOPIC’

It’s tempting to immediately start shouting at a family member going on about how Bill Gates uses 4G to spread coronavirus, but it’s important to remain as neutral as possible. “As soon as you start to put down someone else’s beliefs or sound condescending or patronising, then you’ve lost them, because that’s just going to harden their stance,” explains Stefan Walters, a systemic therapist and member of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. “Remain as neutral and inquisitive as you can.”

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Grohol adds: “It may be crazy to say this, but you have to think of it at the same level as a religious belief – you wouldn’t mock or scold a person’s religious belief. For some people, these conspiracy theories can rise to that level of belief strength. You have to be respectful when talking to people, even when you disagree with that belief.”

‘WHERE DID YOU SEE THAT?’

What you can do is question the validity of their sources. Sometimes people don’t have the prior knowledge or perspective to know which information might be misleading, says Grohol. “Keep an open mind when you’re talking to people who believe conspiracy theories. A lot of times, people just don’t understand that there are different levels of quality of information on the internet.” 

He adds: “You have to dig a little further to understand ‘is this a legitimate news website?’ or is this just a website that has a business model that says ‘hey, we’re gonna put the most controversial, crazy things on our website because we know that that gets the most clicks’. That’s how websites make money. Most people don’t understand how a website might make money.”

‘IT’S CERTAINLY IMPORTANT TO ASK QUESTIONS’

One thing you might share with someone who believes in conspiracy theories is that you’re both asking questions about the world. It’s actually possible to bond over an appreciation for critical thinking. 

“Many conspiracy believers strongly believe that they are critical thinkers whereas others are not – they are sheep,” Douglas says. “One strategy therefore might be to appeal to this value and ask the conspiracy believers to critically think about their information.”

Dr. Daniel Jolley, a social psychologist, adds: “Don’t scream. Go in with compassion. Try and understand the motivation of why the person is there. That discussion can be based around common ground. I’m sure we would agree, that asking questions is really important, and to ask questions about the vaccine is something that we all agree we should be doing. It becomes problematic when people become immune to evidence, whereby people have this overriding suspicion of any official explanation.”

‘I THINK THERE’S A MRS BROWN’S BOYS EPISODE ON’

If that person has got a strongly held belief that they just won’t budge on, Walters says: “It’s an emotional conversation. Arguing beliefs against fact is never going to work, because logic doesn’t match against emotion. You just want to de-escalate and perhaps politely try to shift the conversation to a different emotional topic, something you can both agree on.”

‘I THINK SOMETHING IN THE GRAVY HAS TRIGGERED AN IBS FLARE UP. I’LL BE BACK IN A BIT’

If all else fails, duck out to the bathroom and do those breathing techniques from that one time you did Yoga With Adrienne, reply to all those cute Christmas texts from your elderly relatives or read the ingredients list on the back of your mum’s Pantene Pro-V. Happy holidays!

@rossy