Watch Out for Self-Sealing Belief Systems

Holland & Hart - Persuasion Strategies

Holland & Hart - Persuasion Strategies

Many Republicans believe that President Trump lost the election only due to widespread and systemic voter fraud. When Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, a Trump voter and donor, says that Democrat Joe Biden won on a legitimate count (and recount) of the votes, he is part of the conspiracy. When U.S. Attorney General William Barr, in many ways a strong Trump loyalist, says he has not seen evidence of electoral fraud on a scale that could have influenced the election outcome, he is part of the conspiracy. When court after court dismisses lawsuits filed by the President’s team, it shows they’re part of the conspiracy. And now, when the U.S. Supreme Court, including all three of President Trump’s picks, shuts down an attempt by Texas to challenge the electoral processes in four other swing states, that shows they’re part of the conspiracy as well. It seems that the more the narrative of widespread fraud is refuted, the bigger the conspiracy becomes.

There is a basic bias at work here. Attempts to refute a given story are simply folded into the story itself: i.e., Attempts to deny the fraud is just a sign of the deep state trying to hide the fraud. Saybrook University professor Linda Riebel wrote a piece for the University’s “Unbound” publication, noting, “This maddening imperviousness to truth has been called a ‘self-sealing’ maneuver, in that the belief system turns disconfirming truths around to mean they support the beliefs — ‘sealing’ the system against disproof.” Just like an automobile tire that is lined with a gel allowing punctures to instantly fill itself, a conspiracy narrative can end up just as strong, or even stronger, when it is repeatedly refuted. A preference for these self-sealing systems can indicate a habit of thought that leads people into a conspiracy theory mindset. On the election, the pandemic, vaccines, the climate, and the government generally, conspiracy theories seem to be largely self-sealing and increasingly mainstream. When your social media analysis of prospective jurors points out those who believe in one or more of these systems of circular logic – and it will – then there are a few implications for how you should respond.

Most research on conspiracy theories and self-sealing systems of thought is relatively recent, with much of our understanding coming in just the last decade. A team of British and American professors completed a recent literature review focusing on unpacking conspiracy theories, including their characteristics and consequences (Douglas et al., 2019). The results provide a useful checklist for evaluating your jury pool to determine who among them might be true believers.

Who Are Your ‘Self-Sealing’ Thinkers? 

There are scales to measure a conspiracist mindset, but it also may become evident once you look at your potential jurors’ social media life. Based on the research, though, these kinds of thinkers are likely to be:

    • Male
    • Unmarried
    • Less educated
    • Lower income
    • Less intelligent, and less analytical thinkers
    • Seeking closure and preferring simplicity
    • Having weak social networks, alienated
    • Lacking perceived agency and social power
    • Having poor news literacy
    • Seeing themselves in a crisis situation, or perceiving a situational threat

What Are the Consequences of Being a Self-Sealing Thinker?

At first blush, you might be tempted to think, “Who cares if my potential juror thinks the earth is flat? My case doesn’t depend on acceptance of a spherical earth.” However, the habits of thought that are required to maintain a belief in a flat earth, against all available evidence and authority, are habits of thought that will extend to other research. Based on the literature review, thinkers who are conspiracy-minded and self-sealing believers, are likely to:

    • Generalize, and accept other conspiracies
    • Hold more intense versions of pre-existing attitudes
    • Have a lower opinion of out-groups
    • Apply a negative view of high-power groups (including corporations)
    • Be radicalized, drawn toward the political extremes, and accepting of violence
    • Mistrust medical authorities (particularly for those sharing medical conspiracies)
    • Mistrust science generally (particularly for those sharing anti-vaccine or climate conspiracies)
    • Have a reduced trust in authorities generally, including the legal process

It is tempting to write conspiracy thinkers off, but it is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore them. As with everything you learn about your potential fact-finders, the goal is to build as complete a picture as possible, and to use that to make reasonable assessments of how someone with their profile would react to your case.


Image credit:, used under license

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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