Friday, January 15, 2021

The whole really is greater than the sum of the parts...



In a January 8, 2021 piece in National Geographic, Jillian Kramer makes reference to a number of researchers in social and political psychology, and their studies in conspiracy theories. The piece is entitled, “Why people latch on to conspiracy theories, according to science.”

From the article, we learn several academic terms, that, while they do not attempt to warrant inclusion in the DSM-V as mental health ‘conditions’ requiring treatment, nevertheless, shed light on various aspects of how humans encounter, absorb, digest, assimilate and believe conspiracy theories. A definition of a conspiracy theory, from the piece, is “an explanation for events that relies on the assertion that powerful people are dishonestly manipulating society.”

According to Peter Ditto, social psychologist at UC Irvine, “Trump has ‘weaponized motivated reasoning’ by ‘incit(ing) a mob and weaponized natural human tendencies’.” Kramer continues: Those human tendencies—to believe whatever satisfies our preconceptions whether true or not—were part of our lives long before rioters defiled the Capitol. He is also reported by Kramer as saying: People mal also defend the viewpoints of groups they belong to on an even more instinctual level. Humans evolved in groups that competed with one another, sculpting our minds to be wary of outsiders and loyal to our factions. His 2019 study found that this kind of bias, ‘is a natural and nearly ineradicable feature of human cognition. (Ditto continues): ‘I think the temptation is always to look at this as a clinical phenomenon—there’s something about those people,…but your social surroundings can have a huge effect is you happen to be in a group with people who believe in something, or are mad about something.’

Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, is quoted as writing, “it (when misinformation offers simple, casual explanations for otherwise random events), helps restore a sense of agency and control for many people.

Marta Marchlewska, a social and political psychologist who studied conspiracy theories at the Polish Academy of Sciences, is referenced on the issue of people using cognitive short-cuts, “largely unconscious rules-of-thumb t6o make faster decisions to determine what they believe. And people experiencing anxiety or a sense of disorder, those who crave cognitive closure, may be even more reliant on those cognitive short-cuts to make sense of the world. Marchlewska’s research also suggests that collective narcissists (those with an inflated belief in a group’s significance) ‘are apt to look for imaginary enemies and adopt conspiracy explanations that blame them. Kramer quotes Marchlewska: “For some people, conspiracy beliefs are the best way to deal with the psychological threat posed by their failure”. Kramer also quotes Martchlewska: People ‘who believe in conspiracy theories usually seek a savior—someone who will help them protect their in-group from conspiring enemies.’ “She points to QAnon, a conspiracy theory that proliferated online and falsely alleges a powerful group of Satanic pedophiles is plotting against President Trump (A QAnon supporter, Marjorie Taylor Greene, recently won a House seat in Georgia). …(Conspiracy theories) serve as an extremely dangerous political weapon, helping manipulate the public to gain power. First you search for enemies, then you prepare yourself for a fight. The final stage is usually tragic: You hurt innocent people.”

Karen Douglas, a social psychologist at the University of Kent, UK, is quoted by Kramer, “it’s not surprising that we are seeing a spike in conspiracy theories today” given that 50% of Americans reported increased stress during the pandemic. Kramer: (Douglas’) research has found that people who feel insecure in their relationships and who tend to catastrophize life’s problems are more prone to believing in conspiracy theories.

Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, is quoted as writing, “it (when misinformation offers simple, casual explanations for otherwise random events), helps restore a sense of agency and control for many people. van der Linden, and colleagues published a study in October, (2020), by presenting residents from the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Spain and Mexico with statements that contained common misinformation and facts about COVID-19. Kramer writes: While a majority accurately identified misinformation, some people readily accepted the falsehoods. That includes between 22 and 37% of respondents…who believed the claim that the coronavirus was engineered in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Some also decried accurate information as fake, such as the fact that diabetes increases your risk of severe illness for COVID-19. Van der Linder is also quoted “the brain mistakes familiarity for truth” referencing the notion that people are more likely to believe misinformation that they are exposed to over and over again. van der Linden also looked at whether pre-emptively warning people about the techniques that are used to spread falsehoods can help them gain immunity against fake news. He found that once people were warned about common misinformation techniques –including appealing to people’s emotions or expressing urgency in a message—participants were more likely to identify unreliable information.

Jan Willem van Prooijen, a social psychologist as Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, has done research that shows people’s willingness to believe fake news can have real behavioral effects. Kramer: the same participants who believed misinformation were also less likely to report that they complied with COVID-19 healthguidance, such as wearing masks, and were more likely to express vaccine hesitancy.

Daniel Sullivan, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who studies how people cope with adverse life events, is included for his observation that ‘by singling out an adversary who has ‘qualities that represent your own culturally influenced view of evil’ people can gain a sense of control over what’s happening to them. And the example here is the media hated by trump, and acted out by rioters in “smashed media crews’ equipment, a camera cord tied into a noose, and a scrawled ‘murder the media’ on a Capital door.

Emily Thorson, a political scientist at Syracuse University uses the phrase “belief echoes,” an obsessive response to information that can linger even after we know it’s false, in reference to the notion that once people believe something, it can be almost impossible to dissuade them.

Valerie Earnshaw, a social psychologist at the University of Delaware, in a study published in September, 2020, found that those who believed in pandemic conspiracy theories were less likely to say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine--but 90% said they trusted their doctors. Kramer notes: The finding adds to existing research showing doctors can help stymie the spread of health falsehoods directly.

Joseph A. Vitriol, social and political psychologist at Stony Brook University, is quoted by Kramer: ‘the most likely path to change will be for Republican leaders and other elites trusted by (trump’s) supporters to come out and make clear that they do not stand in line with him.

Many experts, considerable detailed research by Jillian Kramer and one is left wondering if the people charged with attending to the very diseased patient, the body politic of the United States, are reading these insights, and if they are amenable to opening their minds and their habits to look at the situation from a wholistic perspective. Naturally, law enforcement, especially those responsible for this weekend and the ensuing days up to and including Inauguration Day, Wednesday January 20, have to put up barricades, mobilize the National Guard, investigate those who participated in the sedition of January 6 and deploy whatever surveillance personnel that may be needed in order to ward off, and warn of any intended violence.

Nevertheless, noticeably missing from the above list is a single criminologist. (That is not intended as a criticism of the piece.) The role and field of study of the criminologist, while overlapping that of the social psychologists and political scientists, nevertheless, needs to be both integrated with and informed by the insights of social psychology. And one wonders if that kind of jumping the academic barriers, fiefdoms, traditions and research findings would not contribute significantly to the ‘state’s’ perception of, diagnosis of, policy planning for and legislative action about the current “infodemic,” a word authored by the World Health Organization, about the cloud of disinformation that has been given light and life around the world.

While the flood gates have opened on the readily available, and widely broadcast torrent of information, through social media, and the public, the media and certainly the worlds’ legislators and political class are swinging our arms and legs frenetically to keep from drowning while also gasping for air, the access to the most relevant and cogent, the most diverse and creative (from an exploring perspective) as a cornerstone of how we “see” things remains almost out of mind.

Those who have specific roles have entered those roles based on a history of formal training and experiential apprenticeships. They have been steeped in the discipline of their expertise. And while that is honourable and highly to be valued; it may no longer hold the keys to our shared and our collective survival, in the short and medium and long term. Just as the medical and legal fraternities have their own vocabulary, their own protocols, their own hierarchies and unique expertise(s), so too do the military, the accounting, the economists, the environmentalists, and the theologians. However, the whole patient, including a life history (biography) and an assessment of current living conditions, including patterns of trauma, patterns of success and failure, is rarely the subject of medical rounds. Similarly, the courts, while performing life history of those charged with crimes, do so from a perspective of what might feasible and legitimately be termed unconscious bias. Criminals, after all, are only being assessed after they have already been investigated, and found guilty of some offence. Similarly, those invested in conspiracy theories, fake news, and the cult of personality around a defective and dangerous person, have come to this place for a large number of experiences, many of them perceived as painful, if not outright destructive. This is not a defence of the rioters, nor an apology for their reprehensible acts against the state, their own country, and the future of the republic.

However, David Renwick, editor of The New Yorker, in his latest ‘Currents,’ points out that while many talking heads are pronouncing that ‘this (the attempted sedition) is not who we are, it is, at least in part, who America is, just as Charlottesville is part of who America is, as is the knee-imposed murder of George Floyd and the no-knock entry and killing of Brianna Taylor and the many other insidious racially-motivated hate crimes that have plague the nation for more than a century.

Parsing the identities of individuals, as well as parsing the intellectual and the professional definitions and frameworks that govern specific processes and procedures, seems to have brought us to the point where only literalisms are tolerated, and most of those literalisms are parsed and segregated from their full context. And while there is an obvious crime in detecting and charging an individual for a specific act or word, there is also the possibility that other conditions need to be taken into account in the manner by which the state pursues its legitimate goals and values. Definitions, for example, of criminality, in the case of whether or not trump is criminally responsible for the separation of children from their parents on the border, or for the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans through what the street would and could call criminal negligence, is impeded by the legal definition of “causation” (See previous blog). And the glaring cultural sacralizing of free speech, transforming that ideal into an almost sacred rite, is another of the decontextualized waves that plague individuals, right now those on the wrong side of the trump vote fraud propaganda, and those who vehemently denounce QAnon, (as we do with all our might).

Is it not time for America, and probably other regions and nations, to consider how the culture of precise expertise can become itself a hindrance to the optimal, ethical, balanced, and mature function of the state? There is a deep and lasting time and permissive lag between the warp speed of digital developments and the required legislation by which they need to be regulated. There is also a similar gap between the various academic and intellectual fields, as well as between the academia and the street, with respect to keeping up with the latest and best reviewed and curated research, in a manner by which insight of an applicable and thereby specifically appropriate nature to many of our ‘issues’ is both gleaned and accepted and then applied to those many files.

Perhaps the files themselves need to be opened by a cluster of best thinkers and scholars, in order to facilitate the most optimum and effective and ethical and balanced approach to their address.

Joe Biden’s administration faces not merely a cluster of conundra, but an intellectual, administrative, economic and legal framework that is no longer suited and therefore fit for the situation. Not only does the state too often engage in ‘fighting the last war’ in terms of military design, equipment and strategy and planning. The nation itself is caught in a time and thought, and belief and tradition warp facing a future that is rushing to the shore at a velocity and a physical force that would render most hurricanes impotent.

The whole world needs America to seize the moment through the appropriate lens of the telescope, gazing into the universe of each file with an eye on the whole range of galaxies of competence, creativity and courage required by this urgent metaphoric Mars shot! As foreshadowing of the eventual actual Mars shot!

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