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We Are Beset With Conspiracy Theories. Here’s How To Fix It.

2021 February 14

If you think about it, postal carriers should be a little bit creepy. If someone told you that an agent of the federal government would come to your house everyday with access to information about places you shop, businesses you transact with and people you know well enough to trade holiday cards with, it might cause you some alarm.

Yet we don’t find postal carriers creepy. In fact, despite vigorous efforts to malign the Postal Service, we trust it far more than most institutions. The truth is that we don’t conjure up conspiracy theories to explain the everyday and mundane, but some far off yonder which we cannot clearly designate, yet find threatening nonetheless.

The function conspiracy theories play is to explain things that we don’t understand and feel out of our control. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the age of Covid has spawned a myriad of crazy, dangerous notions. What we need to come to terms with is that the real problem plaguing society is a basic lack of trust and that is where the battle for truth must be fought.

The Visceral Abstract

One of the frustrating things about modern life is that we experience so little of it directly. As Leonard Read pointed out in his 1966 essay, I, Pencil, the manufacture of even the simplest modern object is beyond the reach of a single person. Today, people depend on technologies to get through their day, but have only the barest notion of how they function.

The truth is that we live in a world of the visceral abstract, where strange theories govern our everyday lives. People may not care much, or even believe in, Einstein’s theory of special relativity, but if GPS satellites aren’t calibrated to take it into account, the delivery man won’t be able to bring their dinner. In much the same way,  the Coronavirus will mutate, and the most infectious variant will dominate, no matter what you think of Darwin’s theory.

As Francis Fukuyama explains in his recent book, Identity, the pace of change and disruption in modern society demands that we make choices about who we are. Faced with so much we don’t understand there is no small amount of appeal to rejecting the unknown in favor of simpler explanations in the form of conspiracy theories.

Populists often say that they want to “take our country back,” but what they really mean is that they want to take our existence back. They want to banish the fabulous yonder for something closer and more tangible. They offer safe harbor and, for people who feel stranded on the rocks, with the sea crashing over them, the attraction can be undeniable.

Conforming To Local Majorities

We all have a certain capacity to believe in an idea to or to partake in an action. We may be highly skeptical or wildly enthusiastic, depending on our innate preferences and previous experiences, but history shows that individuals—and, in fact, entire societies—are vulnerable to suggestion.

We are, for example, highly affected by what those around us think. In fact, a series of famous experiments first performed in the 1950’s, and confirmed many times since then, showed that we will conform to the opinions of those around us even if they are obviously wrong. More recent research has found that the effect extends to three degrees of social distance.

The effect is then multiplied by our tendency to be tribal, even when the source of division is arbitrary. For example, in a study where young children were randomly assigned to a red or a blue group, they liked pictures of other kids who wore t-shirts that reflected their own group better. In another study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to outgroup members regardless of their race.

So it isn’t surprising that people will be more willing to believe, say, a conspiracy theory floated by a high school friend than information from a government agency or recognized news source. If the majority of people around you believe something, you’re likely to believe it too, because that’s what’s close and tangible.

During the pandemic, when everybody is stuck inside, the effect of local majorities, especially in isolated online communities, is significantly more powerful than usual. These communities may be, in fact, at a long distance geographically, but in mental and social space, they make up a large part of our immediate environment.

The Psychology Of Delusion

Once we are exposed to an idea and influenced by those around us to be sympathetic to it, two cognitive biases begin to kick in. The first, called availability bias, is our tendency overweight information that is most available to us. For example, reading or hearing about traffic fatalities on the news will do little to affect our driving habits, but when we pass a bad accident on the road, we’ll naturally slow down and become more cautious.

It’s amazing how powerful availability bias can be. Researchers have found that it even affects how investors react to analysts reports, how corporations invest in research and how jurors evaluate witness testimony. Other studies find that availability bias affects medical judgments. Even in matters of great import, we tend not to look very far for information.

Again, it’s easy to see how the pandemic combined with the Internet can make us more susceptible. Stuck at home, we spend more time engaging with communities online, where we tend to be surrounded by likeminded people. Their opinion will seem more real to us than those of “experts” from outside our community, whether that community is virtual or not.

This effect is then combined with confirmation bias, our tendency to seek out information that supports our prior beliefs and reject contrary evidence. Those who fall prey to conspiracy theories often report spending a lot of time searching the Internet and watching YouTube videos, which confirm and extend their discussions with “fellow travelers.”

Rebuilding Trust

Once we become aware of where conspiracy theories come from, it becomes easier to understand why we tend to be far more suspicious of, say, public officials or medical experts than our postal carriers. We tend to trust those we see as being part of our communities and are suspicious of those we see as outsiders.

Unfortunately, the stresses on our society will only intensify over the next decade as we undergo major shifts in technology, resources, migration and demography. These changes will inevitably hit some segments of society harder than others and, it’s safe to assume, those left behind will likely feel that society has forsaken them.

We need to learn how to rebuild trust, even with our enemies and the best—perhaps the only way—to do that is by focusing on shared values. We might, for example, disagree on exactly how our criminal justice system should function, but we can all agree that everyone has the right to live in a safe community. We may not agree on the specifics of a “Green New Deal,” but can all see the importance of investing in our rural communities and small towns.

Most of all, we need to rebuild a sense of connection. Fortunately, network science tells us that it takes relatively few connections to drastically reduce social distance. Trust is personal, not political. It can’t be legislated or mandated but arises out of shared experience that contributes to the collective well being. Like our mail carriers, our institutions must be seen to be competently serving us and having our best interests at heart.

In the final analysis, our problem is not one of information, but that of basic good will. The antidote is not stronger arguments, but more capable public service.

– Greg


Image: Wikimedia Commons


2 Responses leave one →
  1. February 16, 2021


    Another masterfully woven and well anchored piece of writing.

    It occurs to me that the very people who need to consume this and move beyond their conspiratorial world-view, are also those who wouldn’t bother because it requires thought and openness to internalize it. Maybe enough self-reflection will emerge through this pandemic for many people to take a deep, hard look at themselves and their perspectives, and come out the other side of it different (in a positive way). I wish that for myself as well as anyone else – what a time this has been for reflection…

    Your combined breadth and depth always amazes me.



  2. February 16, 2021

    Thanks Gordon! As I mentioned, I believe the crux of the problem is an absence of trust, so I think part of the onus is on the rest of us to think about how we can rebuild trust through shared values.


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