Psychology Today magazine is the popular face of, arguably, the most questionable “science” ever foisted upon modern civilization. The field of psychology is a modern invention, and for all of its adherents and proclamations and multi-degreed practitioners has not improved humanity’s general state of mental health, on the contrary, people are crazier and more unhappy than ever, with or without psychiatrists and psychologists, and with or without psychotropic drugs, [although a persuasive case could be made that a better world existed without the drugs.]
It has however spawned a very lucrative institution and not incidentally provides a dependable and growing support system for the pharmaceutical industry. It should be said however that obviously there have been many sincere and inspired researchers into the nature of consciousness, past and present, and they of course must be regarded with respect apart from this rude general indictment.
The magazine itself, although not a professional journal, is a for some reason regarded as a factual oracle but examined with a clear eye is more of a marketing delivery system, as is most of what passes for science today.
I believe that it is in fact a font of misinformation and intentional meme creation for the mainstream audience, designed to not only make lots of money but to consolidate and perpetuate falsehoods and superstitions which serve to reject the idea of creative autonomy and reduce the human being in all facets to a mechanistic model, an “eating and reproducing machine” as Richard Dawkins would put it.
Here is a digested compilation of 5 articles on the subject of “conspiracy theory”, a pejorative term invented in the 1990s to trivialize, marginalize and in some cases demonize critical thinking, taken straight from the magazine. All text is verbatim, with certain selections emphasized by myself. I have also taken the liberty of adding a few asides as “ed. notes”.
Are you a “conspiracy theorist?”
Take the quiz!
Psychology Ptoday on Conspiracy Theory
Many researchers propose that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one’s own life, and you get what is called agency panic, “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators.
When fervent individualists feel that they cannot exercise their independence, they experience a crisis and assume that larger forces are to blame for usurping this freedom. “FOR ONE WHO REFUSES TO RELINQUISH THE ASSUMPTIONS OF LIBERAL INDIVIDUALISM, SUCH NEWLY REVEALED FORMS OF REGULATION FREQUENTLY SEEM SO UNACCEPTABLE OR UNBELIEVABLE THAT THEY CAN ONLY BE MET WITH ANXIETY, MELODRAMA, OR PANIC.”
For one thing, conspiracy theories help us cope with distressing events and make sense out of them. Conspiracies assure us that bad things don’t just happen randomly. Conspiracies tell us that someone out there is accountable, however unwittingly or secretly or incomprehensibly, so it’s possible to stop these people and punish them and in due course let everyone else re-establish control over their own lives. Conspiracies also remind us that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for our predicaments; it’s not our fault, it’s them! In these ways, believing in conspiracies serves many of the same self-protective functions as SCAPEGOATING.
How are we to prevent this kind of thinking from taking us HOSTAGE?
Brains are pattern-finding organs, and when tossed into an unpredictable environment people will grasp for any straw they can get (maybe if I do A, B will happen.)
The paper, by Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern, TIES TOGETHER LEADS FROM SEVERAL AREAS OF RESEARCH INTO A TIGHT ARGUMENT: lacking control increases illusory pattern perception.
According to Whitson, “the main contribution of [the six new studies reported in the paper] is that they connect a lot of different things that were previously thought of as separate and reveal that underneath, the same visceral need for control is affecting all of them.” [ed note: ha ha, study needs to connect the dots]
The strongest predictor of belief in 9-11 conspiracies was belief in other conspiracies. To quote Swami and colleagues: “believing that John F. Kennedy was not killed by a lone gunman or that the Apollo moon landings were staged increases the chances that an individual will also believe 9-11 conspiracy theories.” People build a consistent world view. For these conspiracy theorists, their consistent world view is that the truth is always being covered up. Although this may seem like an obvious finding in retrospect, this didn’t have to be true. People could have picked their conspiracy theories based on their political views – then these notions would not have all hung together. But no, people who believe some conspiracy theories are more likely to accept new conspiracy theories. The general conspiracy theory belief scale was predicted by other factors – in particular, cynicism and a rejection of the political system. Doubters of the system didn’t believe the system’s stories. [ed.note: GO FIGURE!]
Openness to Experience predicted belief in conspiracy theories. Higher levels of Openness were related to higher levels of belief in various conspiracy theories. Often we think of openness in positive terms. people who display openness to experience are considered intellectually curious, open-minded, and creative. BUT SOMETIMES BEING OPEN TO CREATIVE, UNUSUAL IDEAS MAY LEAD PEOPLE TO ACCEPT IDEAS WITHOUT EMPIRICAL SUPPORT. OPENNESS MAY LEAD PEOPLE TO ACCEPT CONSPIRACY THEORIES.
You’ll find out that conspiracy beliefs have been linked to being poor, being a member of a downtrodden minority, having a general sense that one’s life is controlled by external factors, and other unfortunate circumstances.
But there’s another perspective that stems from thinking about the evolutionary background of our species: The human brain was designed for conspiracy theories. On this view, we’re all conspiracy theorists–you, me, and your aunt Ginger in Iowa.
We’re all conspiracy theorists to some degree. We’re all hardwired to find patterns in our environment, particularly those that might represent a threat to us. And when things go wrong, we find ourselves searching for what, or who, is behind it.
Even well-grounded skeptics are prone to connect disparate dots when they feel disempowered. In a series of studies, Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern demonstrated that people primed to feel out of control are particularly likely to see patterns in random stimuli [as in seeing faces in clouds, etc]
ONE MIGHT ASK, WHAT DOES SEEING FACES IN CLOUDS HAVE TO DO WITH BEING IN CONTROL? WELL, ACCORDING TO THE EMBODIED THEORY OF MIND, WE IMBUE ALL THINGS WITH AFFORDANCES—QUALITIES THAT DESCRIBE HOW WE CAN ACT ON THEM. THE HUMAN ORGANISM WITH ALL ITS FANCY-PANTS “THEORIES” ABOUT THE WORLD IS JUST AN ELABORATE ITERATION OF THE SINGLE-CELLED ACTION-REACTION SIMPLETONS WE EVOLVED FROM. ULTIMATELY, THINKING SERVES DOING. (SPECIFICALLY SURVIVING AND REPRODUCING.) [ed note: see R. Dawkins] SO SEEING A PATTERN IN THE WORLD IS USEFUL TO US ONLY INSOFAR AS IT LETS US FORM A PLAN OF ACTION, PROVIDING CONTROL, OR AT LEAST A SENSE THEREOF.
ANOTHER STUDY FOUND THAT WHEN PEOPLE READ CONSPIRACY THEORY MATERIALS, THEY WERE THEN MORE LIKELY TO AGREE WITH THOSE CONSPIRACIES, RELATIVE TO PEOPLE WHO HADN’T READ THOSE MATERIALS. [ed note: duh]
Together, these studies suggest two things that increase acceptance of conspiracy theories: merely being exposed to arguments for them, and a lack of civic involvement.
Information is the conspiracy theorists’ weapon of choice because if there’s one thing they all agree on, it’s that all the rest of us have been brainwashed. The “facts” will plainly reveal the existence of the conspiracy, they believe. And while all of us tend to bend information to fit our pre-existing cognitive schema, conspiracy theorists are more extreme. They are “immune to evidence,” discounting contradictory information or seeing it as “proof of how clever the enemy is at covering things up,” Goertzel says.
Conspiracy theories exist on a spectrum from mild suspicion to full-on paranoia, and brain chemistry may play a role. Dopamine rewards us for noting patterns and finding meaning in sometimes-insignificant events. It’s long been known that schizophrenics overproduce dopamine. “THE EARLIEST STAGES OF DELUSION ARE CHARACTERIZED BY AN OVERABUNDANCE OF MEANINGFUL COINCIDENCES,” explain Paul D. Morrison and R.M. Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London. “Jumping to conclusions” is a common reasoning style among the paranoid, find Daniel Freeman and his colleagues, also at the Institute of Psychiatry.
Connect the Dots
How susceptible are you to conspiracy beliefs? Rate your agreement with the statements below, from 1=strongly disagree to 5=strongly agree.
1. For the most part, government serves the interests of a few organized groups, such as business, and isn’t very concerned about the needs of people like myself.
2. I have trouble doing what I want to do in the world today.
3. It is difficult for people like myself to have much influence in public affairs.
4. We seem to live in a pretty irrational and disordered world.
5. I don’t trust that my closest friends would not lie to me.
Answer key: 5-11: weakly, 12-18: moderately, 19-25: strongly (Adapted from a scale developed by Patrick Leman)
[ed.note: Please notice that 1] the alleged study does not contain footnotes, 2] the term “conspiracy theory” is not defined as such – the author[s] are implying that the ‘smart’ reader knows what is meant by the derisive term, and most importantly: 3] nowhere does it mention or apparently allow for the process of critical thinking as applied to each individual issue.
[Final ed.note: According to this inane quiz, this editor is quite unsusceptible!]