Photo Credit: Marc Nozell (CC-By-2.0)

Much has been written about QAnon, the conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories. The “movement” surrounding QAnon can rightfully be described as a cult, a cult based around the cryptic predictions of the mysterious Q. While different Q followers interpret specific messages from Q differently, they all profess their belief in Donald Trump as their savior. This brings us to an interesting question: How will the “Qultists” react once Trump loses the election?

After all, QAnon has let them know that everything that has happened has happened in accordance to “the plan”. Every apparent failure of Trump is really just part of the plan, and in fact Trump has sealed indictments against every leading Democrat in the country just waiting to go.

QAnon is not the first cult based around prophecies. Back in the 1950’s, America saw arguably its first UFO cult, called “The seekers”, who believed that they would soon be raptured and that, once all the true believers were in safety, the earth would be flooded. Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, infiltrated this group with the goal of studying how the members would react when the rapture failed to occur on the predicted date.

What happened next became the basis for the term “cognitive dissonance” which Festinger would go on to coin: Inspired by their leader, the members quickly turned around and claimed that the earth had been spared because of their actions and belief. The mighty aliens had been so impressed by their devotion that they had decided not to destroy their planet. They had not, in fact, been fooled by a mentally-unstable false prophet; instead, they had saved the earth. In other words, when faced with disconfirmed expectations, they doubled down.

Cognitive dissonance is a term for the stress that comes from when a person’s beliefs or values don’t line up, or don’t line up with their actions. In this case, the idea being “I am a smart person” which doesn’t really line up with the action of “I just sold my house because someone told me I’d be raptured and then I wasn’t”. When faced with cognitive dissonance, humans will go to extraordinary lengths to make it go away, to make their beliefs line up with their actions. In this case, by telling themselves that their devotion to the failed prophecy was what made the failed prophecy not come true, the Seekers were able to continue to view themselves as smart people.

To be clear, failed prophecies do not always and automatically lead to this outcome. Festinger himself outlined five conditions that he believed had to be met in order for a disconfirmation to turn someone into an even more fervent believer than they were before:

1) A belief must be held with conviction, with the believer behaving in accordance with the belief. This is clearly the case with the Qultists. While there may be some who are only pretending, or trolling if you will, there is certainly no shortage of true believers who are stocking up on guns and engaging in other behaviors consistent with their faith in Q.

2) The believer must be committed to the belief. To put it simply, the believer must have done things that are hard to undo. In the case of a “rapture” type of prophecy like the example with the Seekers, the believer might have already sold his/her house or given away belongings. Many QAnon members have disowned family, lost their jobs or even made themselves guilty of crimes because of their beliefs. Needless to say, they are committed.

3) The belief must be falsifiable. In the case of the Seekers, the rapture was meant to happen on a specific day, at a specific time. This made their belief falsifiable. With QAnon, this is trickier, especially considering that Q has already made several failed predictions. However, Trump losing the election and leaving the office without any of the promised mass arrests or exposure of the cabal

4) Contradictory evidence must be presented to and recognized by the believer. Basically, the belief has to be disproven, and be disproven in such a way that the believer can understand that it is in fact disproven. Some conspiracy theories can be disproven, but require an advanced level of understanding of some field (for 9/11 truthers, this field would be engineering) which the believer may not be acquainted with. However, when the date arrives when something is supposed to happen and that thing doesn’t happen, then the belief is disconfirmed. Again, Trump leaving office would be this for QAnon.

5) The individual believer must have social support. A lone believer who has had his belief disproven will almost always fold. A group of believers is different: Members seek support from, and encourage one another to keep going. It’s pretty clear that the QAnon cult fulfills this criterion, with large online communities dedicated to the cause and to convince those whose faith is swaying to “trust the plan”. Sadly, many QAnon followers have lost or disowned nearly all their friends and family outside of the cult, meaning their fellow believers are now their only support network.

Festingers original study was criticized because the Seekers had been the subject to a great degree of media attention. Maybe, if members hadn’t been pushed by journalists to justify the failure of their beliefs, they might not have chosen to double down? That is certainly possible. But at this point, QAnon, like the Seekers at the time, is a media sensation. Followers of Q will be asked why Trump lost, and in some ways it will be even harder for them to quietly withdraw their support than it would have been in the 1950’s – after all, most believers have dedicated themselves to promoting their beliefs on the internet, and the internet never forgets.

What all this suggests is that QAnon will not go away, and in fact, there is a risk that they may become more extreme. Of course, we don’t know yet what a “doubling down” might look like in this scenario after Trump concedes power: In what would truly be a best case scenario, the cult might decide that Trump did defeat the cabal and that the people whom he handed over power to are not the Satanists that they have been railing against for the past three years. Maybe “President Joe Biden” is actually a body double, and the real Joe Biden is in Gitmo where they always said he would end up? This would be somewhat similar to the Seekers who believed themselves to have saved the world through their belief. While crazy, this would mean the QAnon believers actually accepted the Biden administration as legitimate, hence why it’s a best case scenario.

In a second best scenario, they might retain their belief in the Satanist pedophile cabal, but view Donald Trump as a false messiah who was unable or unwilling to defeat the cabal. The cult would then likely splinter into a multitude of different factions, each claiming their own savior and maybe even their own Q. This wouldn’t be great, but the lack of unity and infighting would make the “movement” a less potent threat to the rest of society.

The worst case scenario involves violence from people who still believe they are being ruled by a secret cabal, but who are tired of waiting for somebody else to take it down. But in addition to violence, mass suicides – including murder-suicides – are also likely to follow, as cult members, sick of living in a world governed by pedophiles and with their one and only hope Donald Trump extinguished, choose to end it all and take their children with them.

Whatever the case, it is important to view Q not first and foremost as a political movement, but as a mass delusion best explained and viewed through the lens of psychology.

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