Hello and welcome back to my newsletter! Last week I was writing about why we can’t pay attention, and also wondering who would make it to the end of my article. Turns out, many of you did, after taking a few breaks along the way.
This week I’ve got conspiracy theories on my mind. Why do people believe them? How do we understand those who fall into these mental traps? How do we have a conversation with them? How do we avoid these cognitive traps ourselves. I provide an overview of my research, with plenty of deeper links of you want to go to the source. Hold on, and enjoy.
Eric Oliver’s young son was having anxiety attacks because there were monsters in his closet. One night he was terrified. It was late. Eric was tired. His son was tired. Eric did everything he could to convince his son that there were no monsters in the closet. They opened the closet. They searched the closet with a flashlight. They listened carefully to the walls of the closet. They barricaded the closet. And still, Eric couldn’t convince his son there were no monsters.
Finally his son said, “If there are no monsters in the closet, why am I still afraid?”
One of biggest predictors of whether or not you are susceptible to conspiracy theories, is whether or not you also believe in paranormal and supernatural activity – you know, ESP, levitation, telepathy, demons, werewolves, zombies. That sort of thing.
The unifying theme of paranormal events is that there is an unseen, unexplainable force affecting the world, and we accept that instead of an explanation that is scientifically verifiable. It’s also known as magical thinking; the belief that seemingly unconnected events are affecting outcomes.
People who work in highly unpredictable, chaotic environments, often believe in magical thinking. Offshore fisherman, baseball players, restaurant owners for instance. Or your nutty uncle who won’t let you move chairs if his team scores a touchdown. Outcomes in these environments are hard to scientifically predict, so we substitute superstition.
Sometimes ritual and superstition can be useful. Marshall Goldsmith has been known for years for his signature green polo shirt he always wears for presentations. Tiger Woods always wears red and black on Sundays during tournaments. They know it’s superstitious, but it builds confidence, and puts them in a high-performing state of mind. These are ways of managing anxiety in the face of uncertain, and changing, circumstances. It’s a way of gaining surety in the face of chaos.
To use Eric Oliver’s example, if you live near a volcano and every year you throw two teenagers into it to appease the volcano gods, that actually is science up until the point when A. it doesn’t work any longer, and B. someone explains to you plate tectonic subduction, and magma pressure from within the earth’s mantle. After that awareness, if you continue to throw the teenagers into the volcano every year, that’s magical thinking.
What about conspiracy theories, and the people who believe them. Let’s take flat-earth believers. Or in their words, those who have been “flat-smacked.” You know how easy it would be to debate a flat-earther? So easy. You just drop a few truth bombs on them, get them to question their own crazy ideas, and boom! You could change their mind on the spot. Just ask, “What about the tides? What about the horizon? Explain a lunar eclipse? I mean, just explain the seasons!?” Pow. Game over.
“It takes more information to make you believe something you don’t want to believe, than something you do want to believe.”
– Peter Ditto, Ph.D, University of California Irvine
Nope. Not even close. The flat-earth community has prepared rebuttals for everything you can throw at them. Earth looks curved from high altitudes because of wide-angle lenses. The arctic circle is at the center of the disc, and the antarctic ice at the edges go on forever. What’s underneath, holding us up? More earth, and it goes down, forever. And the sun? The sun is not 92 million miles away burning as a nuclear fusion star. It’s electric and about 4000 miles away underneath the protective dome that encloses our earth disc.
There’s a couple problems with debating conspiracy theorists. You are on their turf, they have an answer for everything, and they don’t trust you. Pick any conspiracy theory – anti-evolution, 9/11, Chemtrails, moon landing, JFK, Roswell – and all belief adherents follow a formula. Research by John Cook and Stephen Lewandowski identifies five primary elements of conspiracy believers: cherry-picking evidence, belief in conspiracy theories, illogical reasoning, reliance on fake and fringe experts, and belief that science should be perfect.
Let’s just take the last point, that science is supposed to be perfect. Yet science isn’t about absolutes. Science requires constant questioning, doubt, experimentation, and recognition of new truths in light of new evidence. All good scientists are eternally curious, and inquisitive, trying to hone their understandings.
So after listening thoughtfully to a conspiracy theorist, your question should not be to ask them to contradict a counter point (“Oh yeah, well how do you explain time zones? Huh?“). The best approach is to ask them, “What evidence would you need to disprove your belief?” That’s a very different question. You are acknowledging their skepticism, their interest in following science and finding the truth. You are asking them to critique their own world view.
“Our inherent cognitive biases make us ripe for manipulation and exploitation by those who have an agenda to push, especially if they can discredit all other sources of information.”
– Lee McIntyre, author Post-Truth
We are experiencing an epidemic of unreason, and that irrationality is exploding, in part, because of the unpredictability and uncertainty that is unfolding before our eyes. We all feel an increasing instability in the world. That emotional anxiety, fueled by an increased lack of attention, is propagating conspiracy thinking.
I don’t need to tell you. We see it everywhere, all the time. Covid, climate change, Ukraine, artificial intelligence, deep fakes, and so on. If you get lost in a hole on the internet and become convinced that a cabal of the illuminati, big pharma, and the deep state have engineered Covid to control people, well that becomes an easily accessible way to understand not only Covid, but also how THEY are subjugating YOU.
If you believe we are in end times, the world suddenly is potent with symbols everywhere. And if our attention is scarce, our critical thinking absent, and our fear on red alert, almost any easy explanation becomes warm and comforting. But that doesn’t make it true.
For more on understanding conspiracy theories, and science deniers, I recommend Lee McIntyre’s book. And if you prefer podcasts, any – or all – of these interviews on conspiracy thinking are, well, illuminating.
Here, just for you, have a micro-learning course we recently published on Being an Agile Critical Thinker.
Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.
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