We’re always told to go with our gut feeling and to follow our intuition. Author Malcom Gladwell helped popularize this notion with his best-selling book Blink. But, as you’ll learn today, following our intuition and neglecting critical thinking is why conspiracy groups like QAnon exist. When groups like QAnon pride themselves on intuitive thinking, they completely bypass the scientific method, and this is something we should all avoid at all costs.
Intuitive thinking isn’t all bad though. In his other best-seller, Outliers, Gladwell discusses how successful people operate. In the book, the work of the world-famous psychologist Anders Ericsson who discovered the 10,000-hour rule. Through years of research, Ericsson found that it takes roughly 10,000 to achieve mastery of any skill. So, those who acquire 10,000 hours in their realm of expertise are going to be able to trust their intuition much more than someone else.
The problem with groups like QAnon is that they rely on intuition in realms like science, where they have no expertise. Intuitively, their conspiracies make sense to them, but it’s only because they lack the necessary knowledge to know otherwise, and you don’t know what you don’t know. Harvard Business School professor Laura Huang has also done quite a bit of research when it comes to “gut instincts”, and she discusses the results in her book Edge: Turning Adversity Into Advantage. She explains how these instincts can lead to some terrible decisions in both work and life.
Today, we’re going to try and have a better understanding of how intuition can go horribly wrong by using QAnon conspiracies as an example. To understand QAnon’s intuitive thinking and how it lacks critical thinking skills and the scientific method, we’re going to turn to the work of one of my new favorite cognitive psychologists, Hugo Mercer.
The Plausibility Checker
If you’re like me, you often wonder how people from QAnon can believe what they believe. Or how does any type of conspiracy theory spread? It’s naive to think that anyone who believes these theories lack intelligence, so maybe it’s something else.
Recently, I became fascinated with the idea of trust. I find it really interesting how often we trust people just out of necessity. For example, every time we drive, we trust that other people are good drivers and aren’t going to crash into us. We blindly trust restaurant workers to handle food that could potentially get us sick. And even if we’re meeting a doctor for the first time, we trust that they know what they’re doing when they prescribe us medicine, and sometimes, we even trust this person we only met a few times to slice us open and perform surgery.
Fortunately, to scratch this itch, I came across the book Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe by cognitive psychologist Hugo Mercer. Mercer argues that we have what he calls “open vigilance”. To understand what he means by open vigilance, we can turn to this article about Mercer’s work from NewScientist.com:
“While the complexity of our communication makes us more adaptable, it also means staying open to beneficial messages and alert to harmful ones. That is why, Mercier says, we have “open vigilance” cognitive mechanisms, the most basic of which he calls plausibility checking. This involves comparing new information with existing beliefs, drawing on the past reliability of sources and checking new messages against intuitions.”
So, what Mercer is saying is that we’ve evolved to receive information and then unconsciously see if it’s plausible. This “plausibility” check happens without us even realizing it, and we compare this new information to our current knowledge of the topic as well as our existing beliefs.
This is something that we all do, and it’s one of the reasons we need to be self-aware of our own biases. For example, if you already believe that Democrats or Republicans are bad, you’re more likely to believe negative information about them. When you run the information through your internal plausibility check, you’re not skeptical of the information because it makes intuitive sense. You already believe that the opposing party is bad, so to save cognitive resources, you let this information pass through your plausibility filter.
By looking at QAnon through the lens of what Hugo Mercer calls open vigilance, we must analyze what QAnon members believe is plausible. In the realm of QAnon, it’s extremely rare that you’ll find experts in any scientific field. For the most part, they’re laypeople who don’t have Ericsson’s 10,000 hours in any branch of science.
In this next section, we’re going to discuss how and when QAnon’s open vigilance goes wrong. But, before we do, I want to make two things very clear:
- Not all QAnon members believe in the same conspiracies, and this is true for many conspiracy theorists. It’s common to find conspiracy theorists who believe in specific conspiracies and not in others.
- It’s not my intention to insult QAnon believers but to have a better understanding of their thoughts and behaviors.
We Weren’t Made for Science
Although we’re at the top of the food chain and have all sorts of cool scientific gadgets, we humans weren’t made for science. We always forget that in the span of the overall timeline of the universe, humans have only been around for a brief period of time. As evolved as we think we are, we still have a lot of primitive thoughts and behaviors.
If you need evidence of this, look no further than my paranormal psychology series where we discuss people and their paranormal beliefs. You can also see remnants of our ancient thinking in all of our superstitions. You believing that your lucky sock actually works is no different than when our ancestors danced and thought it caused the rain.
Our intuition tells us that correlation equals causation, and it’s also hard to dismantle our intuitive beliefs. A great example Mercer uses is the idea of the flat earth. For a moment, imagine you were living thousands of years ago, long before people like Galileo. If you were having a conversation and someone told you the earth was flat, you’d run it through your plausibility checker and would most likely believe them. Without any other knowledge of the universe, you’d think, “Of course it’s flat. I’m standing here, and I’m not rolling off or standing on a slant, so yes, he must be correct that the earth is flat.”
Now, you’re probably thinking, “But Chris, it’s 2020, and even with all of the scientific evidence we have, there are still conspiracy theorists who believe the earth is flat.” This is true, and that’s a whole different topic we’ll cover at another time.
So, now that we have a better understanding of how our intuition can lead us astray when we lack information, can that explain some of QAnon’s claims? To answer this question, let’s go back to QAnon’s dangerous claim that people shouldn’t wear masks.
Breathing is pretty important to our survival, and I don’t know about you, but one of my biggest fears is being suffocated. In fact, 8 years ago right before I got sober from drugs and alcohol, they tried giving me a sleep apnea machine in the hospital, and I had an anxiety attack. Just thinking about that machine triggers my cortisol levels. The machine went against my intuitions of how breathing should work, so it made me think I was going to suffocate to death.
Like me, my beautiful girlfriend, Tristin, struggles with anxiety. When the COVID pandemic hit, it didn’t effect her much. She’s a homebody and doesn’t really like going places. For months, I was handling our grocery shopping and other errands while getting used to wearing my mask. But one day, Tristin had to go somewhere for an appointment, and it was her first time wearing the mask. When she came home, she told me about the panic attack she had when she first put it on. She explained how her anxiety went through roof, and it took her a little bit to calm down.
Why did this happen? Well, intuitively, it feels like something isn’t right about wearing a mask over your face for extended periods of time. The problem is that QAnon plays off of this intuitive fear to argue against people wearing masks. Again, intuition is only beneficial when you have a thorough knowledge of what that intuition is based on.
Although QAnon’s #1 rebuttal is telling people to “do the research”, this is actually what they lack. Rather than looking at the scientific evidence from credible resources, they follow their intuition. They spread the false information that wearing a mask lowers oxygen levels or that you’ll be inhaling dangerous substances from the mask. Due to their confirmation bias, they give weight to disproven information.
This also helps explain the last question I have, which is, “Why does QAnon believe some doctors but not others?”. They often argue that you can’t trust doctors because they’re corrupt, but if you find a doctor that plays into their intuitive beliefs, they’ll use that person as a “credible source”. This is how disgraced doctors like Andrew Wakefield were able to ignite the anti-vax movement. Intuitively, injecting vaccinations seems bad, and since these anti-vaxxers follow their intuition rather than gaining knowledge on the subject, they believe what these bad doctors tell them.
So, at the end of the day QAnon isn’t dumb; they just follow their intuition to a point where it’s dangerous. Although we may not be able to pull them out of their rabbit hole, we can use this knowledge in our own life. Ask yourself how many claims you believe based on your intuition without giving them a second thought. If your goal is to be a critical thinker, look into the claims you see and try to get closer to through truth by using the scientific method.
If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.
As many of you know, YouTube wrongfully took my last video down debunking QAnon conspiracy theories, but the QAnon video is still up. Hopefully, when I turn this into a video essay, it won’t get my channel a strike too, but if you want to know how you can help, watch the recent video I made about how we need to get the attention of larger creators like Dr. Mike.