Aug 21 2018

Teleology and Conspiracy Thinking

I hate the headline of the Independent article about this new study – “Scientists discover the reason people believe in conspiracy theories.” No, they didn’t. What they potentially found was an additional factor that predicts conspiracy thinking, meaning that it correlates with it.  A much better headline would be – “Scientists find that believing in final causes correlates with conspiratorial thinking,” or something like that.

I understand the need to make headlines eye-catching, but you can do that without misrepresenting the science. The body of the article itself, while it does a decent job of explaining teleology, also misrepresents the implications of the study in a typical way – it fails to put it into the context of existing research.

Mainstream science reporting often follows a typical narrative – we essentially knew nothing, then scientists made this breakthrough discovery, and now we fully understand “the” cause of whatever.

The real scientific narrative is often quite different – we know something about this complex phenomenon, but there is still much that is not known, and now scientists have added one more piece to the puzzle. This is actually, in my opinion, a far more compelling narrative, but you have to tell the whole story of the scientific question, not just the one study.

Conspiracy Thinking

The researchers in the current study had a working hypothesis that teleology is part of conspiratorial thinking. Teleology is the belief that things happen for a reason, that the final result is, in fact, the cause. Things happen because they were meant to. Things exist because of the purpose they serve.

Teleology is generally considered to be philosophically and scientifically invalid, primarily because you cannot reverse the arrow of causation. Science generally follows the “shit happens” philosophy. Things happens for reasons unrelated to whatever effects they ultimately have. If an asteroid hits the Earth it was not because it was meant to, or because human civilization deserved to be wiped out. It is because of orbital mechanics, gravity, Newton’s laws of motion, and Keplers laws of planetary motion. The fact that human civilization got wiped out was just bad luck.

But despite the fact that teleological thinking is not valid, it is still psychologically compelling and infests our thinking. It is properly understood as a cognitive bias.

The researchers wanted to know if teleological thinking correlates with conspiratorial thinking. A connection makes sense – conspiracy theorists generally believe that apparently random or disconnected events happened for a reason. In the case of conspiracy theorists the reason was not fate or God, but the conspiracy – dark and powerful agents operating in the world with their own nefarious purposes.

They did a small pilot study on a convenience sample of college students (of course) but then followed up with a larger sample of the general population. They found that conspiratorial thinking moderately correlated with teleological thinking. It also correlated with belief in creationism, which is explained by the fact that creationism strongly correlates with teleological thinking (species exist because they were made with a purpose, not because of unguided evolution).

The researchers, however, then delved a little deeper, and this relates to what we already know about conspiracy thinking (a context completely ignored in the Independent article). It has already been established that conspiracy thinking correlates with the need for certainty (cognitive closure), for example. Conspiracy thinking also strongly correlates with pattern recognition and something called hyperactive agency detection. Conspiracy theorists tend to see patterns in random noise, and tend to see a hidden agency behind those patterns.

Approach to knowledge also correlates – belief in intuition, lack of need for evidence, and belief that facts are political all correlate with increased belief in conspiracy theories. Researchers have also found that conspiracy theorists generally lack control over their lives, want to feel special, and yet generally are frustrated over lack of success in their life. Finally, conspiracy thinking correlates with lack of trust in authorities, lack of acceptance of science, and lack of analytical thinking. (So again, the idea that scientists have found “the” cause of conspiracy thinking ignores a large body of research.)

Back to the current study – they found that teleological thinking is now an additional factor that correlates with conspiracy thinking, but they wanted to further explore it’s relationship to other factors, specifically agency detection. They found:

We called the first factor ‘animism’, as it clusters measures involving attribution of consciousness and agency to nonliving entities. The second factor, ‘finalism’, tapped instead into the attribution of purpose and final causes to the universe and human life. We then conducted a series of multiple regressions with creationism and conspiracism as dependent variables, and animism and finalism, as well as science rejection, analytical thinking and randomness perception, as predictors. Finalism was the main predictor for creationism, β = 0.55, t = 17.19, p < 0.05, followed at a smaller degree by animism, β = 0.23, t = 6.93, p < 0.05, whereas rejection of science and animism were the main predictors for conspiracism (respectively β = 0.30, t = 8.80, p < 0.05; β = 0.32, t = 9.65, p < 0.05), jointly with finalism to a slightly lesser extent, β = 0.23, t = 7.26, p < 0.05.

So, contrary to the mainstream reporting, the study found that conspiracy thinking most strongly correlated with agency detection along with rejection of science, and only to a lesser extent with teleological thinking. Creationism, however, was primarily correlated with teleological thinking. The authors conclude:

Collectively, these results identify teleological thinking as a new predictor of conspiracism, independent of agency perception, anthropomorphism, science rejection, analytical thinking and randomness perception. As a finalist and purpose-driven view of the natural world, teleological thinking has long been associated with creationism and identified as an obstacle to the acceptance of evolutionary theory. We suggest that this powerful cognitive bias extends to social and historical events, and nowadays to conspiracy narratives. As such, creationism could be seen as a conspiracist belief system (indeed, involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things, and conspiracism as a type of creationist belief targeting socio-historic events (e.g. specific events have been purposefully created by an all-powerful agency).

I agree that creationism often includes conspiratorial thinking – you have to think there is a conspiracy among the world’s scientists to reject creationism and promote evolution, if you disagree with the science.

While I agree that this study adds another piece to the conspiracy puzzle – teleological thinking – it is not the major piece. Agency detection is still a larger predictor. But the study does highlight how complex sociopsychological phenomena such as conspiracy thinking are. Teasing apart the complex cause and effects of why a particular individual, or groups of people, believe certain conspiracies is likewise complex. There is no “the” cause.

But it does help to understand specific cognitive biases, and how those biases contribute to arriving at certain narratives or conclusions that are at odds with reality. This study also adds to the large body of research which collectively shows that there is a general predisposition in people toward conspiracy thinking, although in some people far more than others.

There is a host of cognitive biases which collectively push toward a stable (if invalid) narrative that gives the powerful illusion of explanatory power – the conspiracy theory.


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