Conspiracies? Blame the Amygdala

Over at the New York Times, an article about the developing cognitive theory behind conspiracy theory:

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.

The problem is that such events leave people feeling powerless, and the resulting accelerated thought process will produce narratives that leave the thinker feeling more in control. Counterintuitively, one of the easiest ways to feel in control is paranoia. The belief that you have an understanding that the other guy doesn’t makes you feel empowered. So does the feeling that you’ve done all the research yourself and come to the truth, rather than relying on the so-called experts.

Throw in the usual logical fallacies that humans are prone to, like confirmation bias, genetic fallacies and red herrings, and you have all the ingredients you need to create contrived conspiracy theories. These theories give the believe a scapegoat and a frame of reference, but they have little connection to reality. These theories have real world impacts:

For example, research has shown that African-Americans who believe AIDS is a weapon loosed on them by the government (remembering the abuses of the Tuskegee experiment) are less likely to practice protected sex. And if you believe that governments or corporations are hiding evidence that vaccines harm children, you’re less likely to have your children vaccinated. The result: pockets of measles and whooping-cough infections and a few deaths in places with low child-vaccination rates.

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