By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta


Was there a conspiracy to murder J.F.K?  How about 9/11, was that a conspiracy to get us into Iraq?  What about Pearl Harbor, did the government know the exact date and time of the attack and not reveal it.  Well, those and other questions are usually themes portrayed by conspiracy theorists.  The question is, however, do you have a conspiracy theorist in the room with you during mediation?  And if so, what can you do about it?

On many occasions, I have been confronted in mediation by a person who in some way may be a conspiracy theorist.  In one case many years ago, I had explained to the plaintiff how the process was allowing him to make the choices.  Later in the mediation, I asked his attorney to step aside to discuss some matters.  Three minutes later, the client banged on the door in which the attorney and I were discussing the case and insisted that he be part of the process.  “What are you talking about?  I thought you said I had control.  I want to know everything that is said about me.”  I immediately calmed him down and after that point we did not have any private attorney/mediator conferences.  That incident pointed out an important lesson to me:  If you are going to have a conversation with the attorney privately, make sure to ask the client’s permission before doing so.

A recent article in Pyschology Today by John Gartner entitled Dark Minds sheds some light on conspiracy theorists.  According to Gartner, conspiracy thinking is not an isolated occurrence.  Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe President John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, and 42 percent believe the government is covering up evidence of flying saucers, finds Ted Goertzel, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University at Camden. Thirty-six percent of respondents to a 2006 Scripps News/Ohio University poll at least suspected that the U.S. government played a role in 9/11.

According to historian Richard Hofstadter in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics, conspiracy thinking is fueled by underlying feelings of alienation and helplessness. This theory is supported by current research in psychology.  Psychologist Marina Abalakina-Paap has found that people who endorse conspiracy theories are especially likely to feel angry, mistrustful, alienated from society, and helpless over larger forces controlling their lives.

Conspiracy theorists have a grandiose view of themselves as heroes “manning the barricades of civilization” at an urgent “turning point” in history, Hofstadter held. Grandiosity is often a defense against underlying feelings of powerlessness.

Even “normal” people are susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories when they feel disempowered. Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern demonstrated that people primed to feel out of control are particularly likely to see patterns in random stimuli.

According to Gartner,“while all of us tend to bend information to fit our pre-existing cognitive schema, conspiracy theorists are more extreme. They are “immune to evidence,” discounting contradictory information or seeing it as “proof of how clever the enemy is at covering things up.”  They will jump to conclusions based upon coincidences explain Paul D. Morrison and R.M. Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London.

What Can You Do If you Have a Conspiracy

Theorist in the Room?

First, by understanding that the conspiracy theorist may simply be manifesting behavior related to feeling helpless is important.  The litigation process can have a tendency to make people feel like they are helpless.  Create ways to empower the person.  Let them know that they are in charge.  As in the lesson from above regarding the attorney, get that person’s permission to do things.  In mediation, you might consider getting that person’s permission.  Ask for their advice.  Get their opinions.

Second, keep them informed.  Helplessness sometimes can arise because of lack of information.  Often, the client needs more information about the process, the substance, and the means of achieving his or her goals.  Many times when I have been faced with a conspiracy theorist, I make sure to explain all of the details of the mediation process, both before we go through it, and while we are experiencing the process.

Third, don’t directly address the topic that may cause offense to the conspiracy theorist.  If you can, talk around the topic.  For example, in some cases, no matter what proof you provide, the party may never believe that his or her position is wrong.  In that case, don’t attack the position or its premise.  Find something to address the concern you have that is not related to the topic that person so fervently believes in.  For example, in researching this article, I found many posts regarding a conspiracy by the government to allow 9/11.  Instead of fighting whether it was a conspiracy, assume it was a conspiracy and now address the next issue.  Even if it was a conspiracy, it doesn’t necessarily change how the others will look at it, because the conspiracy theorists are so good that they have convinced the world that this event happened.

Fourth, agree to disagree.  If logic and reasoning is not going to work, just respect the difference and move on.

Finally, treat the conspiracy theorist with respect and address the problem.  Do not attack the conspiracy theorist or his or her theories.  Attacking the beliefs or views will not help solve the overall problem.

There are many other tactics that can be used to address these concerns either as a mediator or as a party or attorney in mediation.  How have you handled the conspiracy theorist in the room?