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In my last blog, I examined a puzzle about conspiracy theorists.
On the one hand, many conspiracy theoretic beliefs, like those of flat earthers, appear irrational. Psychological research, furthermore, shows that conspiracy theorists are typically low in analytic cognitive style, which means (roughly) they’re low in conscious deliberate rational thought.
On the other hand, the researcher whose talk I had heard (Jan-Willem van Prooijen) pointed out that many conspiracy theorists do a lot of “thinking” and consider evidence contrary to their views. Accordingly, they adopt auxiliary assumptions that explain away the contrary evidence. If, for example, you point out to the flat earther that there are satellite photos of the round earth, they’ll say that NASA is part of the conspiracy, etc.
So despite appearing irrational, many conspiracy theorists adopt the seemingly rational strategy of embracing the consequences of their views and adopting auxiliary assumptions that would make their beliefs (mostly) fit together into a cohesive whole. What, then, should we say about the rationality or irrationality of conspiracy theoretic thought?
My solution was that conspiracy theorists think quasi-rationally, but such thinking only goes in one direction. While analytic thinkers often use deliberate thought to override their intuitions, conspiracy theorists, being less analytic, are less prone to overriding their intuitions. So when their intuitions imply malevolence and conspiracy on the part of a perceived dominant group, their downstream thought fills out a view of the world that makes sense of those intuitions and shields them from refutation.
Whatever the merits of my solution to the intellectual puzzle, it still leaves us with a serious practical problem: how do we alleviate people’s tendencies to adopt pernicious conspiracy theories?
This problem is important because, as van Prooijen argues, conspiracy theories are often consequential. (This was the C in his CUES acronym: conspiracy theories are Consequential, Universal, Emotional, and Social.) To give an example, Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa (Mandela’s successor), held one according to which the CIA was part of a conspiracy to convince people that HIV causes AIDS, a view which Mbeki rejected. He also held that the CIA was doing this to help drug companies. As a consequence, Mbeki supported policies that hindered access to anti-retroviral drugs, and those policies eventuated in an estimated 330,000 unnecessary deaths between 2000 and 2005.
This practical problem is challenging because one can’t simply talk conspiracy theorists out of their theories by presenting contrary evidence. As we saw, they’ve probably considered the evidence already and come up with an “explanation.” Presenting the evidence might also lead the conspiracy theorist to categorize you either as “naïve” (How can you not see NASA’s part of the conspiracy?) or—worse—as part of the conspiracy (You’re on their side!). Furthermore, some psychological features that drive conspiracy theoretic ideation, like proneness to illusory pattern perception, seem stable over time and hence are unlikely to be susceptible to change.
The situation might seem hopeless, but some of van Prooijen’s findings suggest points of intervention.
First, conspiracy theories arise when people feel low levels of personal control. When people feel existential insecurity (about housing, finances, food, health, etc.) and feel they have little agency to fix the situation, they’re more prone to conspiracy theorizing.
Second, there is almost always a WE vs. THEY (in-group vs. out-group) dimension to conspiracy theorizing. The supposed conspirators are part of a perceived-as-dominant outgroup (liberal elites, Western drug companies, the scientific community, etc.) that are in cahoots to take resources from one’s own group (THEY are against US!).
Third and relatedly, one emotion that often accompanies conspiracy theories is empathy. Though empathy (with notable dissent) is typically thought of as a good emotion, when someone feels empathy with a person or group that falls into misfortune, they are more likely to form a conspiracy theory about those perceived to have caused the misfortune.
These points suggest interventions that would address the initial intuitions that make one prone to downstream conspiracy theories in the first place. Intuitions arise from low-level processing that isn’t under conscious control. That’s like the root, whereas the subsequent ‘reasoning’ is more like the leaves of the plant. Addressing these three points may address the root, since they would address the low-level conditions that make one prone to have conspiracy theoretic intuitions.
And the kinds of interventions that are plausible in response to these points are fairly obvious. Combatting conspiracy theories should include promoting broad levels of existential security (food, housing, etc.), empowering people to feel in control of their lives, and humanizing perceived out-groups.
Such interventions would at best alleviate and not eliminate the spread of pernicious conspiracy theories. That’s because perceived rather than real existential insecurity (along with a low level of felt control) is what contributes to conspiracy theories. So even if someone in fact has objective security, if they have the sense that things are otherwise, they might still conspiracy theorize away. This point may well apply to the QAnon conspiracy theorists, many of whom appear to be middle class baby boomers. And for other people, the in-group/out-group perception may be so powerful that real existential security doesn’t alleviate their conspiracy theoretic tendencies.
Still, one way to influence perceptions is to change reality, and providing a broad safety net within a society is likely to help at least somewhat with the present problem by alleviating some real and perceived sources of threat.
The philosophical consequence of these considerations is that we have managed to add a reason for providing existential security to humans broadly that is different in character from what we are used to seeing. We usually hear moral reasons for having social mechanisms that provide broad existential security (reasons including avoidance of harm, promotion of wellbeing, etc.). But the present considerations give us an epistemic reason in addition: insofar as existential insecurity helps foster bizarre conspiracy theories, we have reasons based on the value of knowledge to promote broad existential support throughout society.