After Friday’s tragic events in Paris, how soon will the conspiracy theories start to emerge? Will this enter the canon of popular conspiracy theories such as 9/11 and the assassination of JFK? Indeed, the scale of a tragedy correlates closely with its capacity to spawn conspiracy theories.
That’s one insight of an enlightening new book, Suspicious Minds by the Psychologist Rob Brotherton, who is Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Brotherton explains the neuro-psychology behind conspiracy theories and why they have such an appeal. It seems that we instinctively seek out causes that are proportional to the magnitude of the events that they bring about. That’s why, when playing dice, we shake the dice more vigorously when we want to throw a high number, and more gently for a low number. (Yes, apparently we do!) It seems that our folk intuition takes over.
The greater the tragedy, the more complex and far reaching the conspiracy that brought it about. A sizeable majority of people do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. On the other hand almost nobody questions whether John Hinckley (the random nutcase who attempted to assassinate President Reagan) acted alone. A failed attempt cannot sustain its own conspiracy theories.
In a perverse way, conspiracy theories give us comfort. They are less terrible than the alternative; that momentous events have a major random element. In reality, of course, the tragedies that befall us are, to a large extent, random. Lee Harvey Oswald was almost certainly a lonely drifter acting alone. The tragedies of 9/11 and the 10th Arrondissement show that relatively small bands of dysfunctional fanatics can bring about cataclysmic events.
Conspiracy theories are second nature to humans. They are an understandable cognitive response to things that we see and experience. We are sense-making animals. We instinctively seek out patterns. We join the dots and create the big picture. The desire to see patterns and coherent stories in random events explains numerous thought distortions.
During the Blitz, the authorities charged with protecting London from the Luftwaffe, and later the doodlebugs, planned their response according to a sophisticated pattern that they observed in the enemies bombing raids. In fact there was no pattern. The bombing raids were random and even haphazard. But once we believe that we have decoded a pattern, our belief in it becomes unshakeable.
A similar example of the unshakeable belief in patterns comes from the idea of the ‘hot-hand’ in basketball. According to the hot hand theory, a player who has just had success with a shot is more likely to experience success with a following shot. It’s a kind of winning streak. Coaches plan whole strategies around attempts to neutralize the player with the hot hand. If there is anything in it, it should be fairly easy to show with empirical data. It would be clear to see where the clusters of success occur. Researchers Thomas Gilovich and Amos Tversky set about testing this. The research paper is called, “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences.” And guess what? No hot hand! It’s entirely random. But what is particularly eye-opening is the reaction of many coaches towards this study. Far from being grateful for the insights of the researchers, many acted with hostility and refused to change their belief.
When something undesirable happens at work, your mind seeks to explain it by looking for a pattern or a theme. It seeks to make the incident mean something either about you or about the world in general. This is one of the ways in which the toxic effects of incidents become amplified. That relatively small incident affects you more than you feel it should, because the unconscious processing part of your mind is looking to give it greater meaning. It is asking whether this is part of a consistent story or theme for which you should be wary.
If you suffer a rejection, for example, your mind looks to makes sense of the incident by connecting up with similar incidents that you have experienced. It is as if your mind puts the word ‘rejection’ into its search engine and spins you out a Google page of similar incidents. It’s hardly surprising that your way of looking at the thing becomes distorted.
Your state of mind is largely determined by what you pay attention to. To illustrate the point, try this experiment. (You can try it out right now.) Glance up now at your surroundings. It might be a landscape, room-scape or street-scape. Take it in, just in an ordinary and neutral way. Now look away for a moment (you can close your eyes or just look down) and imagine that you see the colour red with extra vibrancy. You notice it more. Red cuts through everything else… It screams to be noticed. Now look at your surroundings again, noticing the red. The scene will now seem quite different to you. It is a dull scene punctuated by slashes of violent red. The visual story has changed.
Pay attention to successes, triumphs and moments of joy, no matter how tiny. You will soon notice how the terrain of your journey seems very different.