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.

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