Cognitive Psychology

Conspiracy theorists lack critical thinking skills: New study — The New Daily

Well, no duh, right? But, poking fun at the right-wing MAGA Nation rural Christian white folk isn’t exactly the point. Like it or not, these people inhabit the same planet and country that we do, so we have to make nice with them at some point so we can all live together… if our liberal democracy survives the authoritarian power grab they’re participating in, that is.

Making nice with people who have indirectly participated in the needless slaughter of over 700,000 fellow citizens and are trying hard to destroy our liberal democracy won’t be easy, especially since they are unlikely to (a) ever apologize, (b) ask for forgiveness, (c) promise never to do it again, or (d) offer to try and make it up to us. In fact, for the next generation — assuming we make it out of this mess with our democracy intact — we’ll have to be leary of them doing it all over again.

No, this isn’t about making fun of them, it is about rehabilitating them into being semi-reliable and kinda acceptable participants in the public sphere and tolerating them in polite company, again. That journey starts with building a bit of empathy and understanding. In that light, this study becomes important because it points out that people who believe in conspiracy theories are not necessarily stupid, they have just given in to that all too human cognitive tendency to be lazy thinkers.

Understanding critical thinking is essential. It is a tricky beast and isn’t as straightforward as many on social media would have you believe. So, let’s review some of what is known about analytical and critical thinking skills:

First, the article also does a good job of laying out exactly what analytical and critical thinking entails:

Critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of a situation – and requires a number of cognitive skills.

These include the ability to think systematically, see other perspectives, change your mind when new evidence arises, identify relevant versus irrelevant information, identify and discard logical fallacies, be aware of biases and avoid them, and look beyond the obvious.

John Elder

Second, thinking is hard, so we evolved to avoid doing it whenever possible. Cynical politicians and advertisers and self-promoters will exploit this tendency. If you find yourself in a perfect storm of being immersed in a bubble of disinformation, a frightening crisis erupting around, a world you thought you once understood changing radically, and the welcoming soothing arms of someone or a group who says they have all the answers, and guess what, they’re simple! You too could join the ranks of those who’ve ditched their critical thinking skills and embraced the easy answers. Just like venereal disease, we can all get the conspiracy bug.

And third, just because you use your super analytical critical thinking skills in one area of your life, it doesn’t mean that you don’t in others. Transferring thinking skills between informational domains is extremely difficult and often doesn’t happen without some kind of prompting. (NB: I just prompted you to use yours in other areas than you already do. Sneaky, hunh?)

It is so unlikely that teachers are advised to prompt students to use the thinking skills developed in the class next door or last year to your class. It just doesn’t happen spontaneously. It doesn’t happen for you; it doesn’t happen for me; and it doesn’t happen for those folks in MAGA Nation who almost certainly use some critical thinking in some aspect of their lives.

Remember that. We don’t want to be Othering MAGA Nation or dehumanizing them.

We need to see their failings in this moment as being part of the natural human frailty that we are all vulnerable to.

The article not only reports on the study — it’s out of France — which was a simple correlative study showing a link — Is it causal? We don’t know — between lower critical thinking skills and believing in conspiracy theories, it also refers to earlier studies that suggest that (a) analytical thinking can inoculate a person or population against conspiratorial thinking; (b) ten and twelve year olds can be taught analytical thinking skills, and if they can, surely your favorite drunk uncle can, too… okay, maybe not, right? and (c) a series 2016 studies that link that need to feel special and unique with being vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking — yes, we’re looking at you Kyrsten Sinema.

These other studies give us hope in not only understanding MAGA Nation, but in also in understanding what we need to do to help them return to the land of the rational. When dealing with your favorite drunk uncle or even your mom or dad who went down the rabbit hole of right-wing conspiracy theories, you should try to do these things: (a) locate the areas of their lives that they use their analytical and critical thinking skills in already — diagnosing automotive and mechanical problems and making decisions when cooking are two good areas where many people unwittingly use their higher order thinking skills; (b) encourage them to apply these same reasoning skills to other areas, especially shared areas of concern; and (c) help them get their specialness anti-authoritarianess stick-it to the man fix some other way.

Conspiracy theorists lack critical thinking skills: New study

John Elder on 25 July 2021

The more people believe in conspiracy theories, the worse they perform on critical thinking tests, a new study has confirmed.

This doesn’t mean that conspiracy theorists are necessarily lacking intelligence, but rather that they lack the skills to objectively analyse and evaluate a situation.

The good news is that people can be taught these skills, and to an extent be brought in from the dark side – but of course it’s complicated.

Continue reading on The New Daily: Conspiracy theorists lack critical thinking skills: New study

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Image Attribution

“Critical thinking: Why our students need it and resources for teaching it by opensourceway is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

11 replies »

  1. LOL ~ Up at my house: Bad Manners

    How might Robert A Heinlein view today’s society? From Friday, 1986 …

    Boss; “Friday, What are the marks of a sick culture?”

    Friday; “ It’s a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or a religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn’t the whole population.”

    B; “ A very bad sign. Particularism. It was once considered a Spanish vice but any country call fall sick with it”.

    F; “ Dominance of males over females seems to one of the symptoms. So far as I’ve listened before a revolution can take place the population must lose faith in both the police and the courts. It seems to me that any law which is not enforced and cannot be enforced weakens all other laws. Violence. Muggings. Sniping. Bombing. Arson. Terrorism of any sort. Riots, of course, but I suspect that the little incidences of violence pecking away at people day after day damage a culture even more than riots that flare up then die down.”

    “ Friday, I think you’ve missed the most important point of all … a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners is more significant than a riot.

    This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health, but as proof of his or her strength.”

    It’s all inter-connected: the breakdown of the social contract, the dumbing down of the educational system, the failure of parents to teach what my grandparents taught me (and I tried to teach my children, rude assholes) … I said before I don’t much like to get into these conversations but, someone somewhere is jerking a lot of chains.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Ten!

      I think you might be onto something. I know that people on my social media seem to take pride in being snarky and insulting to those they disagree with. When we allow basic decorum, civil discourse, and norms break down, our society does come apart at the seams. Bannon, Trump, et al. may think that it is to their advantage if it does, but any advantage will be short lived.



  2. If you want to convince a good critical thinker that we do not, sometimes, transfer that skill to some other area of life, ask them about falling in love, an area where critical thinking is virtually universally missing in action.

    In understanding the process of going down the conspiratorial rabbit hole, we always have to look below the anger and rage for the fear. From that point of view, MAGA Nation does not resemble the march of an army so much as a stampede of panic in a burning building.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love… you body’s trick to produce a pregnancy. When the reproductive imperative is in play, not rational thought can penetrate.

      Good analogy and image about the rank and vile MAGA mob. My thinking over the last couple of weeks have turned towards how we can begin to have some empathy for those in MAGA Nation. If we are going to deny the GQP in 2022, we’ll need to peel more people out of the base for one thing. More importantly, if we’re going to have any kind of relationship with friends and relatives and recover from this authoritarian power play, then we’ve got to find it within ourselves to do so. Nobody takes the extended hand when it is a fist.


      Liked by 1 person

      • All true. I’m reminded of the attitude of the ancient Greeks toward the god Eros. They saw him as inflicting a madness and didn’t trust him. We moderns tend to forget that Aphrodite represented mother love more than romantic. Eros was her son, and his father was Ares, the god of war.

        In dealing with the MAGAS, it is important to start with whatever common ground there may be, small as it may be.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It definitely tells you something about the nature of romantic love when it is seen as resulting from combining war with a mother’s love. It definitely feels like that, too.

          Marriage, on the other hand, results from more than just erotica and romance. There is just a lot more to it than that. We sell the institution short when we only focus on one small aspect of the relationship.


          Liked by 1 person

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