A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Roll of Paranoia in Conspiracy Theories


I wanted to be much further along by now with a consideration of signal theory and perception, and if I were, a discussion of paranoia would overlay nicely onto the concepts already presented.  But rather than wait to get caught up on all that, I thought I might jump ahead.  The consideration of paranoia may in fact lay the groundwork for some of that perception discussion later and it will certainly assist us in discussing conspiracy theories now.

So before I set out to talk about paranoia specifically, let me simply speed through some framework concepts that will help put this into context.

One way of viewing human thinking is to consider that we are each little information handling signal nodes in a complicated interconnected environment we call civilization (or “the human race”).  Our reaction to any given piece of data can be seen as a result of the context into which we place this data (this is where we are going with “information—context—action” model).  The data we react to can be an external event we witness, an external piece of information brought to our attention, or an internal thought we produce.  (This includes the thoughts we produce when we dream.  More than one person has been inclined to act differently after having a dream.  This suggests our own thoughts, including our own subconscious thoughts, can transform how we behave toward the outside world.) 

The founder of social psychology Kurt Lewin explained what we’re discussing with the formula:
        B = f(P,E) 
which translates into “Behavior is a function of the Person and the Environment”.   It’s a nice start, but we’ll go beyond that a bit to inspect how “Person” means that information processing unit we call the brain and “Environment” is really just a bunch of facts which are put into context by the mind.

So for now, let’s take it as wrote that one way we can view human thought and activity is as if we are all simply little information processing modules, taking information in, and processing it in such as way to as to produce action. 

On the most basic level, our response to threats can be seen in this context.  A mother bear will fight aggressively if she perceives the safety of her offspring is in jeopardy.  This is a very obvious example of external events giving rise to perception and that perception giving rise to a response.  It is, on some level, the primary function of a brain in the same way the primary function of a heart is to pump blood through the body.  Perceive, Comprehend, and React.  Or as I have put it, (receive) Information, (place it into) Context, (translate it into) Action.

So that’s the three cent course.  Now on to paranoia.

Paranoia is a processing mistake.  External events are seen as threatening more often for a paranoid person than for a non-paranoid person.  It is no coincidence that this condition is associated with anxiety and fear, because it is a close cousin to those concepts.  If we are anxious, we react more suspiciously to events around us, and likewise if we are in danger, we are more anxious.  So it may be hard to establish which chicken predates which egg.  Are we paranoid because we are anxious, or are we anxious because our paranoia makes us believe we are under constant threat?  There may be no way to tell.

For our purposes right now, it is sufficient to say the two forces are related and leave it at that.

For now we should simply view paranoia as a processing defect in the information module.  This is separate from a perceptual defect.  A defect in perception would involve seeing or hearing things which are not there (or failing to see or hear things which are real).  A paranoid person can usually take in the facts of the world around them perfectly well.  It is what they do with this information that is at issue.

Paranoia is by definition based on delusion.  The general belief is that others are “out to get you”.  External events are seen as related to hidden agendas.  And importantly the impact of external events on the paranoid individual is blown out of scale.  If there is a traffic jam, the paranoid individual is unable to see how this presents a major inconvenience for all the drivers on the road and instead focuses on how he is impacted.  Believing himself to play an outsized role in reality, he can easily convince himself that the cause of (or reason for) the traffic jam is specifically related to his life.  “The police created this traffic jam in order to stop me from getting to the library before it closes so that I will have to pay a late fine for my library book.”  When asked why the police would do such a thing, the paranoid person has a perfectly logical explanation which is an extension of the tracks already laid for his current train of thought.  “Maybe it’s because they know I have been doing more reading lately.  They want to make it harder for me to continue to get books from the library because they know if I continue my research I will discover what they are really up to…”

This may seem like an exaggerated example.  As someone who has had repeated contact with several clinically paranoid people, I can assure you it is not.  It is not my desire to make fun of this condition nor to rely on a stereotype of what it means to be paranoid.   In my mind this example is an honest sketch of the logical process in the mind of a paranoid person.  It may make us uncomfortable to the point of a nervous chuckle, but it is really the way some minds function.  If we are thinking about thinking as a process in the real world and not just an abstract ideal, we need to consider all engines, even ones that backfire, ping, or burn a mixture which is too thin.  It is not my intent to ridicule these defects, merely to consider how they fit into the big picture.

Now, paranoia must involve delusion, as was said above. We can only observe paranoia when we can see that the interpretation of events is out of step with reality. As the old joke goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”   But reality is very tricky business.  It is quite possible that there is no such thing as one objective reality external to all of us.  More probably we help create reality by perceiving it.  In essence, we till the soil of information like some kind of signal processing ants.  How we interpret the outside world shapes the very world we are observing.  This is why minds are “quantum computers” and how Werner Heisenberg (and Schrödinger’s Cat) will enter the discussion before too long.  In short, when we want to say something is based on falseness, that it is “delusional”, we need to tread carefully.  Objective Truth may not exist, and even if it does, it is very hard to determine whether we have ascertained it.

But along the spectrum of reality, the wide grey band that separates black from white, there is usually a point at which we can say we are no longer in the realm of generally agreed upon truth.  I may not quibble about whether Lebron James or Kobe Bryant could have beaten Michael Jordan in his prime.  The truth about such things is hard to determine.   But if someone were to assert that his three year old son was so good on the court that he could beat Michael Jordan and Kobe and Lebron all playing against him in a three-on-one game, it is safe to say that is simply not true.  Just because true and false are separated by a thick grey line does not mean there is no such thing as true and false.  I am even willing to concede that there is one chance in some astonishingly high number that a three year old with such skills could someday exist.   But that number could be so great that we could play out the history of the human race a billion billion times and never see such an individual born into the world.  My belief that “impossible” is very dangerous medicine does not preclude me from feeling that some things are so nearly impossible as to call them impossible if only for the sake of convenience.

So the point is that even though reality itself is a greased pig we could chase around the yard all day, there are some things that are so far outside of generally accepted fact as to be rightly proclaimed false, at least until convincing evidence to the contrary is provided.

Some things are simply false.
And therein lies the root of what we can call delusion.  For delusion is the belief that something false is in fact true.  Paranoia is rooted in such an error.

But here’s a fascinating little feature of paranoia that ties in with conspiracy theories.  The explanations of a paranoid person, the minor conspiracies that they spin to explain the daily events of their lives, have at their root the same source as conspiracy theories that deal with Big Events.  They seek to create order from randomness.  Or to be more fair to all involved, they seek to reveal the hidden order behind the apparent randomness.

Remember how paranoia is linked to anxiety?  External events are perceived as more threatening because the observer is anxious, and/or the observer is anxious because of the perceived threats.  Well interestingly, the most fertile breeding ground for conspiracy arises from events which shock the community.   When JFK was assassinated, it tore the fabric of society.  It created a wound that left a permanent scar.  If personal anxiety increases the paranoia that gives rise to personal conspiracy theories, it should be no surprise that events which are wrenching to the community could give rise to the same process.  In short, the event makes people feel so unsafe that they seek an explanation that can maintain some kind of stability and meaning in their lives.  People don’t create or buy in to incredible conspiracy theories because they are stupid or gullible.  They do it because they are scared.  The scarier the event, the more appealing the tidy explanation of a conspiracy theory becomes.

No comments:

Post a Comment