Conspiracy theories and your mental immune system

A new book argues that our minds have their own version of an immune system - one that weeds out bad ideas...
01 June 2021

Interview with 

Andy Norman, Carnegie Mellon University


A sketch drawing of a female head.


Philosopher Andy Norman from Carnegie Mellon University has been looking deeply into the subject of conspiracies and disinformation. As he told Chris Smith, he’s just written a book called Mental Immunity, about how to combat bogus facts and bad ideas...

Andy - Yeah, there's a great deal of what Stephen said that I agree with wholeheartedly. My book is about an emerging science that's giving us a new way of thinking about conspiracy thinking, vaccine denial, science denial more generally. And here's the idea in a nutshell. We know that our bodies have immune systems that protect us from infectious microbes. Well it turns out that our minds have immune systems that protect us from infectious ideas. And these systems can function very well, and they can also function extremely poorly, and a good bit of the contemporary craziness - political, religious, anti-scientific - I think is driven by mental immune systems that have been compromised.

Chris - Is that mental immune system actually driven by education, or is there more to it than that?

Andy - Well, I think there's a good deal more to it than that. Traditionally we've regarded our resistance to bad ideas as a function of critical thinking instruction. It turns out though that the critical thinking paradigm only alerts us to a small fraction of the things that can be done to strengthen our resistance to bad ideas. And when we develop a detailed understanding of how these systems work, we start to understand why they fail and how we can make them work better. My book is full of insights from both philosophy and psychology that actually help us strengthen mental immune systems in ways that the critical thinking paradigm never anticipated.

Chris - Why I liked your book and it struck a chord with me is because at a time of a pandemic, when we're very familiar with the transmission of an infectious entity, you actually turn this around and say bad ideas are like parasites, basically. They're looking for a susceptible brain to hijack, and then once they're in there, actually they've parasitised that mind and it then becomes an amplifier for that parasitic bad idea, and those people then spread it around like a super spreader. And it's directly what we're seeing with coronavirus actually, isn't it?

Andy - That's exactly right. There's something of a change in perspective that you need to take on to grasp the full potential of this science of cognitive immunology. And it starts with the recognition that bad ideas have all of the properties of parasites. They need a host. They can create copies of themselves within a host. They can induce behaviour in a host that spreads the bad idea to other minds. And of course it's part of our concept of harmful parasites that they do damage to the prospects of the host itself. And there's absolutely no question that there are ideas that circulate at our expense as human hosts.

Chris - One of the points you made, which I had never really thought about - and it made me realise actually that we are perhaps cruising for a bruising in this regard - is that we seem to have engineered society in such a way that no one wants to offend anybody else. So the 'speaking up' notion, "I don't agree with you," has fallen out of favour. Where previously people would have opened their gobs and perhaps they would have upset some people, but probably truth would have outed in the end, we've ended up in a situation where no one wants to say what they really think for fear of someone being offended or being upset. And is that in some respects actually making these parasites - even in this modern era with more access to information and more education than we've ever had in our lives - does that mean we're actually making ourselves paradoxically more susceptible because of the constraints of society?

Andy - Absolutely. So when you study our current predicament, our post-truth predicament, through the lens of these concepts of cognitive immunology, you start to see ways in which we've actually been abusing and neglecting our mental immune health for decades. So one of the concepts at large in our culture is that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Now people embrace this idea to prevent governments from trying to regulate what we think. And that's all well and good. But when we interpret that principle as a license to believe whatever we darn well please, we end up having an excuse that allows us to justify irresponsible thinking. And so for at least a couple of centuries now we've allowed the idea that our cognitive rights supersede our cognitive responsibilities, and when rights and responsibilities get out of balance, you start to see irresponsible thinking spread through cultures. And if you look back at history you find that civilizations have been torn apart when norms of accountable talk aren't taken seriously.

Chris - Stephen Reicher - do you think we should be sending a copy of Andy's book to Number 10 Downing Street?

Stephen - That assumes that Boris would read it! There's a lot of social psychological research on conspiracy theories. One of my colleagues Karen Douglas has written a lot of really interesting work, and one of the points she makes is: at the core of nearly all of them is the notion that somebody is trying to control us. So in many ways, what you're getting from conspiracy theories is a statement about people's perceptions, and in particular their relationships to authority. And one of the reasons why you might find, say, in certain communities there is more purchase of these conspiracy theories is because they have greater historical experience of control. So one of the arguments, for instance, about why in the black community there is a lower vaccine uptake and more reticence is because black people do have a historical experience of being misused. And what that says to me is that in many ways, the answer has got to be at the level of asking: what has led to that sense of authority being 'other' - of them doing things 'to' you and not 'for' you? The question is, how can you create a positive relationship? And if you can begin to do that, you undermine the fundamental logic of which many of these conspiracy theories feed. It's not about the content - it's what it's saying about a social relationship.

Chris - Andy, just finish us off then with just some tips. What can we all do to improve our mental immunity - give it a boost, if you will?

Andy - It turns out there's many, many things we can do to improve our mental immune function. One of them is to learn to listen to your doubts. Doubts are the mind's antibodies. At the same time though, you can't take your doubts at face value. Sometimes our doubts become hyperbolic and run away from us. And just as you can be too trusting, you can be too suspicious. And many conspiracy theories are driven by an over the top distrust of authority and many of the institutions. The second thing you can do is: always make sure that you're reasoning to find out rather than reasoning to win. There's now a good bit of research that suggests that highly partisan thinking actually compromises your ability to think clearly. And if you find that you're actually becoming a cultural warrior and using reasons as weapons, back off and learn to reason collaboratively, because you're not serving your own interests very well. I'll mention just one more short one: avoid wilful belief. It turns out that when you indulge in wilful belief in one area of your life, if you believe things because you want them to be true in one area, it turns out that often spills over and compromises your ability to distinguish truth and falsehood in other areas of your life.

Stephen - Andy, as a Spurs fan, I want to believe that we can win the league! I'm in a bad way then, it's really dangerous.


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