WHY A PSYCHOLOGY GRADUATE STOLE A CAPITOL LECTERN
Conspiracy theorists, the Eureka Effect, and why your Political view is always right …
By Gaby FitzGerald
Ah. Trump. *sighs*
Although offensive to my own views in every sphere of life, Trumpism has brought a side of humanity to the forefront that most would like to forget exists, and it’s fascinating. The best way to summarise my consumption of news from over the pond during the last four years would be to compare it with the attitude I take to horror movies. I don’t want to look, but I can’t stop watching. The global community seems to echo the sentiment. But these phenomena have not been created by Trump, nor will they fade out of existence with his departure from office. So the question remains, why did this happen? What is it about our brains that leads to such a dangerous combination of unconditional belief in one ideology and intense emotional response to those who dare to exist with a differing opinion?
Although not representative of the entire population of Trump supporters, to do them due justice, we cannot talk about why the Capitol attack occurred without running smack bang into the garishly painted face and dubious headwear choices of QAnon. This particularly potent conspiracy theory places Trump at the centre of a deadly war against deep-state Satanist paedophiles. Our protagonist in this twisted tale is helped along his quest by the noble ‘Q’, who emerged on anonymous message boards around 2017, spinning a baseless tale of good and evil through riddles and clues. This tactic is the crux of QAnon’s ‘success’, for lack of a better word. Our collective love of conspiracy theories, in general, can be attributed to apophenia, a tendency to perceive a connection between unrelated items. Apophenia results in a term that many psychology students dread to hear, Type 1 errors. This describes the attribution of a false positive, the discovery of a pattern when none is there. And it’s not as counterintuitive as you might at first think. Evolutionarily, we’re much more likely to survive if we perceive danger and take unnecessary precautions than if we make a Type 2 error, fail to notice a pattern where one exists, and get eaten by the large animal to whom the footprints outside our cave belonged. It’s a phenomenon that Reed Berkowitz, a game designer with a penchant for creating alternate realities, sees all the time. He knows how to create ‘a game that plays people’, and he sees that in QAnon. Q provides the information, and guides the line of reasoning, and the players’ belief that there is a pattern to be uncovered does the rest. Their reasoning is not even illogical, but they are misguided in thinking that there is a solution.
...an attack on one’s political views may, to some extent, be processed by our brains as an attack on our psychological self.
Now, in the warm, welcoming arms of QAnon, arrival at their desired conclusion results in a showering of praise, but is this really enough to convince a previously un-converted person of Q’s omniscience? The answer lies deeper in our cognition. In fact, it lies in a bath, in ancient Greece. Now Archimedes may not have actually leapt out of his bath and exclaimed “Eureka!”, but it’s a lovely story to cut through the sour undertones of the current subject matter. Whatever the credibility of its origin story, the ‘Eureka Effect’ has come to describe a concrete psychological phenomenon. It occurs when we evaluate an unexpected or spontaneously generated idea, and come to the conclusion that it can be trusted. The current body of literature suggests that such ‘Eureka’ moments accompany arrival at the solution to problems, and even predict the accuracy of said solution, acting as a type of cognitive shortcut to the value of an insight. Further to this, a fascinating recent study by Laukkonen and colleagues (2020) demonstrated that participants were more likely to judge a statement to be true if their decision was accompanied by an artificially induced feeling of insight. And how was that feeling of insight created? By the participants solving an anagram. A riddle of sorts. Almost like … the type of content we find on QAnon messaging boards. Now although I’m not suggesting the conspiracy theorists in question have surpassed the scientific community’s understanding of cognition, they’ve certainly been able to exploit this particular heuristic.
So now we’ve used our psychological toolkit to nail down why one might trust an anonymous riddler in the first place. Why do the beliefs stick? And why is the reaction to opposition so extreme? Kaplan and colleagues (2016) identified a potential mechanism for this effect. Participants underwent neuroimaging while being presented with evidence that challenged both their political and non-political beliefs. Political beliefs were much more resistant to change when presented with such evidence, whereas self-reported strength in non-political beliefs showed persistent reduction even weeks later. This was accompanied by increased activation in the Default Mode Network (DMN) during challenges to politics. This network is a little elusive in its exact function, but evidence suggests it is involved in self-representation, among other things. Another process the DMN is linked to is mind-wandering, but this was ruled out in this experiment by response time controls. Thus, an attack on one’s political views may, to some extent, be processed by our brains as an attack on our psychological self. To top it off, heightened responses from the insular cortex and amygdala indicated an increased emotional response to political arguments, accounting for the explosive reactions we see when conspiracy theorists are challenged with reality. By contrast, challenges to non-political beliefs resulted in increased signal from areas critical to various types of cognitive flexibility, the orbitofrontal and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices, suggesting a stronger tendency towards changing these beliefs in response to counterevidence. We must note the small sample used here, and a few of the logical jumps made when inferring why the DMN is activated need more specific research to be fully supported. Nevertheless, this study is hugely interesting in the context of the current political climate in the U.S. in general, but we’ll stick to deciphering those supporters who saw fit to attack their elected officials.
So, we’re enticed by an evolutionary desire to find patterns and anticipate danger. We’re then guided to insight by logical fallacies, and misled by heuristics as to the accuracy of these discoveries. We trust our intuition, incorporate our newfound beliefs into our self-identity, and passionately defend any attacks against this representation. Our cognition has, somewhat ironically, conspired against us, so we settle into the far-right message boards to plan our next attack on democracy. And a psychology graduate steals a capitol lectern.
Adam Johnson, the rioter pictured carrying Nancy Pelosi’s lectern during the Capitol Riots in January 2021, was reported to have a degree in Psychology. Source: Win McNamee (Getty Images)
Cover Illustration by Evan Solano
Gaby FitzGerald is in her 2nd year of studying Experimental Psychology at Corpus Christi College
Berkowitz, R. (2021). A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon. Retrieved 13 February 2021, from https://medium.com/curiouserinstitute/a-game-designers-analysis-of-qanon-580972548be5
Gersema, E. (2021). Which brain networks respond when someone sticks to a belief? - USC News. Retrieved 13 February 2021, from https://news.usc.edu/114481/which-brain-networks-respond-when-someone-sticks-to-a-belief/
Harwell, D., Stanley-Becker, I., Nakhlawi, R., & Timberg, C. (2021). QAnon reshaped Trump’s party and radicalized believers. The Capitol siege may just be the start. Retrieved 13 February 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/01/13/qanon-capitol-siege-trump/
Kaplan, J., Gimbel, S., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports, 6(1). doi: 10.1038/srep39589
Kaplan, J., Gimbel, S., Dehghani, M., Immordino-Yang, M., Sagae, K., & Wong, J. et al. (2016). Processing Narratives Concerning Protected Values: A Cross-Cultural Investigation of Neural Correlates. Cerebral Cortex, bhv325. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhv325
Koerth-Baker, M. (2021). Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories (Published 2013). Retrieved 13 February 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/magazine/why-rational-people-buy-into-conspiracy-theories.html
Laukkonen, R., Kaveladze, B., Tangen, J., & Schooler, J. (2020). The dark side of Eureka: Artificially induced Aha moments make facts feel true. Cognition, 196, 104122. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2019.104122
Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Moran, J., Nieto-Castañón, A., Triantafyllou, C., Saxe, R., & Gabrieli, J. (2011). Associations and dissociations between default and self-reference networks in the human brain. Neuroimage, 55(1), 225-232. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.048