A Puzzle About Conspiracy Theorists (Part I)

10 August 2018

I attended a talk about conspiracy theories at the end of July. That talk has played on my mind since, especially given the recent banning of Alex Jones, that prominent purveyor of conspiracy theories, from Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify. The speaker at the talk was Jan-Willem van Prooijen from the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam. He’s an expert both on the psychology behind conspiracy theories and on the psychology of moral punishment, and he offered substantial insights into why people would be taken in by the bizarre rantings of someone like Jones.


Van Prooijen uses the acronym CUES to abbreviate his framework for understanding conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are Consequential (their existence can make momentous differences in people’s lives, affecting things like whether they get needed medicine), Universal (they emerge in nearly every observed society and time), Emotional (they emerge from System 1 emotional and intuitive processes), and Social (they typically posit conspiracies among members of a perceived dominant group, where the conspiracies are designed to ensure continued domination).

Though all that made sense, one thing still puzzled me about the talk.

At one point, van Prooijen began talking about the flat earther conspiracy theory, which has so many adherents that there are conferences dedicated to “research” on the flatness of the earth—and to the massive conspiracy designed to convince us it’s round.

The puzzle came with this parenthetical comment:

“You might think these people don’t think about things. But they do! They have an answer for everything. You’ll find this if you argue with a flat earther.”

He illustrated his point. Explain to a flat earther that there are satellite photos of the round earth. Those are from NASA. NASA’s not trustworthy! Point out that people like Magellan sailed around the world. Of course a government history curriculum would say that! Point out that you can see the curvature of the earth from the window of an airplane. The airplane windows were designed to make it look curved!

So a typical flat earther has a system of cohesive (albeit bizarre) thoughts that capture the implications of their theory. The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for conspiracy theorists of other stripes: in many (maybe most) cases, conspiracy theorists embrace the strange entailments of their central views. Now here’s what’s weird: embracing entailments of one’s views is supposed to be a hallmark of rational thought. So what is it doing nestled amongst a bizarre and arguably irrational web of conspiracy theoretic beliefs?

Connoisseurs of philosophy of science will here recognize the lurking ghost of the Quine-Duhem problem: any empirical hypothesis can be treated as consistent with the known observations, as long as the “right” auxiliary assumptions are also embraced. And many conspiracy theorists are, if van Prooijen is right, adept at embracing the “right” auxiliary assumptions.

Connoisseurs of British humor will recognize a parallel to the famous Monty Python parrot sketch, in which the pet shop owner maintains that a dead parrot is in fact alive in the face of all contrary evidence (it’s resting! it’s stunned! it’s probably pining for the fjords!). Again, just keep making the “right” auxiliary assumptions…

In any case, there appears to be a whiff of rationality in the typical conspiracy theorist’s thought, since they recognize the need to embrace the implied consequences of what they believe.

But not only is it common sense that at least a great many conspiracy theories are irrational (such as the flat earther conspiracy theory); there are also empirical data that suggest that conspiracy theories flourish in the absence of rational thought.

Viren Swami and colleagues, for example, published a paper in 2014 showing that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with lower scores in analytic thinking. That means—at a rough pass—that the sort of mental processing often called System 2 (conscious effortful reasoning) is dissociated with acceptance of conspiracy theories.

So does conspiracy theoretic ideation involve conscious reasoning or not? And how does intuition and emotion play into this (the E in CUES)?

I think the resolution of this puzzle is that conspiracy theoretic ideation first involves an initial intuition or suspicion that is the product of emotional, automatic processing (feeling oppressed or lacking in control appears to be partly behind the initial conspiracy theoretic impulses). But conspiracy theoretic ideation second involves a great deal of quasi-rational thinking that works out how things would be if the initial intuition were accurate. And people like Jones purvey ideas that validate the suspicious intuition and give a template for the downstream quasi-rational thinking—so many people gobble those ideas up.

The problem with people who accept outlandish conspiracy theories is thus not lack of thinking. It’s lack of thinking that would override one’s initial intuitions. So when those initial dark intuitions are strong enough (they are out to get us!), one ends up with not merely a suspicion but a whole cluster of culturally scaffolded ideas that would (i) seem to make sense of the intuition and (ii) arm it against refutation.

This view is consistent with the methods that many researchers have used to measure analytic cognitive style. Good tests for analytic cognitive style assess whether people use conscious thought to override intuitive responses. Consider the following classic problem:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

Almost everyone has the fast intuitive response ten cents. That, of course, is wrong, but people (including ones good at math) have this intuition anyway. So the measure of analytic cognitive style is whether people override their initial intuitions to give reasoned answers, like five cents.

It’s thus possible to score low in tests of analytic thinking, despite the fact that one does a lot of conscious “reasoning”—as long as that conscious “reasoning” doesn’t go against the initial intuitions one has. Otherwise put, being low in analytic cognitive style doesn’t mean that one doesn’t think consciously, it just means that one’s conscious thinking seldom goes against what one intuits: post-intuition thinking is more like a one-way street.

And this, I think, is exactly what happens with conspiracy theorists (by which I mean here people who are actually taken in by the conspiracy theories, as opposed to those who propagate them mendaciously or as part of a prank). Their initial conspiracy theoretic intuitions (they’re covering up the truth!) are powerful. And even more importantly, those intuitions aren’t overridden, despite their outlandishness, among people who have a lower analytic cognitive style. Such conspiracy theorists do think a lot; they just do so in ways that only cohere with their initial, suspicious emotional/intuitive responses.

It’s hard to know where this leaves us when it comes to combating outlandish conspiracy theories. Banning Alex Jones is a good start, but that just leaves a vacuum in the minds of suspicious people with low analytic cognitive styles for some other pernicious purveyor to exploit. So perhaps it’s worth attempting to nip the initial conspiracy theoretic intuitions in the bud. That, anyway, is more crucial than refuting the post hoc “reasoning,” since by that point many conspiracy theorists have already thought of the objections you’ll bring to their views.

But how on earth might one do that—i.e., nip the initial intuitions? That’s the topic of the next blog!


Comments (5)

Rarebreed's picture


Saturday, August 18, 2018 -- 3:41 AM

Am I crazy to think there's a

Am I crazy to think there's a conspiracy in the Catholic Church regarding the molestation of children

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, August 20, 2018 -- 12:37 PM

This is for the consideration

This is for the consideration of anyone who wonders about conspiracy theory, and the notion that such theorists " have an answer for everything": denial of facts is second-nature for those whose minds are already made up---whatever the reason. I do not, for example, have enmity for any particular faith/religion, for any theological position or insistence upon exclusivity. I do not believe that there is or has been any conspiracy to molest children, under a veil of ignorance (see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971) or any other conspiratorial guise.

What I do believe is that for the Catholic Church, primacy of the institution is the only cardinal (no pun) priority. I have been hearing of the atrocity of molestation for too many years; accusations and ensuing cover-ups endure beyond any semblance of resolution and the power and glory of the Church continues unabated. Maybe it IS a conspiracy? But, so many of those are merely amusing, or, at worst only threatening to 'national security'. Child molestation is the vilest sort of betrayal.

pchandler@ies-engr.com's picture


Thursday, September 6, 2018 -- 10:38 AM

The cost of the ball is

The cost of the ball is indeed $0.10, assuming the intent of the way the question is phrased is the TOTAL cost of the bat and ball is $1.10.

If the intent of the question is NOT the total cost being $1.10, then the cost of the ball is not $0.10 and is unknown because not enough information was given.

If I'm wrong, please provide correction.

Reminds me a bit of communicating with my wife. When the question one asks is not phrased specifically, don't be surprised at the answer received... Thank you!

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Thursday, September 6, 2018 -- 10:50 AM

x + y = $1.10 (A bat plus a

x + y = $1.10 (A bat plus a ball is $1.10)
x = y + $1.00 (A bat is a ball plus $1.00)

y + $1.00 + y = $1.10 (Substituting x in the first equation)
2y = $0.10
y = $0.05

TommyG's picture


Friday, September 7, 2018 -- 5:14 AM

Although, some conspiracy

Although, some conspiracy theories cannot be disproved. Of all the conspiracy theories I've ever heard, none can be scientifically proved,

The earth is flat can not be considered a conspiracy theory; it has been scientifically proven that the world (Earth) is not flat; perhaps it is not exactly round, but it is definitely not flat.