Dr. Eric Oliver explains how intuitionism and feelings of uncertainty fuel conspiracy theories and intensify political polarization.

Producer: Michael Gordon
01/11/2021 • 12:42 PM EST

Dr. Eric Oliver, from the University of Chicago, discusses the role intuition, magical thinking, and feelings of uncertainty about the world play in fueling conspiracy theories and why some people are more prone to believing them. He also discusses the connection between intuitionism and political polarization, and how rationalists can best try to communicate with intuitionists, in order to bridge the divide.

0:00: Michael Gordon:

With us today, we have Dr. Eric Oliver, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. He has been studying conspiracy theories for over a decade. And he's the author of Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics. Dr. Oliver, thanks so much for joining us today.

0:16: Dr. Eric Oliver:

Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

0:19: Michael Gordon:

One of your key findings in your research that you've mentioned is that the same forces that drive conspiracy theories, intensify, political polarization. Can you get a little bit into that?

0:32: Dr. Eric Oliver:

Sure. So, when I started doing this research, I was interested in why people believe in conspiracy theories. And I'd been doing a lot of surveys asking people about whether or not they believed in certain types of conspiracy theories. And one thing that became evident was that people who believe in conspiracy theories tended to have a lot of supernatural and paranormal beliefs. They were what we would call magical thinkers. They tended to believe that there were these unseen, intentional forces that made things happen, and accepting that belief over a belief that's grounded in some kind of real evidence.

And so the question is what makes people a magical thinker? And I think the reason we gravitate towards magical thinking is because that's where our intuitions lie. If you think about like children, they don't know a lot about the world, so they really, really rely on their intuitions and children are terrific, magical thinkers. They see monsters in closets, they think their stuffed animals talk to them, they think about cooties. And I think what we see now is when people are relying on conspiracy theories or when they're drawn to conspiracy theories, it's really their intuitions that are talking to them, you know.

One of the things, for example, that our intuitions do is that they anthropomorphize inanimate objects. So children, you know, think that their stuffed animals will talk to them. Conspiracy theorists think that, like for example, the state department or the CIA has a singular intentionality to it, they sort of anthropomorphize these very complex kind of political institutions.

And similarly the idea that when our intuitions, when we face uncertainty, our intuitions are scrambling to try to find some way of ordering reality for us, because our uncertainty is very uncomfortable for us. It makes us really anxious and it doesn't feel good to feel anxious. So we want to quell that anxiety. And what conspiracy theories do is provide an easy way of trying to explain the world in a way that comports with sort of our other intuitions, but also what they do is they validate and rationalize the anxiety we're feeling in the first place. So, you know, if I'm feeling uncertain about the world and I want something that sort of rationalizes that anxious feeling.

I give an example, when my son was little and we had this big argument about whether or not there was a monster in the closet, we were going back and forth and I was trying to reason with him and I wasn't getting nowhere. And finally he said to me, he said, you know if there's no monster in the closet then why am I afraid? And I think this is basically the mindset that animates a lot of conspiratorial thinking, which is that I'm afraid. And therefore there must be a monster in the closet somewhere.

And then, you know, propagators of conspiracy theories use this to their advantage. That's their willing audience that's available out there. They're an audience that's looking to have an explanation for why, for example, they may feel anxious or why they feel politically dispossessed or why they feel like the world is falling apart. And they're kind of losing their grip.

3:33: Michael Gordon:

And you've said that most people fall somewhere within the scale of what you call "intuitionist" and "rationalist."

3:40: Dr. Eric Oliver:

Yeah, sure. Everybody has reason and everybody has their intuitions and we all fall prey to magical thinking at times, we all have our superstitions. We all have things that we do for good luck. We oftentimes do that when we're feeling stressful and we do that as a way of kind of coping with that stress. But you know, and hopefully we all use our reason and rationality and we kind of look for facts too. And most of us kind of employ a kind of combination of those ways of thinking about the world. But American society is becoming increasingly divided between people who are kind of at one end of the scale or the other. And so in our research, what we try to do is try to figure out ways of measuring how much people systematically rely on their intuitions when making judgements about the world. 

And we came up with some scales for doing this. And then based on this, you can see kind of a distribution. There are some people who we would call rationalist. They really are very tethered to reason and facts and logical deduction. And they use that as their sort of guiding principle sort of understanding their world. And on the other end of the spectrum are people who rely very much heavily upon their intuitions. And these are people who are very drawn by symbols and metaphors and stories and myths. And they tend to also have a lot of conspiracy theories and there's this kind of constellation of these things that go together.

5:08: Michael Gordon:

And what's one of the ways you can tell, like, what's one of the questions you might use to tell somebody falls on one side of the spectrum or the other?

5:16: Dr. Eric Oliver:

Sure. So this is what we were trying to figure out, how do you measure whether or not somebody who's relying on their intuitions without talking about existing beliefs? And that was the big challenge because we didn't want simply just people to parrot, you know, that they believe in ghosts or UFO's or things like that. So when we were doing our research, we, one of the things we realized is when people rely on their intuitions, they're heavily swayed by these kinds of cognitive shortcuts, called heuristicssee definition - any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of decision making, often relying on intuition or gut feeling. Not guaranteed to be optimal or rational, this method is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate decision.
. They are the things that we oftentimes do when we try to make sense of the world.

And I think intuitionists pay very strong heed to these. And some of these heuristics are, you know, we think things that, for example, there is a contagion heuristic. We think things that have had contact with something that's bad shares that bad quality or something that's good, like, oh, if I had, you know, you know, this necklace and at once belonged to Marilyn Monroe, it's suddenly a great necklace, you know, in that regard. So people tend to .. that's our intuition that gives these types of objects power. We also tend to think that things that look like certain things share their qualities. So like a voodoo doll, you would think, you know, what's called a representativeness heuristic.

So what we want to do is to tap into people's sensitivities to these heuristics. So we put a series of questions for people and we ask things like, you know, would you rather stab a photograph of your family five times with a sharp knife or stick your hand in a bowl of cockroaches? Or would you rather sleep in laundry pajamas once worn by Charles Manson or pick a nickel off the ground and put it in your mouth? Or would you rather spend the night in a dingy bus station or spend a night in a luxurious house where a family was once murdered? And as you kind of kind of guess with these questions, what we're basically positing is, you know, the difference between what is kind of a symbolic cost and a tangible cost.

And one of the things that we think is that intuitionists are highly sensitive to these symbolic costs because if they rely on these heuristics a lot, all of these things that, you know, stabbing a photograph of your family, it's just stabbing a piece of paper. But if you think that's your family, you're somehow or another hurting them, that's sensitivity to that kind of symbolic heuristic at work. And so we have a series of questions like that that are part of a, kind of a larger scale. But I think those are in some ways, the kind of the most emblematic of kind of what we're getting at here, when we sort of measure intuitionism.

7:40: Michael Gordon:

As far as the US, if you've done any research on this, do we know the percentage of intuitionist versus rationalist at this time in the US?

7:51: Dr. Eric Oliver:

Well most people are in the center, but the country kind of tilts more intuitionists than it does rationalist. So if you would say, I think we would, if we wanted to categorize this in some ways, it probably be more like, you know, 30% of the country would be people who we would call strongly intuitionist. And maybe like 15% of the country who would be called strongly rationalist. And, you know, most people are then kind of a mixture in between kind of those two poles.

8:25: Michael Gordon:

My impression was from reading your work, that it's easier to create the division between intuitionists and rationalist than it is to undo that. Is that the case?

8:39: Dr. Eric Oliver:

The question is how can these two sides, you know, bridge this gap? And I think the way it typically gets bridged is that you would have, you know, within the political parties, you would have each side would have its intuitionists and its rationalists, and they would have to fight amongst each other to sort of set some common goals. But when you have this aligning along this kind of ideological dimension, it becomes increasingly difficult, because now, not only are we disagreeing about fundamental politics, but we're disagreeing even more fundamentally about sort of how the world operates.

You know, about 25% of Americans believe that we're living in end times as foretold by biblical prophecy. And if someone believes that, you can imagine going through your day, believing that then, you know, everything must be a potential signal or sign, is this the sign of the second coming? Everything becomes ripe with metaphor and symbolism. And that's a very difficult thing if you are holding that belief. Imagine trying to reason through that, because that probably would supplant any other kind of concern that you might otherwise have.

And you know, that's just one example. I think a lot of people will just hold their beliefs because they're kind of core to their emotional architecture. They're a way of kind of giving them a stable ego and a way of understanding the world. And they cling to it very, very tightly, the way we do with all of our sort of, you know, superstitions and habits of mind. But if that becomes the central operating principle for your way of understanding the world, it's really, really difficult to sort of transcend that.

And you know, I, early on when I was doing this, it struck me that one way that a rationalist might be able to converse with an intuitionist is empathizing with them. I know this is how it works for me with my kids. My kids are big intuitionists, so when I acknowledged their anxieties and acknowledge their fears, we typically can have a better conversation. I'm less optimistic that that's possible in the political sphere. And now I think, you know, what's interesting when I actually have discussions with people, particularly people who believe in conspiracy theories, I've tried an alternative track. Which is, I basically ask them, they may, they come back to me oftentimes in a very hostile way, cause they see me as sort of attacking them. But I finally asked him, I said, okay, you know, our beliefs are just our tools. They are things that we use to sort of navigate the world and negotiate the world. So I just ask them to reflect, what is your conspiracy theory actually doing for you? Is this actually helping you in any way? Do you think this is a useful way to go about living your life?

And then oftentimes it's not what people expect and that kind of oftentimes opens up some opportunities for maybe a little bit of reconsideration there. And getting people to kind of just think about, okay, you know, the utility of their own belief system. And maybe that's another way of kind of going forward. I think the other way is trying to think about, okay, what are the things that we have in common? What are common goals that we share and trying to emphasize that.

11:53: Michael Gordon:

Well, let me ask you, this is kind of the other side of that question. Is there something that rationalist do that tends to make the situation worse?

12:03: Dr. Eric Oliver:

There's a common trope I know I experience in my marriage a lot, which is when my wife is, you know, complaining about like something not going right, and I say to her immediately, well, why don't you just do this? And then, you know, she throws something at me. She's like, you just don't understand. And I was like, Oh, you know, what she is looking for at that point, is just me to sort of say, yes, I understand. I hear you. And I think where rationalists sometimes get in trouble is by assuming that when they encounter somebody espousing something crazy or where they seem to be crazy or conspiracy theory or something like that, that they immediately try to reason with them away. And for the person who has that belief that can seem really condescending. And it doesn't really coincide with what they're trying to do when they express their belief.

So I think a common mistake that we, I have this in spades. I mean, I work in a very rationalist enterprise and so my, my worldview is very, very rationalist. And so I by default assume that that's how everybody else is thinking, and that's clearly not the case. And so instead of trying to immediately think, Oh, my way of thinking the world is how everybody should be thinking, is realizing that's not how everybody should think. In fact, I'm kind of strange in that regard. And to go back and maybe first, just listen to what people say and acknowledge what they are saying before immediately trying to refute their basic facts, or kind of challenge them to a logical debate. I think that immediately puts everybody on the defensive and then any kind of productive space withers.

13:43: Michael Gordon:

So it's possible they'll actually get more dug in with that approach.

13:48: Dr. Eric Oliver:


13:51: Michael Gordon:

Okay. It looks like we're at a time for today. We've been talking to Dr. Eric Oliver from the University of Chicago and author of Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics. He's a researcher in the field of how conspiracy theories intensify political polarization. Dr. Oliver, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

14:10: Dr. Eric Oliver:

Sure. Thank you. It was great to be here.