Jul 07 2017

Conspiracy Thinking and the Need for Certainty

conspiracy1The world is horrifically complicated and humans have developed a number of strategies to deal with that complexity. These strategies are necessary but imperfect. There is also always a trade-off, sacrificing detail and nuance for understandability.

One such strategy I have written about often is the need for simplicity. A saying, attributed to Albert Einstein with good references, goes: “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.” He was talking about the art of making complex scientific knowledge accessible without making it wrong. Unfortunately, the desire for simplicity often leads to oversimplification, with important details and concepts lost or distorted.

There is another related strategy psychologist call the need for cognitive closure. One reference defines this need as:

“As a dispositional construct, the need for cognitive closure is presently treated as a latent variable manifested through several different aspects, namely, desire for predictability, preference for order and structure, discomfort with ambiguity, decisiveness, and close-mindedness.”

It is easy to see the trade-offs here. On the one hand it is good to be intellectually flexible, open-minded, and comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Yet, this disposition can predispose one to indecisiveness, the “paralysis of analysis.” At some point we have to commit, even if tentatively. Structure and order in thought can also be positive things.

I think Aristotle’s philosophy of the mean is appropriate here – virtue often constitutes a balance between two vices at the extremes. So perhaps psychologists have identified another metric along which people vary, with most people having some functional balance in the middle. There is also likely not one optimal balance, just different trade-offs that carry with them different strengths and weaknesses. I also think this psychological feature is likely to be highly modifiable by education. Critical thinking, in my opinion, includes being both comfortable with uncertainty, and yet disciplined in thought. These can be acquired traits.

The need for simplicity and the need for cognitive closure also both play into what is perhaps a higher order cognitive strategy – understanding the world through narratives. Narratives are like theories in science, they are top-level organizing concepts that potentially make sense of one or even many aspects of the world. Narratives can be helpful, but they can become too rigid, and they can take on a life of their own, serving as cognitive filters through which reality is perceived.

Cognitive Closure and Conspiracy Theories

What does all of this have to do with conspiracy thinking, as the title suggests? A recent study looks at the relationship between the need for cognitive closure (NFCC) and the tendency to accept conspiracy theories as an explanation for specific events.

The researchers used a standard measure for NFCC on a group of subjects. They then had them read what they were told were online news articles about specific events – in experiment one the European Union’s plans to help Syrian and Eritrean refugees in Poland, in experiment two the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash or the Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crash. They then read apparent comments to the news articles expressing conspiracy theories as explanations.

What they found is that the NFCC predicted accepting conspiracy theories as an explanation for an event that currently lacks a known cause. However, NFCC also was negatively correlated with accepting a conspiracy theory for an event that already has a well-accepted explanation.

In other words, if your NFCC is strong, you want to have a solid explanation for an event, such as a plane crash. If there already is a known and accepted explanation, you will stick with that because you have closure and you don’t want to introduce uncertainty. If, however, there is no accepted explanation, the conspiracy theory offers one, and therefore offers the closure you seek.

Obviously this is on the one and only explanation for conspiracy thinking (that would be an oversimplification), and the authors are not claiming it is. It is potentially one factor, however.

I tend to see conspiracy thinking as its own phenomenon. It is, in my opinion, a cognitive trap that people can fall into for various reasons. Once there, however, it does tend to take on a life of its own, reinforcing the conspiracy narrative and resisting eradication. But there are many paths to the conspiracy narrative.

One path is tribalism or ideology. People will tend to accept conspiracies when they dovetail with their existing ideological narrative. So some Fox News Republicans thought that Obama was going to use the UN to confiscate our guns and then take over the country at the end of his term (he didn’t, btw). Meanwhile some liberals thought that 911 was an inside job of the Bush administration. These are ideologically opportunistic conspiracy theories.

Some people may latch onto a conspiracy theory because it is the only proposed explanation and it offers cognitive closure.

Other people are chronic conspiracy theorists. They tend to believe every conspiracy because it is a conspiracy. Even within this group there are likely different cognitive styles and tendencies leading to conspiracy thinking.

I do think that even when cognitive closure is not the primary reason for falling into a conspiracy theory, it is a major psychological feature of conspiracy thinking. Conspiracy theories provide a dramatic narrative that can potentially explain everything. There is no uncertainty or ambiguity. In fact conspiracy theorists use uncertainty as an argument for the conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are largely based on the argument from ignorance – the inability to provide a proven explanation for every tiny detail of an event is offered as evidence for a conspiracy.

Understanding the cognitive processes that lead to conspiracy thinking is critical to avoid falling into the trap. Once someone is fully immersed in a conspiracy theory, however, it is probably too late. Conspiracy thinking protects itself too thoroughly.

23 responses so far

23 Responses to “Conspiracy Thinking and the Need for Certainty”

  1. Nidwinon 07 Jul 2017 at 9:25 am

    May be the root of the problem is that humans haven’t distanced themselves from “lies” and lying. At some point you just lose trust in what’s portraited as truth or most probable explanation and doubts start to surface leading to e.g. conspiracy thinking.

    For me there are no half-truths, small lies, lies because the truth will be too harmful, big lies, unforgiven lies. They all have in common that they aren’t good and acceptable explanations but lies.

  2. chikoppion 07 Jul 2017 at 9:49 am

    I have grown to suspect there is a sibling phenomena, which is a need for narrative synthesis. That is, an overarching narrative framework that explains why disparate observations, even incongruous ones, exist.

    Sometimes these narratives are vague. Sometimes they are elaborate. The later versions are often expressed as kook theories about cosmology, physics, and “metaphysics” that make broad and unfounded assertions. The hallmark is that while they satisfy the NFCC on a number of fronts they are never testable nor do they provide any predictive power. They are form of a posteriori fan fiction.

    The conflict arises when new information is presented that contradicts the overarching narrative. As the narrative is deeply valued it creates a strong and unjustified bias against evidence-based evaluation of anything it does not accommodate.

  3. Bill Openthalton 07 Jul 2017 at 11:59 am

    chikoppi —
    I agree. In “The Science of Discworld”, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen (and of course, Terry Pratchett) suggest that humanity should be called “Pan narrans” (the story-telling ape) instead of “homo sapiens”. Human experience is transformed through the overarching narrative that gives sense to our life. That is why people of different political (or philosophical) persuasions experience the same world completely differently, and are convinced of the fundamental dishonesty of the others.

  4. mumadaddon 07 Jul 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Bill,

    The “story telling ape” has also been advanced by Noah Yuval Harari:

    http://www.lan-bridge.co.uk/the-storytelling-ape/

  5. MosBenon 07 Jul 2017 at 1:45 pm

    I appreciate the desire to give examples of conspiracy theories that draw from two sides of the political ideological spectrum, but I was under the impression that somewhat counter-intuitively 9/11 truthers were from across the political spectrum, rather than being a phenomenon among liberals. And yes, the post says “some liberals” and undoubtedly some subscribers to that conspiracy are liberals, but while I think that it’s fair to characterize fears about Obama confiscating guns as a singularly conservative fear, I’m not sure that 9/11 truthers are the best counter example. I’d suggest GMO/Monsanto conspiracy theories, but now I’m wondering if someone will tell me that those people fall across the ideological spectrum as well.

  6. Oro Leeon 07 Jul 2017 at 2:28 pm

    chikoppi — Would religious stories constitute the most elaborate narrative synthesis?

  7. Lightnotheaton 07 Jul 2017 at 6:12 pm

    MosBen,
    I know at least several right-wingers that hate Monsanto and GMOs. I’d say kooky environmentalism ranges farther across the political spectrum than do 9-11 conspiracy theorists, although yes, some of the latter are very right-wing.

  8. MosBenon 07 Jul 2017 at 7:30 pm

    I know that this is terribly unhelpful, but I just remember reading something a while ago that the 9/11 truther community was much more diversely spread across the political spectrum than most people seemed to assume (eg, that liberals mad at Bush for other reasons assumed that he perpetrated the attacks). I haven’t seen anything on the political makeup of GMO-skeptics, so maybe they’re so maybe they are just as diverse. I just don’t know.

  9. DisplayGeekon 07 Jul 2017 at 10:49 pm

    I’m a little surprised that a simpler explanation that does have some evidentiary support was also not included in the possible list of reasons why some people are suseptable to conspiracy theories; paranoia. Several mental illnesses increase the likelyhood of paranoia such as schizophrenia and some mood and personality disorders. When one looks at the total incidence of such illnesses and add in a fudge factor for subclinical tendencies, this would account, I believe, for a sizable number of people espousing such theories. This would also help recruit those with other reasons for suseptablity, an amplifier if you will.

    I have had personal experience with several individuals who were diagnosed with such illnesses… and I noted that they tended to espouse such theories, especially those of a more sinister but nebulous “they” as the conspiritors. (Blue lizard aliens in one case…)

  10. tmac57on 07 Jul 2017 at 11:27 pm

    Think about just how complicated our world is, and consider how limited our time resources are for most people. There is no way we can accurately understand the firehose of data/information that are coming our way, even if we were to devote all of our waking hours in reviewing and analysing as much as we could handle.
    And even if we are being as fair and rational as we can possibly be, we would still misapprehend the full story (narrative) of what we devote our resources to.
    I think that most long time skeptics have come to realize and appreciate this fact, but we are among the smallest of slices of the overall demographic.
    I wrote an essay 40 years ago devoted to this exact subject, and even if it was a bit naive owing to the fact of my youth, I still feel fairly vindicated about my overall thesis about the complexity of society being one of the most serious root of problems in society.
    I have recently heard more and more people studying what has gone wrong with our world pointing to the fact that we as a whole, cannot wrap our cognitive abilities around this complexity, and why this leads to maladaptive thinking.
    It contributes to almost every self-inflicted ill that we deal with in our struggle to manage a world that is becoming incrementally more unmanageable.
    There is no easy solution to this, as I had long ago concluded, but I did realize then that acquiring better reasoning skills might go a long way in helping to mitigate the pitfalls that we fall in to when we try to reduce multivariate phenomenon down to neat and simplistic narratives that just happen to fit in with whatever limited information database that we have messily acquired (biases and all) that are flawed at best, and dead wrong and harmful at worst.
    I like to tell people that our ability to really understand our world is like going through life in our limited exposure to the whole of our planet, peering through thin soda straws, and feeling like we have gained some complete view of what there is to see, while listening to a few hundred people and knowing what every one of the 7 billion have to say, and knowing maybe fifty or fewer intimately enough to understand everything about what all others lives are like.
    We should be as humble as possible in our certainty about what we know for sure. And beware of those who assert things with dead certainty.

  11. chikoppion 08 Jul 2017 at 12:57 am

    I have recently heard more and more people studying what has gone wrong with our world pointing to the fact that we as a whole, cannot wrap our cognitive abilities around this complexity, and why this leads to maladaptive thinking.
    It contributes to almost every self-inflicted ill that we deal with in our struggle to manage a world that is becoming incrementally more unmanageable.

    A la Joseph Tainter?

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complexity,_Problem_Solving,_and_Sustainable_Societies

    Wasn’t there recently a book that expanded on the social complexity theory?

  12. isardon 08 Jul 2017 at 2:18 am

    OK – the world has become exceedingly complex, and we are drowning in information the human brain was not designed to absorb. But DisplayGeek is perhaps right – and we need to distinguish between bizarre and non-bizarre conspiracy theories. You can believe that Obama, Hilary, the liberal elite, etc. are conspiring to do this or that to the rights of true gun-loving Americans – but believe in Pizzagate, as nearly half of registered Republicans did late last year? Could this be (mostly subclinical) delusion?

  13. tmac57on 08 Jul 2017 at 11:13 am

    chikoppi- My idea, was more in line with how people’s view of the world is shaped and distorted by their narrow field of view, and lack of time and interest to properly evaluate and put into perspective what they think is going on around them.
    It’s been shown many times that without looking at the actual data, we focus on the wrong things to worry about, and ignore problems that are actually more within our ability to manage.
    Ideologues are born out of narrowness of focus and biases that are derived from a simplistic world view where expediency is substituted for rigorous examination of facts.
    In interviews that I have been hearing and articles that I have seen the last few years, on the topic of how and why our thinking can go off the rails on subjects like GMO’s, evolution, AGW, 911 etc. it keeps coming back to the lack of people’s ability to see the world in all of it’s complexity, and the tendency to reduce it to simpler narratives that just so happen to fit an individual’s preconceptions about how everything should work.
    It’s much easier to establish a consistent epistemology based on a handful of heuristics which are derived from limited experience, than to update those when more knowledge comes along. That involves keeping an open mind, and continuous learning and curiosity, and changing one’s outlook on life can be painful and unsettling. It goes against human nature.

  14. chikoppion 08 Jul 2017 at 12:04 pm

    [tmac57] It’s much easier to establish a consistent epistemology based on a handful of heuristics which are derived from limited experience, than to update those when more knowledge comes along. That involves keeping an open mind, and continuous learning and curiosity, and changing one’s outlook on life can be painful and unsettling. It goes against human nature.

    Ah, got it. Yeah, I agree with that (and it does seem related to Tainter’s economy of energy-complexity, as a symptom that would become increasingly prevalent).

  15. hardnoseon 09 Jul 2017 at 11:51 am

    Evolution theory is a good example of the need for simple explanations. No one understands how or why life evolved — all we know is that it did. But the irresistible need to understand has driven mainstream biology to accept a simple-minded narrative.

    Natural selection is easy to observe and is a proven fact. This made it a good choice for evolutionary biologists who needed an answer to an impossibly complex question. How and why did life evolve? Simple — genetic accidents weeded out by natural selection.

    When you express skepticism about this unscientific simple idea, believers will ask “Do you have any better ideas?” If you don’t have a better simple answer, then you have no right to question theirs.

  16. chikoppion 09 Jul 2017 at 2:01 pm

    [hardnose] Evolution theory is a good example of the need for simple explanations. No one understands how or why life evolved — all we know is that it did.

    Evolution. The heritable change in populations over time. We know with great precision how evolution occurs. Asking why assumes the imposition of external intent upon otherwise natural processes, which is an unnecessary and completely unsupported conjecture (but a central feature to many people’s vague internal narratives).

    But the irresistible need to understand has driven mainstream biology to accept a simple-minded narrative.

    No. Many, many decades of research, undeniable and objective evidence, and exhaustive experimentation has led to that very robust conclusion. A conclusion that continues to be confirmed and expanded on a frequent and regular basis.

    Natural selection is easy to observe and is a proven fact. This made it a good choice for evolutionary biologists who needed an answer to an impossibly complex question. How and why did life evolve? Simple — genetic accidents weeded out by natural selection.

    When you express skepticism about this unscientific simple idea, believers will ask “Do you have any better ideas?” If you don’t have a better simple answer, then you have no right to question theirs.

    No one asks “if you have better ideas.” No one cares about your “ideas.”

    You are a prime example of exactly what we’re taking about. Very few scientific theories are as well established as is evolution, which is an unguided and natural process. However, because it doesn’t affirm your pet narrative about a magic universe you are unable to cope with even this most basic fact.

  17. Pete Aon 09 Jul 2017 at 2:17 pm

    hardnose,

    Your statement “No one understands how or why life evolved — all we know is that it did.” seems to be a very good point, which set me thinking about the basics of discovery that leads to testable knowledge, including testable hypotheses and testable scientific theories. By testable I mean both: verifiable using existing empirical evidence; and presented in such a manner that it is also falsifiable in the light of future, conflicting, empirical evidence.

    QUOTE (from the Wikipedia article entitled: Five Ws)

    The Five Ws, Five Ws and One H, 5W1H, or Six Ws are questions whose answers are considered basic in information gathering or problem solving. They are often mentioned in journalism (cf. news style), research, and police investigations.[1] They constitute a formula for getting the complete story on a subject.[2] According to the principle of the Five Ws, a report can only be considered complete if it answers these questions starting with an interrogative word:[3]

    · What happened?
    · Who was involved?
    · Where did it take place?
    · When did it take place?
    · Why did that happen?

    Some authors add a sixth question, “how”, to the list, though “how” can also be covered by “what”, “when”, or “where”:[3]

    · How did it happen?

    Each question should have a factual answer — facts necessary to include for a report to be considered complete.[4] Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.

    In the United Kingdom (excluding Scotland), the Five Ws are used in Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 lessons.[5]

    END of QUOTE

    Who was involved in the initial stage(s) of evolution? I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else; all I can say is that I eventually learnt to accept that the answer could well be nobody: no person; no one; no god; no creator; no intelligent designer. For the same reason I accept that nobody designs the wonderful pattern of each snowflake that falls from the clouds.

    Evolutionary biologists, biochemists, geologists, physicists, and other scientists, have provided volumes of knowledge, which in total addresses all of the basic (hence essential) information-gathering questions.

  18. Michael Woelkon 10 Jul 2017 at 4:42 am

    @hardnose:

    How is an omnipotent being that created everything through literal magic not THE simplest explanation of them all? As you have demonstrated time after time, the theory of Evolution is hard to understand in its details, while “its magic – no logic needed” is easy to grasp for anyone.

    Humans invented gods and religion to explain the world at a time where they had a strong need for an explanation and closure yet didn’t know any better. Today, we DO know better, yet there are still people who prefer the simple solution with the added bonus of eternal life.

    How and why did life evolve?

    People like you will never understand that there most likely is no why. At least not in the philosophical sense. It might not be comforting, but I prefer the truth over feel-good lies any day.

  19. SteveAon 10 Jul 2017 at 4:45 am

    PeteA

    “I keep six honest serving-men
    (They taught me all I knew);
    Their names are What and Why and When
    And How and Where and Who.”

    Kipling

  20. hardnoseon 12 Jul 2017 at 1:29 pm

    “Very few scientific theories are as well established as is evolution”

    I never said evolution was not established.

  21. chikoppion 12 Jul 2017 at 2:00 pm

    [hardnose] I never said evolution was not established.

    What I said was, “Very few scientific theories are as well established as is evolution.”

    You cannot agree that the theory of evolution is well established and yet “unscientific.” The scientific underpinnings of a theory are what establish it.

    [hardnose] Natural selection is easy to observe and is a proven fact. This made it a good choice for evolutionary biologists who needed an answer to an impossibly complex question. How and why did life evolve? Simple — genetic accidents weeded out by natural selection.

    When you express skepticism about this unscientific simple idea, believers will ask “Do you have any better ideas?” If you don’t have a better simple answer, then you have no right to question theirs.

  22. Andreason 12 Jul 2017 at 5:07 pm

    Re the Einstein quote: I always thought it referred to a constraint on Occam’s Razor – i.e., that scientific theories should be a simple as possible while still explaining the data. So I’m doubtful that Einstein meant it to refer to simplifications of technical explanations for the benefit of laypeople.

  23. bachfiendon 12 Jul 2017 at 6:42 pm

    Hardnose,

    ‘When you express skepticism about this unscientific simple idea (genetic accidents weeded out by natural selection), believers will ask “do you have any better ideas?” If you don’t have a better simple answer, then you have no right to question theirs.’

    You’re being disingenuous. Your ‘better simple answer’ (which is neither ‘better’ nor ‘simple’) is that mutations are non-random, directed and to the needs of the organism, and not random, non-directed and with the harmful mutations eliminated by natural selection.

    It’s been pointed out to you numerous times that the evidence doesn’t support the idea that mutations are non-random and directed to the needs of the organism, it isn’t a simple idea, and it doesn’t assist you in supporting your other delusions that the universe is intelligent or that there’s an inherent tendency within biological systems towards increasing intelligence or complexity.

    You share with Egnor the teleological sharpshooter fallacy.

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