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What Conspiracy Theories Teach Us About Reason

Conspiracy theories are tempting. There is something especially charming about a forged moon landing or government-backed assassination. Christopher Hitchens called them “the exhaust fumes of democracy.” Maybe he’s right: cognitive biases, after all, feast on easy access to information and free speech.

Leon Festinger carried out the first empirical study of conspiracy theorists. In 1954 the Stanford social psychologist infiltrated a UFO cult that was convinced the world would end on December 20th. In his book When Prophecy Fails, Festinger recounts how after midnight came and went, the leader of the cult, Marian Keech, explained to her members that she received a message from automatic writing telling her that the God of Earth decided to spare the planet from destruction. Relieved, the cult members continued to spread their doomsday ideology.

Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance to describe the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations. It is a “state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent,” as two authors describe it, “the more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.”

Smokers are another a good example; they smoke even though they know it kills. And after unsuccessfully quitting, they tend to say that, “smoking isn’t that bad,” or that, “it’s worth the risk.” In a related example doctors who preformed placebo surgeries on patients with osteoarthritis of the knee “found that patients who had ‘sham’ arthroscopic surgery reported as much relief… as patients who actually underwent the procedure.” Many patients continued to report dramatic improvement even after surgeons told them the truth.

A recent experiment by Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton reminds us that holding inconsistent beliefs is more the norm than the exception. The researchers found that “mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement.” Many subjects, for example, believed Princess Diana faked her own death and was killed by a rogue cell of British Intelligence, or that the death of Osama bin Laden was a cover-up and that he is still alive. The authors conclude that many participants showed “a willingness to consider and even endorse mutually contradictory accounts as long as they stand in opposition to the officially sanctioned narrative.”

The pervasiveness of cognitive dissonance helps us explain why it sometimes takes societies several generations to adopt new beliefs. People do not simply change their minds; especially when there is a lot on the line. It took several centuries for slavery to be universally banned (Mauritania was the last country to do so in 1981). In the United States civil rights movements for women and African-Americans lasted decades. Same-sex marriage probably won’t be legal in all 50 states for several more years. Our propensity to hold onto cherished beliefs also pervades science. As Max Plank said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Are there ways to dilute the negative effects of cognitive dissonance? I’m afraid that the Internet is part of the problem. Google makes it so easy for us to find something that confirms a belief. But it is also part of the solution. History tells us that cooperation and empathy between individuals, institutions and governments increases as the exchange of information becomes easier. From the printing press to Uncle Tom’s cabin and through the present day (where social networks are the primary means of communication for so many) people tend to consider a point of view other than their own the more they are exposed to other perspectives.

Steven Pinker captures this point well in his latest book: “As literacy and education and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally. That will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage points – that makes it harder to privilege one’s own interest over others.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the rise of published books and literacy rates preceded the Enlightenment, an era that was vital in the rise of human rights.

This brings me back to Hitchen’s quote. Indeed, a byproduct of democracy is the tendency for some people to believe whatever they want, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. However, Pinker reminds us that democracy is helping to relieve our hardwired propensity to only look for what confirms our beliefs. That our confirmation biases are innate suggests that they will never disappear, but the capacity to reason facilitated by the exchange of information paints an optimistic future.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. QUOTE:
    … doctors who preformed placebo surgeries on patients with osteoarthritis of the knee “found that patients who had ‘sham’ arthroscopic surgery reported as much relief… as patients who actually underwent the procedure.” Many patients continued to report dramatic improvement even after surgeons told them the truth.”

    Recently, I had two close friends who had knee replacements. Both patients suffered unforeseen consequences, and one almost died.

    In many medical cases, I’m inclined to think that the reason the results are similar for placebos and real treatment is not because the placebo works, Rather, I suspect the answer is that the conventional treatment doesn’t work. And I think that Americans are subjected to way too many unnecessary, dangerous and costly (i.e., profitable) tests, surgeries, and drugs.

    Jim Purdy

    February 17, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Maybe, good point. Thanks for the comment Jim

      February 17, 2012
  2. HowBow #

    “looking through religions to fill in the holes in life”? Genocide, homicide, incest, slavery etc.
    Better by far to fill the holes in life with reason. Begin with Socrates.

    Hitchens offen asked a religionist: “Tell me of a moral act
    that could not as likely be performed by an atheist as by a believer.”
    He never got an answer.

    February 17, 2012
    • David, thank you for engaging in with me in this dcssusiion. I don’t think I was suggesting inclusiveness without boundaries, but the points I was trying to make above were that those who support direct discrimination against lesbians and gay men in the Church do so by placing conditions on those such as yourself in positions of authority: if you treat lesbians and gay men equally we will: leave your church, not pay our quota, not accept your authority take your pick of their threats. Whereas lesbians and gay Christians are saying please treat us equally and we will continue to respect the integrity of those who do not think we should be treated equally whilst disagreeing with them . No threats but then we don’t have the power to make threats. Secondly they discriminate against us not because of what we believe, but because of what we are, because of what God made us.Do I understand you to say that if a view is held with integrity it is unchallengeable? Hitler had very strong beliefs held undoubtedly with integrity. Racists have strongly held beliefs supported by the authority of scripture as they interpret it. Supporters of slavery had very strong beliefs supported by the authority of scripture as they understood it. Integrity is no criterion of truth of beliefs. It is the other side who draw the lines to exclude lesbians and gay men. You will probably know the quote: those who draw a line of exclusion are often surprised to see Jesus on the other side of it.

      December 20, 2012
  3. hungrycalico #

    Interesting blog… but – and I apologize if I am just missing the point somehow – I am not quite certain what exactly you are claiming conspiracy theories ultimately teach us about reason. It seems you are saying that people tend to become more reasonable (and hence less inclined towards (irrational) conspiracy theories) the more that, as you quote Pinker, “literacy and education and the intensity of public discourse increase.” Or, as you put it, as “the exchange of information” becomes easier.

    So, your conclusion seems to be that those things are increasing, giving us cause for optimism. It certainly must work that way (more knowledge/education/etc. equals less “off-kilter” thinking) to some degree. But if anything, I feel there are more people than ever open to conspiracy theories – likely, of course, partly due to the internet’s ability to spread that sort of thinking in various ways. To me, then, what conspiracy theories teach us about reason is, if anything, how “fragile” reason actually is in the face of … and that’s sort of the question: whatever needs, quirks, fears, innate tendencies (such as how people can tolerate cognitive dissonance), etc. that seem to have a hold on the minds of so many people. Is it, for example, that we are living in an increasingly complicated world, and/or, say, one in which religious belief has declined – hence increasing the need to make sense of things in some way, etc.? To me, that is probably the interesting avenue of inquiry when it comes to thinking about reason and conspiracy theories.

    February 18, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Sorry for getting back late.

      Let’s see. I would say yes – my conclusion is that humans are becoming more reasonable. However, I also think that CT do illustrate how fragile reason is, like you say.

      March 1, 2012
  4. You’re being much too optimistic, I’m afraid. “Indeed, a byproduct of democracy is the tendency for some people to believe whatever they want, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence” — a classic example of the highly mistaken belief that one person’s opinion is as good as another’s, as if there were no higher order of things .

    And that’s because they’re NOT thinking critically, as if one could really think uncritically! No, they’re simply NOT reasoning. Recalls to mind the often ignored double meaning of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

    February 21, 2012
    • Anonymous #

      “a by-product’? Rather the essence.
      Jefferson said that the right to express our opinion is the most important of our freedoms because all of our other liberties depend on it.”

      February 21, 2012
      • HowBow #

        I forgot to ask what is the ignored double meaning of Pope’s line?

        February 21, 2012
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    June 7, 2012
  9. Edossa@ #

    I am teacher and studant of debrhe birhan universty; i like to evaluate my learning content level, certify from KG to professer. This is my softwar of super great universe genius mix group that certify any. Imposible born from animals, from like woman, e.t.c. My softwar is GSUGMGTCTAL has protection. Now i can learn and teach. Display geneticly with highly filterd from any. I myself.

    June 7, 2012
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    February 7, 2013
  11. I had a rather hard time chsioong just one type of physician I would want to work for. So many of them fascinate me, and with me not really going into any medical field other than support, I never gave this any thought in the past. After reading the list, I am more favorable of working for a neonatologist. It is difficult to think about how neonatologist physicians sometimes have the most difficult job in the world, but I can only imagine how amazing it would be to be a part of saving a baby’s life. I had a coworker once whose baby was born at 36 weeks, and her baby had a lot of heart and lung problems. There were concerns about whether or not they would ever fully develop once she had him, but after many months in the NICU, and many scares that happened during it, the doctors were able to save him and he is now a very healthy 5 year old. It is because of that I have a higher interest in the neonatologist field.I hate to say which type of physician I would care less to work for, and it is because I worry that many will take it the wrong way. When I was 16, I used to help my mom at an assisted living home as a caregiver. We would get to work at 7:00 A.M. every morning to prepare breakfast for four of the elderly men and women that we were caring for. We would then make sure that all bedding was changed, rooms were cleaned, meals were prepared, and appointments were handled. We worked 12 hour days, and they were always grueling. The owner of the home made sure that everyone had their medicine and made it to their doctor appointments on time. However, she was more worried about getting paid for her services than actually helping the elderly. She would yell at them if they did something wrong, and even call them terrible names. My mom reported her and we both quit our job, but it has always left a sting in my heart since then. It is because of my experience with that situation that I do not think I could ever work for a gerontologist. I know that the situations would be much different, but ever since my experience with caring for elderly individuals it is very hard for me to think about assisting a physician in geriatrics because I worry that someone else might treat the elderly in the same way the owner of the home did. I am a firm believer that the elderly deserve the ultimate care and comfort when going through any treatment and aging in general, but I do not think I could ever work in that environment again.

    February 7, 2013
  12. Mark #

    Paranoid delusions, including Keech’s have nothing to do with democracy, they’ve been occurring in people for thousands of years. They have to do with the religious functioning of the psyche and the ego’s propensity to literalize mythopoetic revelations. Marian Keech’s story is known as a “Flood Myth”. We are all familiar with the story of Noah and yes, her doomsday scenario was that the earth would be destroyed by a great deluge of rising sea levels and that her and her spiritually connected group would be saved by the UFOs. Now UFO’s may not seem like a flood myth but it is just a modern equivalent to the ark. If you study comparative mythology you’ll see this same narrative with some type of vessel of salvation for those who are morally righteous. For Al Gore’s cult, it’s the electric car. He has a lot of believers, a lot more than Keech did, and they’re in government. Beware.

    July 23, 2016
  13. Curtissom #

    ddagosl

    April 8, 2017

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