Part of the reason I am troubled by conspiracy theories is because they are so reductive. They take a complex, explosive, and almost always tragic event (otherwise, no one would be paying any attention to it) and cram it into a template that “proves” it was a premeditated crime, coldly committed by members of a group that has a secret plan to take over the world.
[pullquote align=”right”]Egocentricity, pedantry, paranoia, religious preoccupations, and angry outbursts—typical attributes of demagogic race baiters and political extremists—are also symptoms of temporal lobe damage.[/pullquote]In an earlier article, I wondered whether global hatreds of the sort that give birth to conspiracy theories might not have organic origins. Paranoid ideation is associated with diseases like schizophrenia and dementia; sometimes it is observed in people who have suffered brain traumas. Egocentricity, pedantry, paranoia, religious preoccupations, and angry outbursts—typical attributes of demagogic race baiters and political extremists—are also symptoms of temporal lobe damage.
According to G. Edward Griffin’s The Life and Words of Robert Welch, Welch’s skull was fractured in an automobile crash in 1935—and not for the first time. Several years earlier he’d been struck by a car. “The impact was so great,” Griffin related, “that Robert was flipped completely over the hood of the car, onto the paved street in front, and wound up with a skull fracture. True to form, however, he didn’t lose a single day’s work.” As admirable as his work ethic was, Welch was also notable for his conspiratorial world view and for founding the John Birch Society. A couple of decades later, he would accuse President Eisenhower of being a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Coincidence? Absent an autopsy report on his brain, we’ll never know.
[pullquote align=”left”]Of course Larking’s brain injury can’t account for Tsarnaev’s susceptibility to his hateful ideas—or for his proclivity for mass murder. To continue too far along this road of speculation is to be as reductive as a conspiracy theorist.[/pullquote]For a more topical example, last month the Wall Street Journal published an article with the headline “Boston Bombing Suspect Was Steeped in Conspiracies.” That the Tsarnaev brothers were influenced by a Chechen variety of Islamic radicalism and that they built their pressure cooker bombs according to specs from an Al Qaeda publication have been widely reported. They were said to listen to Alex Jones’s radio show (Jones is a conspiracy theorist); Dzhokhar marked the 11th anniversary of 9/11 by Tweeting that it had been “an inside job.” But the WSJ article was about Tamerlan’s relationship with an elderly American who had hired his mother as a home health aide. Forty years ago, he had been shot in the face during a convenience store robbery.
Tamerlan and Donald Larking “became friends and had animated talks about politics, people close to the Larking family said.” Larking also lent Tamerlan his racist, anti-Semitic, far-right magazines. Of course Larking’s brain injury can’t account for Tsarnaev’s susceptibility to his hateful ideas—or for his proclivity for mass murder. To continue too far along this road of speculation is to be as reductive as a conspiracy theorist. Unless people are clearly incapacitated, they bear moral responsibility for their ideas and actions.
But insofar as we are human, our biology and our beliefs are inextricably interdependent. Most of the judgments we make in daily life—especially about things such as which strangers we are going to trust or distrust, what we are going to be afraid of—are instantaneous and emotionally colored. As the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown, we make them by using heuristics, mental shortcuts. Strangers who look and speak like us are good. Strangers who look and speak differently from us are bad.
‘Suspicious, violent, libidinous, selfish, and greedy’
The University of Chicago political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood have noted that conspiracy theories turn on a set of heuristics that allow people to process complicated information in a way that feels intuitive and emotionally satisfying. Though as many as half of Americans endorse one conspiracy theory or another, the people who are most inclined toward conspiracism, they found, don’t have a lot of political information (statistically, they tend to get their news from partisan sources); also they are prone to “magical thinking” and “Manichaeism” (in other words, they tend to be superstitious and see things strictly in shades of black and white).
Human beings are driven by the instincts of self-preservation and the need to acquire food and to perpetuate their genes. At a preconscious, limbic level, we are all predisposed to be suspicious, violent, libidinous, selfish, and greedy. But at the same time, we are social creatures: We live in groups, and so we are also driven by instincts that help us preserve, feed, and perpetuate our social units. Being human entails living in and with a number of competing and cooperating coalitions—family, race, community, nation. Altruism, empathy, and generosity are as deeply rooted in us as hatred is.
[pullquote align=”left”]There is substantial evidence that the human brain can rewire, even on time scales as short as a few days. I am not trying to be Pollyanna-ish about the existence of racism or hate groups, but I think the good news of the research I have done is that there is far more flexibility and permeability to some of these political conflicts than is often assumed.[/pullquote]“To the brain, race is just another coalition,” the political scientist Darren Schreiber, a lecturer at the University of Exeter and a pioneer in neuropolitics, contends. But brains aren’t machines; some are very different from others. “Consider the evidence of how people with atypical brains (Williams Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, borderline personality disorder, even alcohol impairment) react differently when approaching issues of race,” Schreiber wrote me in an email. “For instance, people with Williams tend to think ‘there are no strangers, only friends’ and thus are impaired in their ability to invoke racial stereotypes (but handle gender stereotypes just fine). People with ASD can make stereotypes, but have difficulty with theory of mind activities, so I would predict impairments with ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ types of calculations. People with borderline personality disorder have a tendency to over-categorize people, especially into friend/enemy dichotomies and have been shown to have exacerbated stereotypes.”
“Truly complex computational problems are often most efficiently solved by simple heuristics,” he adds. “So while ‘vote Republican’ is a ridiculously simplistic approach to an immensely complex phenomenon like national politics, it might be sufficiently accurate for many occasions. The trick, of course, is to develop the right reflexes (e.g., shooting when someone is drawing a gun on you), rather than the wrong heuristics (e.g., ‘shoot black people’). And it is also important to have the ability to recognize situations where the reflex or heuristic should be overridden by more in-depth processing with reflective mental tools.”
[pullquote align=”right”]To a certain degree, we are wired to identify enemies and hate them; on a very basic level, we prefer simple stories with obvious morals to complex and open-ended ones. But to an even greater degree, we are wired not to hate, to accept ambivalence and embrace complexity.[/pullquote]I began this series with the story of Derek Black, the second-generation white nationalist who renounced his father’s racism. People’s beliefs are influenced by their upbringing, their social milieu, and their education, of course, but also by their instincts, their individual cognitive styles, and even by anomalies or injuries to their brains. But change is not only possible; it is part and parcel of being human.
“On the subject of ‘rewiring,’” Schreiber said, “we are hardwired not to be hardwired. We have a variety of neural, genetic, and cognitive/cultural mechanisms that have evolved to give us tremendous flexibility in the responses that we can choose from. As a consequence, we appear to have far more epigenetic flexibility (i.e., possibility for changes in gene expression due to changes in environmental conditions) and vastly more social learning capacity than our close primate cousins, the chimpanzee. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that the human brain can rewire, even on time scales as short as a few days. I am not trying to be Pollyanna-ish about the existence of racism or hate groups, but I think the good news of the research I have done is that there is far more flexibility and permeability to some of these political conflicts than is often assumed. The challenge is to (1) decrease the value that comes from the problematic stereotypes, and (2) find replacement heuristics and reflexes that serve the underlying values more directly.”
To a certain degree, we are wired to identify enemies and hate them; on a very basic level, we prefer simple stories with obvious morals to complex and open-ended ones. But to an even greater degree, we are wired not to hate, to accept ambivalence and embrace complexity.
Being human gives us much reason to hope.