Can brain science help change our unruly nature in the Age of Conspiracy?
When times are uncertain, we are eager to find meaning. We find comfort in thinking we are in the know.
As a species, we are imaginative beings with a wide range of capacities to interpret information. But, repetition of falsities can compromise us—especially when we are in a place of fear and uncertainty. Like right now.
Social and mass media serves up a lot of hype. Conspiracy theories spread like wildfire, and the more we hear them, the more convinced we become. As Laura Byrum puts it, “repetition effectively leapfrogs the cognitive portions of the brain.” This leads to buy-in on claims presented by clever marketers who know how to tell a powerful digital story.
Why Are Our Brains So Unruly?
Research has shown that by nature, we are prone to quick judgments based on raw emotions, not facts. Fear and conspiracy marketing triggers physiological symptoms. Dr. Gary Small suggests that when we are excited and scared, we tend to hyperventilate, causing lower carbon dioxide levels.
Dr. Linda Elder and the late Dr. Richard Paul assert that we do not naturally appreciate the views of others, nor the limits to our own points of view. We believe in our intuitive perceptions and use self-centered measures to decide what to believe or reject.
Elder and Paul name egocentric and sociocentric thinking as culprits and suggest that we commonly accept things as true for the following reasons:
- Because I believe it
- Because we believe it
- Because I want to believe it
- Because I have always believed it
- It’s in my selfish interest to believe it
Use Critical Thinking to Stop Playing Cognitive Leapfrog
Many scholars have long warned of the critical nature of critical thinking skills to avoid the fallacies overloading our brains on the daily. The word fallacy originates from the Latin fallacia, meaning “to deceive.”
Critical thinking skills aren’t called “critical” without good reason. They help us avoid being pulled into the collective cognitive leapfrog and instead engage in disciplined thinking. These skills are based on intellectual standards of clarity, accuracy, relevance, precision, breadth, depth, logic, significance, consistency, fairness, completeness, and reasonability. They seem to be missing in action in this brouhaha of expedience, superficial, snake-oily, polarization we find ourselves in.
We can tame our leaping reflexes and move beyond impulses to believe what we want to believe. The discipline helps us move closer to clarity and accuracy. We can cultivate the skills we need to raise questions about what we’re being sold, gather and interpret information, arrive at well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, and think more open-mindedly. This doesn’t happen in three easy steps. It requires collective effort to keep our brains from wanting to invite everyone we know to play leapfrog before we’ve had time to rethink the consequences of the game.
Use Intellectual Values to Combat Mass Hype
Elder and Paul’s Thinker’s Guide Library highlights steps we can take to become more accomplished thinkers who demonstrate these core values:
- Intellectual humility versus arrogance
- Intellectual courage versus cowardice
- Intellectual empathy versus narrow-mindedness
- Intellectual autonomy versus conformity
- Intellectual integrity versus hypocrisy
- Intellectual perseverance versus laziness
- Confidence in reason versus distrust of reason and evidence
- Fair-mindedness versus unfairness
Become a Skeptimist
In my own research, I coined a term to help us resist the primitive bait of our brains and instead become more measured. I call this the “skeptimistic mindset”—one that blends the traits of a skeptic and optimist. Our skeptical side sees through the hype, and asks important questions, like:
- Who says so? What wisdom, experience, and expertise do they have? It is based on evidence?
- Why? What is their underlying agenda or motivation?
- What lens is represented in their assertions? Is it comprehensive enough or built on narrow and agenda-based thinking?
- Are there alternative views to consider? What else needs to be discovered or taken into account?
Our optimistic side knows that modern brain science emphasizes our tremendous capacities to refine thinking and resist primitive instincts. This optimistic mindset believes we can find answers and knows that since life is rich with mystery and ambiguity, we can’t expect a single source to provide our definitive formula. It is diligent in making integrative discoveries-one that blend evidence-based wisdom from a wide range of disciplines and modalities to make informed decisions.
Move From Fear to Critical Thinking to Protect Your Well-Being
The fears of the pandemic and are world are wreaking havoc on our mental health. Conspiracy theories and severe polarization are doing nothing to help. They are taking collective angst to an alarming level of overwhelm and agitation. To avoid fear on fear, here are some considerations to retrain your brain towards critical thinking to help elevate your own well-being, and those you influence.
- Have I been swept in the collective game of leapfrog happening writ large? Am I relying solely on one data source?
- What resources do I have that help me avoid narrow ideologies? Is there anyone with whom I can join forces?
- Of the reasons that Drs. Elder and Paul say we tend to believe things, which ones do I typically fall into (e.g., It’s true because I believe it, we believe it, I want to believe it)?
- What steps can I take to go beyond my first instincts to believe something?
- Which intellectual value(s) do I already demonstrate? Which one(s) do I need to work on the most?
- In which areas do I need to be more skeptical? More optimistic?
How Might I Use This as Momentum to Be Well and Do Well?
Fear is creating unnecessary hype and fighting, preventing us from the kind of solutioning we are capable of doing as a species. We have the resources to reimagine responses to fear. We do not have to be at the mercy of today’s Age of Conspiracy. We can become critical thinkers who do not rush to conclusions, taking the time to evaluate what is being sold. The marker of any good inquiry is more questions, not narrow, one-sided answers. To thrive as a species, we need to demonstrate the kind of values that blow the whistle on collective leapfrogging and harness our resources to maneuver our fears thoughtfully and consciously. The quality, and sustainability of our lives depend on it.
Lee, K. (2017). Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking-Learn What it Takes to be More Agile, Mindful and Connected in Today’s World. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Books.
Paul, R., Elder, L. (2008). The Thinkers Guide to Fallacies: The Art of Mental Trickery and Manipulation. Tomales, CA:Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.