The previous essay was titled ‘Explanation: Conspiracy Stories and Theory of Mind.’ My interest in conspiracy stories was piqued by reading a newspaper account of wildfire conspiracy theories and almost simultaneously reading an essay on the science of extreme wildfires. These are two completely different types of explanation. Fire science resonated in my mind, the conspiracy stories did not. I found them to be fantastic exudations of minds that I did not understand. From that is was only a short step to trying to explain them, for I was currently writing my first essay on explanation.[efn_note]http://jackofafewtrades.com/2018/12/explaining-an-explanation.[/efn_note]
In the previous essay on explanation[efn_note]http://jackofafewtrades.com/2019/01/explanation-conspiracy-stories-and-theory-of-mind[/efn_note] I explained conspiracy stories in terms of theory of mind and agency. The basis of our theory of mind is the understanding that individuals around and affecting us are agents, “capable of initiating an action”[efn_note]Barbara Ehrenreich[/efn_note] to satisfy their needs, drives, and motivations. I expanded the theory of mind, noting that we frequently explain the unknown and inanimate in terms of agency, extending human attributes into imaginary beings with super-human morphology and powers. They appear basically human but different, even fantastically so, live in an adjacent invisible ecology, and have extraordinary emotions, motivations, and powers that are extensions of ours. They are alive, and being alive implies that they can do things, and can interact with our world, causing events for which we otherwise cannot discern a cause. Agency is used to explain a wide variety of natural events. Imputing agency is a cognitive bias. It is one way that our minds work.
This is a perfect place to insert a note that has been on my mind for some time: I over-generalize. I do not insert various qualifications that could be included. For example, the last sentence of the previous paragraph reads “it is one way that our minds work.” It could be “it is one way that some minds work,” implying that not all minds work that way, mine certainly does not.[efn_note]See my Hierarchy of Explanation in the Afterwords, below for ‘how my mind works.’[/efn_note] But that expression dilutes what I want to express. It is tempting to place conspiracists in a different psychological category, to examine and study them as unusual thereby viewing them ethnographically – as members of an odd tribe with psychological deficits and thereby worthy of study. I want to make a strong case, placing conspiracists within normal human behavior but in the extraordinary social environment of civilization. So, I write of our attributes, motivations, needs, and behaviors in the aggregate, as if we possess them equally, when in fact they are distributed among individuals in frequency and intensity. Temperament varies between individuals and within an individual through time and experience – path dependency, once again.
A theory of mind and agency does not necessarily entail suspicious, dangerous and fearsome agents. They can just as well be delightful and fun as is explaining thunder as giants bowling in the sky. The attributed temperament of the agent is a function of the perception to be explained, and the temperament of the generating mind, for example a suspicious mind suspecting danger will tend to generate dangerous agents.
Why does our theory of mind generate danger, fear and suspicion stories? Why are they so attractive, contagious, tenacious, and difficult to eradicate? Are conspiracy stories and explanations the product of a deranged mind or of a human mind in a deranged society? Why are our minds both suspicious and credulous? Why and when do our BS detectors fail? Why, in this one small portion of our mental world, is the discipline of reality inactive? Can it be that there is no need to apply Occam’s Razor, that is, there is no immediate danger and survival need, but that there is a longer-term survival need: the knowledge of agents of danger? Our brains are dealing with more important things than applying a razor to our perceptions and mental models. With these questions I move from the psychology of conspiracy to its sociology and from the individual to the collective mind. I posit that conspiracy stories are a cognitive bias in some minds, easy to engender and difficult to dissipate, but that there are deeper reasons for the bias to be found in the temperament of the individual minds and the needs of a social group.
In this essay I offer a sociological explanation of conspiracy stories based upon the needs of an intelligent, ground dwelling, prey, social species, specifically, H. sapiens. We, a social species, have an evolutionary sociological history, a path dependency at our sociological level. Our brains have been optimized over the course of that history for living in small social groups[efn_note]http://jackofafewtrades.com/2018/12/tribe-and-territory/[/efn_note] in a dangerous ecology – the mixed open grass and wood lands of the African savannah, home of herbivore herds and hungry carnivore predators. We are omnivores, suspended between those poles of prey and predator and, lacking any significant defensive or offensive weapons and muscularly weak, we were more prey than predator. We are now more predator than prey. We retain the morphology and physiology of prey, and have overlaid them with a cultural accumulation of technical – that is, not biological – weapons of the predator. From prey to predator is an astonishing evolutionary narrative arc and it has significant consequences. I posit that we also retain some of the sociology and psychology of a prey social species, specifically, danger perception and response mechanisms. I will subsume conspiracy under the intersection of theory of mind and perception of danger, connecting psychology with sociology. I will suggest a connection between our social group needs and dynamics, and the individual response: psychology and temperament.
Psychology and Sociology of Conspiracy
I first thought that I did not know enough about the psychology of the conspiracist so I set out to learn a bit and found this:
“Belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group).”[efn_note]https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0963721417718261[/efn_note] That is straight psychology, locating conspiracy theories in the individual mind.
The Western intellectual and Christian religious canons have conceptualized survival and evolution, and salvation as occurring at the individual level which gives priority to psychology. The explanations of fire conspiracists focus upon their psychology. I want to focus on the sociology of conspiracy and suggest that there are sociological explanations underlying the psychology of conspiracists and, in particular, that there is a more interesting and important social function than “maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group.” I suggest this simplified rubric:
We over-psychologize and under-sociologize human emotions and behaviors.
In the previous essay, I introduced the concept of temperament: a relatively fixed set of mental and emotional attributes that define major elements of a personality. For example:
At 16 Christopher Scaife, The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, was one misdeed away from jail. He joined the British Army. Based upon his test scores, the army offered him a technical specialty but he chose the infantry. Why? In his own words “I just wanted to learn to fire a gun and be a soldier and get on with it.” At the end of 24+ years of military service Chris wrote “Being in the army is a strange life, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. In the army you work together, you live together, you grieve together, you celebrate together. The army was my family.”
John Bain enlisted in the British army in 1940, early in World War II, and hated it. He was a champion middle-weight boxer with several titles, but he was unsoldierly. He described himself as “impractical, unpunctual, and clumsy.” He regarded his training as “grinding tedium, …discomfort, humiliation, frustration, and boredom.” Whereas Scaife, having a soldierly temperament, was a soldier, Bain, with a different temperament could not be one and thus the army was not family. He deserted, three times.[efn_note]Glass, Charles, The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, ISBN 978-1-59420-428-9[/efn_note]
John Keegan wrote, “I am tempted, after a lifetime’s acquaintance with the British army, to argue that some men can be nothing but soldiers.”[efn_note]Keegan, John, A History of Warfare, ISBN 0-394-58801-0, p. xvi, 226[/efn_note] I would make the same argument based upon my reading of first-person narratives of special forces soldiers. So often they wrote that in the midst of a firefight they were doing exactly what they should be doing and could not want to be doing something else. Their rewards, while personal, are also sociological, that is, derived from interactions with other soldiers yielding individual social capital: belonging to a group with military values, discipline, competition for endurance and competence, mutual admiration for the possession of these values, and contempt for those who do not possess them and are thus softer. The core value of these men is the group within which these values are recognized, and for whom they would cheerfully die.
I do not know soldiers but I have been in firehouses and met firemen, talked with them. If I had to use minimal words to describe them, I would first say competence. They, like soldiers, know what to do in circumstances that would drive most individuals into gibbering fear. Second is that they are personally and professionally protective. They face danger to save lives and property thus extending care outward. Third, they are very social and sociable.
I’ll suggest an alliteration for soldiers, firemen and policemen: the measure of the man is mutual. The point is that the motives of the soldier, the fireman and the policeman are personal and psychological, but the measure is sociological. Status within the group is the measure of the self.
‘Alice’ is a slightly built woman. She came out of a southern military family. Her father was career US Army, her step-father is Special Forces. She was studying Occupational Therapy in college when the World Trade Center was destroyed. At the end of the semester she enlisted in the Coast Guard because she wanted to “be of service” – to make a difference. She had the temperament required to be of service and it was activated by a tragic event that generated her perception that the social group needed her service.
In the previous essay I suggested that conspiracists exhibit a temperament comprised of the perception of danger and/or deception, a fear reaction, and suspicion. Temperament is a fascinating subject that I have barely scratched but let’s set it aside while I develop another leg of my ‘mental stool:’ danger.
About 20 years ago, I was perched on top of a 10 ft. ladder fixing a light high up in a pergola in a public park. The pergola and the walkway lighting were constructed from large diameter wood power poles. There were no walls – it was completely open on all sides. I could see down the walk leading from a gate to the adjacent middle-class subdivision. I noticed a young mother with baby in a stroller and an active son about 4 years old approaching. The boy ran ahead of his mother to play hide and seek around one of the light poles. She detonated, out of control, screeching “Don’t you ever go where I cannot see you.” On and one she went. I felt sorry for the young ‘un. He was only trying to play. Out of her fear, she downloaded a truck load of anger upon him. He was crushed.
I got to thinking about this, wondering from whence this high level of fear. Was she afraid that something would happen to him while he was behind the pole even though she was only 10 feet away? I was of no danger being some distance away and high up the ladder. There was no one else around on this sunny morning in a park in a safe middle-class neighborhood. Did she fear that there might be a malefactor hiding behind another pole and waiting to snatch and abuse her son?
She had a hyper-activated sense of danger and was protecting her son. Her anger was at his hiding behind a post where she could not protect him. It was at the same time a method of controlling his behavior to reduce her sense of danger and fear.
After a bit of thought I said “the news, that is where it comes from.” The daily news, print or TV, this was before the Internet took off, is saturated with danger and fear stories of crime, accidents, fires, disasters, child snatching and molestation.
It made no difference that she lived in a safe neighborhood, she knew that danger lurked everywhere. Her perception of the world was formed out of her information sources. Those excitement and danger, etc., stories in the news media are selected to attract our attention long enough to persist into the commercials. As the aura of excitement and danger dissipates at the end of the story, we watch the beginning of the commercial long enough that it too captures our attention. The stories deliver us to the commercial with the intent of persuading us to buy to support the cost of advertising to support the cost of the communications channel. We are essentially unintentional experimental animals in the money-making world of mass communication. The cost is hyper-activation of our danger and alert systems.
There is another source of hyper-activation of danger systems to be found in the inception and structure of civilization itself and in our current inter- and intra-national political systems generating a heightened perception of danger. A few years ago, I visited a friend in a neighboring state. He is a devotee of right-wing talk shows. At the invitation of his wife, I entered their house through the back door and proceeded through the kitchen into the living room. It was about 5 PM and George was watching a talk show on TV. It took him some time to transfer his attention from the show to me. He jumped up, and started shouting at me parroting the talk show host. He was so angry that he was literally foaming at the mouth and some spittle landed on my shirt. This is an example of the deliberate generation of anger for a specific purpose, in this case, votes for a political agenda, donations also.
Danger is used at the other end of the political continuum. Liberals have seized upon a host of environmental issues from global warming to plastic trash in the oceans, from resource depletion to desertification, and from emerging zoonoses to resurging old diseases. Unrestrained consumption has led us to the brink of disaster. The future is dangerous and we must do something today to ameliorate that danger. The unstated subtext is that we must consume less and live more virtuous lives of increasing poverty.
We are surrounded with the chattering class propounding danger, arousing anger to fuel activism, generate support and votes, and raise money. The news is an unplanned experiment in the formation of danger to change sociology. The use of communication channels for political ends are deliberate manipulation of the individual to sum altered psychology into altered sociology. No wonder the lady was fearful and angry, and George spat upon me. We, or at least some of us, fearfully live in the safest society in history. We are unsane.
About the same time as the pergola story, I passed through our local supermarket and noticed the article titles on the magazines on display in the check out aisles. My attention was caught by the variety of food fear articles. Don’t eat this, it will make you ill, cause heart attacks and strokes. It will make you fat and unattractive. Food has become dangerous. I asked myself, what are the authors of those stories doing? They are sentinels pedaling danger and fear to the social group. This is a very essential function for a prey species in the open grass lands of the savannah.
Most animals spend a significant amount of time resting. If they are prey animals, then resting time is also danger time for they are more vulnerable than while moving. A social species will frequently have a sentinel keeping watch over the group. This is done despite the exposure of the sentinel to higher danger of detection by a predator. Protection of the group and its members is a powerful motivation.
We, H. sapiens, are both prey and predator – but ab initio more prey than predator. We have no significant weapons. No long sharp canines. No powerful claws. We have sacrificed muscular strength for brain power. Compared to chimpanzees and bonobos, which are minor predators on smaller monkeys, we are weaklings, larger and heavier but weaker. We morphed into the top predator only recently using cultural innovations, and we retain the complex of prey behaviors. Agency and fear stories resonate in prey minds, they get our attention, they are a cognitive bias.
The fire conspiracies, like the giants bowling in the sky, are agency stories. Unlike the thunder stories of giants bowling in the skies which are comfort stories, the fire stories are agency plus fear stories. The link between agency and fear stories lies in our evolutionary history. Our closest primate relatives still sleep in trees where they are safer at night from their predators. We descended from the trees and left the forest to dwell on the savannah grasslands with a very much higher exposure to predators. We sleep on the ground rather than in the trees. Danger must be ever on our minds. The perception of invisible fearful and dangerous agents bent on doing harm or evil generates suspicion which is related to vigilance – keeping an eye out.
There is another tie between agency and fear that is expressed in our stories. Many fear stories are also escape and victory stories. At the end of many of our scary stories told around the campfire, we triumph over the agents of danger, fear and evil, escaping their clutches. Our escape stories are a verbal stotting, taunting the predatory danger with “you can’t catch me.” The experience of victory is short lived. Fear, once generated via an agency fear story is hard to dissipate. In the previous essay I related the ‘Jim story.’ He told me several times “personally, I don’t think there is a God, but I keep one foot in the door just in case.” He lived with a fear story that he could not get rid of. The stakes were too high.
A major element of protection of the group is the detection of danger and warning the social group. This is the sentinel function, an essential element of the sociology of social groups. This is frequently expressed in late adolescence and in particular in the warrior personality. I place conspiracists and their stories within that function: they are our sentinels, descrying danger, crying the alarm, calling out the warrior, and protecting the group. Their temperament, suspicion and a heightened perception of danger coupled through their theory of mind, devised a story about a perceived danger that explained the danger as the operation of agents of evil.
The Savior and the Hero
I was doing some electrical work in a fire station and the firemen were discussing a recent tragedy. An off-duty public safety officer, I forget whether he was fireman or police office, saw a teenager running through the parking lot chased by a security officer. He reached into his glove compartment, pulled out a pistol and shot the kid. I made some comment about having a gun in the car and a fireman said that I would be surprised at how many firemen had guns in their cars. He was seconded by at least two other firemen who had guns in their glove boxes.
I got to thinking about this event. I could hear the officer telling himself heroic self- and social group-protection stories in which at exactly the right moment he used his gun to be a public hero,
to right a wrong, to protect self and group, and thereby to be worthy of emulation. In the heat of the moment, he played out his fantasy in reality and a kid died. The officer was judge, jury and executioner rolled into one. The officer is in jail, a double tragedy based upon the desire to do right, to be protective – to be the savior.
We were, on that African savannah, and still are in many aspects of our psychology and sociology a prey social species with needs for warnings of danger the sentinel, and for group protection the warrior. In a group are individuals with a variety of temperaments comprised of their genetics, epigenetics, and their individual experiences and motivations. The temperament of some of them will dispose them to take up and fulfill one of the social functions, sentinel or warrior, necessary for the survival of the group. On the savannah the ecological dangers were immediate and real predators plus other ecological constraints such as availability of water and food. In civilization the dangers may be real enemies, but civilization generates its own dangers, and quite often the social control agents and various political processes will hype danger for their own purposes.
The perception of danger – real or hyped – together with a theory of mind will generate imaginary agents of danger – conspiracy stories. An individual with a suitable temperament for the sentinel or warrior and thus a heightened perception of those social needs, in an environment of real, hyped or imaginary danger, may devise an imaginary danger and fear agency story – a conspiracy theory – thus placing himself at the center of perception of danger, alerting the social group, and preparing for defense, a function that will be performed by the warrior.
Our brains were formed and forged within the ambit of a social group and the individual is a transient therein. It is the group that survives through time so I am less interested in the psychology of conspiracists than in their sociology thus prioritizing thinking about the functionality of groups – how they work and how they form individuals into functional units. At one time I conceptualized sociology as a summation of individual psychologies. I can now reverse this into: sociology is the scaffold upon individual psychology and temperament is constructed and within which it operates. Psychology and sociology are mutual, but I will elevate sociology over psychology as more fundamental and powerful. The individual must operate within the group for survival is in cooperation. To be outside the group, outside cooperation, is to die with the loss of those genes demanding reproduction.
For a technical article on the psychology of conspiracy:
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0963721417718261 I am intrigued by one of the motives ascribed to a conspiracy theorist: “maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group.” I find at least some of them to be quite happy outside of the mainstream and thinking of themselves as more informed if not more intelligent. They contemn mainstreamers as dupes and sheeple thereby displaying their superiority over the ignorant many.
Many more years ago than I want to think about, I wrote a note that urban gangs exhibited primitive small-scale group dynamics. I thought of them as foraging hunter gatherers extracting resources from sources around them. They exhibit strong group identity and protections, dominance structure, loyalty, and other tribal behaviors such as territoriality. That is sociology rather than psychology. Even then, maybe 20 years ago, I was reaching beyond individual ‘deviant behavior’ to the social group dynamics – the sociology – of a social species that produces those individuals.
If I were to be asked, what would I say about my temperament? I am not a conspiracist, although I could be and nearly did become one while looking at the books on the assassination of President Kennedy. Unlike Christopher Scaife and more like John Bain, I would not make a good soldier, policeman or a fireman. Unlike my former neighbor lady, I did not respond to the destruction of the World Trade Towers with the desire to be of service to the nation. I did something else, something quite different. I said to myself, how did we acquire such an enemy? I need to understand, to be able to explain, that terrible event. I am a ‘splainer. That is the temper of my mind.
Conspiracists are ‘splainers too, but of a very different temper of mind – the sentinel. Their social function is the detection of danger, both internal and external, and to sound the alarm for the warrior to take up arms. My function is to explain danger, to descry the source, the story behind the danger, and to evangelize for that story not to sound the alarm and gather warriors. In that process I find better stories than conspiracy theories.
My brain uses some basic and simple principles to construct explanatory stories. I animalize human behavior, that is, seek to place it within the continuum of animal minds, emotions, and behaviors, trying to find what is common and what is exceptional. Likewise, I anthropomorphize animal behavior trying to find common patterns from our known behavior that illuminate patterns in another animal. Here is the first draft of my Hierarchy of Explanation:
Common biological substrate
Evolutionary history, which generates:
Species specific biological substrates
What resources do we require?
How we make our living in a given ecology.
What are the common animal, mammal, primate, and great ape attributes?
How and why do we differ?
What behavioral suites are available – what is possible and what is impossible?
What behavioral suites are typically expressed? Which are inhibited?
What behavioral controls exists? What triggers a different suite of behaviors?
What is typical sociology of species? What is atypical but possible? What is impossible?
What are side effects of atypical sociology?
What is typical and atypical psychology?
How does individual psychology relate to group sociology?
I’ll leave it unedited and as I first wrote it – to illustrate the temper of my mind and to provide topics for future essays. (Sorry about the formatting – it didn’t turn very well. WordPress appears to insert a space with a return. I’ve more to learn.)
There are no super-human agents, no gods, Final Causes etc., in my Hierarchy of Explanation. Occam’s Razor has cut clean. Chris Scaife, the Ravenmaster, wrote, “In learning about the ravens, I have learned a lot about what it means to be a human. I’ve learned to listen, to observe, and to be still. The ravens have been my teacher and I have been their pupil.” Has anyone, anywhere, said it better? This is the foundation of scientia and of science – of knowledge: listen, observe, and be still. And shave closely, cutting clean the fantastic exudations of theory of mind.
‘Alice’ served four years enlistment in the Coast Guard, then graduated from college in Occupational Therapy. During her active reserve, the Coast Guard sent her to Officer’s Candidate School where she graduated at the top of her class. The Coast Guard asked her to return to active service as an officer and she accepted. She has been promoted ahead of others in her class and I asked her if she is in line for a command. She didn’t quite say yes, but I think she cheerfully anticipates future promotions. She moved to Wisconsin in August because she needed fresh water experience. She arrived just in time for one of the harshest winters in recent history. She is getting that experience while being of service, doing her duty, and making a difference. Getting cold, too. I admire her.
My spittle spattering sputtering angry friend George, has suffered a complete cognitive capture and can talk of little other than what he hears on the talk shows. Rex said in some exasperation “who cares about George?” That comment downgraded George to acquaintance and I too realized that I no longer cared much about him.
I’ll return to Christopher Scaife and his book, The Ravenmaster, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in human and bird temperaments. Chris’s military family was ad hoc, individuals of similar temperaments gathered together by chance, yet they formed a family. Look at his list: we worked, lived, grieved, and celebrated together. They would die for each other. This is altruism and carinance.[efn_note]I devised the neologism carinance – care in all its various forms – as a counterweight for the precedence (dominance) of dominance in sociology and psychology. I like it. I will continue to use it.[/efn_note]
I am well aware that mathematically inclined evolutionary biologists proved that altruism cannot exist for long outside genetic relatedness. I think it is possible to observe that they are wrong and that their math only returned the reasoning that was built into their axioms and postulates, which are built upon the individualism of the Western canon, which was in turn built upon individual guilt and salvation, and evolutionary theory was founded upon the rock of individual survival which turned out to be sand. Their equations ‘proved’ what they already knew, that altruism and carinance are not an evolutionarily stable strategy, and that survival and fitness are individual: there is no group fitness or selection. And they were mightily pleased.
I build my model of survival upon the group within which we live; for our survival, particularly as youths, may depend upon others in the group – the sentinels and warriors. Individual survival depends critically on the summed temperaments, motivations, abilities and knowledge of the individuals in the group. To be outside the group is to be in greater danger of dying and of even higher importance, to lose the opportunity to reproduce. It is the group that transcends and survives through time any individual in the group. For a social species, fitness, whatever that is, let’s say ‘differential survival’, inheres in and is a property of group membership. Fitness derives from a relationship and is not an individual property. We are a social, not individual, species.