Hatred, Conspiracy Theory, and the Human Brain

Hatred, Conspiracy Theory, and the Human BrainOdi et amo: I hate and I love, wrote the poet Catullus. Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior: I don’t know why, but I feel it happening and it tortures me.

Last month, I wrote about the brain’s so-called “hate circuit,” which isn’t a switch that turns hate on or off, but a set of brain structures that are activated when the emotion of hatred is stimulated. The scientists who identified it noted that many of the same structures are involved in romantic love, shedding light on Catullus’s quandary.

Neurologically speaking, however, there is one notable difference between the two emotions. When love is activated, large parts of the cerebral cortex that are associated with judgment and reasoning are turned off. When hatred predominates, a much smaller zone is deactivated. To put it less clinically, where love ends, thought begins.

If lovers suspend all judgment when they are in the throes of passion, haters think too much. As irrational as a disappointed lover’s hatred may be, he or she broods obsessively about past and future betrayals, while thinking up new ways to exact vengeance.

[pullquote align="left"]Conspiracy theorists often subscribe to more than one theory, even if they seemingly contradict each other.[/pullquote]Consider Shakespeare’s Othello. As madly in love with his wife as he was, it was a simple matter for Iago to transform his great passion into a “tyrannous hate.” And look at Iago, whose “motiveless Malignancy” appalled the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who speculated that his nature had been “distempered by a keen sense of his intellectual superiority, and haunted by the love of exerting power.”

Overthinking is not just a foible of stage villains. Intellectualism and hatred, as Coleridge saw it, are partners in crime—an idea that is also at the heart of Christianity, which pitted the redemptive power of compassion and love against the cold legalism of the Sanhedrin. “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge….but have not love, I am nothing,” wrote Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:2.

Hyper-intellectualism is a driver of extreme political movements, too, whose leaders keep their followers riled up by serving them a steady diet of paranoia-inducing conspiracy theories. By “conspiracy theories” I don’t mean the belief that terrible conspiracies exist (they obviously do), but the fiction that attributes all the world’s ills to the secret machinations of an identifiable foe: the Jews, the Templars, the Jesuits, the “bankers,” the blacks, patriarchy, whomever. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, wrote a 1,500-page manifesto that purported to expose the “alien system of beliefs, attitudes and values….that we have come to know as ‘Political Correctness.’” Its proponents, he said, included Islamists, Feminists, Frankfurt School Marxists, and multiculturalists of every stripe, all working together to bring about the collapse of the West.

[pullquote align="right"]None of this is to say that governments and other established authorities are always trustworthy. They’re not. But while conspiracy theorists claim to be skeptics, they vest far too much faith in their own superior knowledge; they impose their own narratives on events that defy simple explanations.[/pullquote]Conspiracy theorists often subscribe to more than one theory, even if they seemingly contradict each other. A person who believes that the U.S. government has been reverse-engineering the technology it recovered from a crashed flying saucer at Roswell in the 1940s might also believe that NASA faked the moon landing on a soundstage. A 9/11 Truther might indict the government for failing to shoot down the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, while at the same time deploring its callousness for supposedly shooting down Flight 93 over Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Some contradictions—for example, the idea that billionaires and Communists are secretly allied, a common feature of right-wing conspiratorial thinking since the 1920s—are reconciled by a higher, all-encompassing theory, in this case that the Jewish Elders of Zion are pulling the strings of both. But the bottom line for the conspiracist is that officialdom always lies, not that one alternative scenario or another is the truth.

In a famous 2011 study at the University of Kent in England, researchers found that students who believed that the government was covering up something about Osama bin Laden were as likely to give credence to the theory that he was already dead when the raid at his compound occurred as to the idea that he remains alive and well today.

None of this is to say that governments and other established authorities are always trustworthy. They’re not. But while conspiracy theorists claim to be skeptics, they vest far too much faith in their own superior knowledge; they impose their own narratives on events that defy simple explanations.

“Apophenia” is the psychological term for the tendency to see nonexistent patterns in random data; another word for it is “patternicity,” which was coined by the well-known skeptic Michael Shermer. Patternicity is a hallmark of conspiracy theory, as shown in this quote from Milton William Cooper’s conspiratorial classic Behold a Pale Horse: “The numbers 3, 7, 8, 11, 13, 39 and any multiple of these numbers have special meaning to the Illuminati…..The United States was born on July 4, 1776. July is the 7th month of the year. Add 7 (for July) and 4 and you have 11; 1 + 7 + 7 + 6 = 21, which is a multiple of 3 and 7. Add 2 + 1 and you get 3. Look at the numbers in 1776 and you see two 7s and a 6, which is a multiple of 3. Coincidence you say?”

[pullquote align="left"]All of us are primed to believe evidence that supports our prejudices and predispositions, even when they’re wrong and the evidence for them is dubious or contrived.[/pullquote]In its extreme manifestations, apophenia can be a symptom of a major mental illness, like schizophrenia. But Shermer argues that the human tendency to assign causality between events, even if mistakenly, might also confer evolutionary advantages, “as long as the occasional correct response carries a large fitness benefit.” Becoming alert for predators every time you hear leaves rustle turns out to be a great advantage the one time out of a hundred that a predator really is in the area. A study by scientists at Harvard University and the University of Helsinki, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, put his theory to the test and concluded that “behaviours which are, or appear, superstitious are an inevitable feature of adaptive behaviour in all organisms, including ourselves.”

All of us, in other words, are primed to believe evidence that supports our prejudices and predispositions, even when they’re wrong and the evidence for them is dubious or contrived. Othello killed Desdemona because of the “ocular proof” that Iago had arranged for him to see; genocides have been inspired by evidence that is even more tenuous than the numerological babble I quoted above. Fear and hatred can conspire to make us both more credulous and more confident than we should be.

Our ability to think systematically is at the heart of science and philosophy, and even plays a large role in the religions that claim to disdain it. It is what makes us human. But it can be a terrible thing when it is too closely allied to hatred—and when it is insufficiently alloyed with skepticism, humility, and tolerance.

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Arthur Goldwag is a writer whose books include The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah and -'Isms & -'Ologies: All the Movements, Ideologies and Doctrines That Have Shaped Our World. His most recent book, The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right, was published in 2012. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. (arthurgoldwag.wordpress.com)

3 Responses to “Hatred, Conspiracy Theory, and the Human Brain”

  1. Conspiracy Theory and the Brain, Part 2 | Arthur Goldwag

    […] is Part 2 of the 3 part series I am doing for Rewired.com. This installment is called “Hatred, […]

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  2. ernie1241

    If one thinks of conspiracy theory or political extremism in general as the product of an intellectual fever, one can more easily understand why it is that individuals who started out as political extremists on the left-side of the political spectrum, subsequently jumped across the ideological street to become political extremists on right-side of the political spectrum.

    Most of us probably think of a political spectrum only as a straight line with polar opposites at the far end of the right and left sides of the line, i.e. a very long distance.

    Instead, it may be more appropriate to think of a political spectrum as a horseshoe. At the top left side of the horseshoe is communism and other radical left ideologies and at the top right side of the horseshoe is fascism/nazism. And the bottom middle of the horseshoe is liberalism/conservatism with variations extending outward from each….To the left there is socialism. To the right…there is libertarianism.

    If you use this device, the two extremes almost touch each other (because they share many similarities, since, obviously, they are both totalitarian systems. AND this also explains why so many radicals on the left later became radicals on the right — because it is NOT a long arduous journey as would be suggested by the old straight-line showing polar opposites. Instead, on the horseshoe, it is a small jump across the street at the top of the shoe.

    If we think of radicalism as an intellectual fever which is contagious–it suddenly makes more sense (using the horseshoe concept) why it is that radicals (of the left and right) often have the same intellectual “infection” which (even when they change sides) continues when they migrate over to the other side.

    Taking two aspirin (i.e. exposing oneself to contradictory data) is not a remedy for this fever because the underlying intellectual problems which originally made persons susceptible to extremist ideology and its thought patterns has not been addressed.

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  3. Concocting Conspiracies as the World Burns | Collapse of Industrial Civilization

    […] Of course they do, but not all events are a government plot nor the handiwork of TPTB. It’s human nature to try to make sense of traumatic events and look for connections and patterns, very often where […]

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