This Is Excellent News For Peak Wingnut Theory

Your social science hit of the week.

Together, this group of experiments show that the need to feel in control is so powerful that people will resort to psychological solutions that return the world into a predictable state – pulling patterns from noise and causality from randomness.

The researchers used three tests to connect lack of control with hyperactive pattern recognition (i.e., a tendency to believe in superstition and conspiracies).

* Subjects took a basic symbol-matching test which a reasonable person could either pass or fail. Then they were asked to see a faint image (or no image) in a noisy background. Subjects who failed the image-matching test more often saw an image in pure noise.
* Subjects first recalled a situation when they either had complete control, or they had no control at all. Say, I could compare my time as a commenter versus a blogger. Then the subjects played an investment game where two companies, A and B, had equal positive/negative reviews. However, company A had twice as many total reviews as company B. Control subjects invested in the companies equally. By contrast subjects preconditioned with feelings of helplessness invested heavily in the company with more reports.
* Subjects again pre-visualized situations of control or no-control. Then they evaluated a scenario in which a superstitious person skips the daily ritual (stomping three times before a meeting) and has a bad day at work. Subjects with the pre-conditioned helplessness had a higher chance of concluding that a connection exists between the superstition and the bad day at work.

These experiments do a good job of exposing a flaw – people who feel out of control are more likely to see patterns even when they don’t exist. It is nice that they established the point with several independent tests, however, the next step added a refreshing and rare level of proof. If perceived helplessness causes sub-rational behavior as the group claims then restoring a feeling of control should ‘rescue’ the defect.

When subjects started the experiment with a short questionnaire that reinforced closely-held personal beliefs, a step that makes people feel more in control, the helpless-visualizing group did not believe in conspiracies or see nonexistent images any more often than the other subjects. Ergo the defect (healthy pattern recognition) was rescued by adding back the hypothesized cause (a feeling of control). It would be nice to see this done more often, including in my own field, cell biology.

Anyhow, about peak wingnut theory. Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about as much political control as a bug in a jar. You can make your own conclusions.






34 replies
  1. 1
    jrg says:

    You can make your own conclusions.

    If your calculations are correct, Pelosi and the Kennedys been poisoning Cheetos, Mountain Dew, and Papa Johns pizza with mind-control substances.

    They’ve been able to get away with it for so long because the substance is being manufactured in a Kenyan bunker that also houses Obama’s birth certificate, and Vince Foster’s body.

    It sure feels good to know that I’m the only one around here who really knows what’s going on.

  2. 2
    Joshua Norton says:

    If perceived helplessness causes sub-rational behavior as the group claims then restoring a feeling of control should ‘rescue’ the defect.

    That’s always been the analysis behind the more bat-shit-crazy members of the tin foil hat brigade. That’s why they always know (or cling to) facts that nobody else has ever heard of. They’re the chosen (and therefore, most important) ones.

    Also can be interchangeably applied as needed to repugs in deep denial.

  3. 3
    A Squirrel says:

    That is a fascinating study. Thanks for the link, Tim. Although I do think – though John can speak for himself – that Peak Wingnut theory involves the degree to which those people can drive a broader media narrative versus how rational they might seem.

    Too bad that in the end, we are all probably a bug in a jar; praying for benevolence.

  4. 4
    Comrade Darkness says:

    This does explain the insanity of the right during the Clinton era. And the overgrown weasel was such a Moderate. Bloodyhell.

  5. 5
    Downpuppy says:

    pulling patterns from noise and causality from randomness.

    On Wall Street, they call this "technical analysis".
    Every statistician that’s looked at it for 10 minutes calls what they’re doing rubbish, but they still pay each other millions to do it.

  6. 6
    Martin says:

    BTW, that’s pretty much the source of religion.

    Me: Aaah! Shit is happening to me that I can’t control!
    You: God is doing that. You might be able to get him to stop if you pray.
    Me: I like this sense of control. I’ll go pray now.

    Me: The shit stopped!
    You: God heard your prayers.
    Me: God clearly must exist! I will pray every day, now.

  7. 7
    4jkb4ia says:

    Hey, they do have some. It is called the filibuster. But for economic legislation and judges it will be highly useless.

  8. 8
    A Squirrel says:

    @Downpuppy:

    It is, quite literally, insane what passes for quantitative analysis on Wall Street. The Michael Lewis piece in Portfolio nails it, and also has the benefit of being a great read (Is Steve Eisman as much of a pure hero as he’s made out to be? I’d really like to think so. The character in his story makes me want to be gay.)

  9. 9
    Comrade Stuck says:

    Well, I could’ve told em if they’d just asked, or they could have gotten their very own copy of the new RNC wingnut Chart topper CD — "Barrack the Magic Negro"

    BTw, The scary peasants of the Fuhouse walked thru the Triangle Door and are now blogging from Ubuntu Land – What a Rush!

  10. 10

    Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about as much political control as a bug in a jar. You can make your own conclusions.

    A stronger conclusion can be drawn from the fact that even when they had a Republican majority in the Senate and a Republican president in the White House, they still screamed IT’S A PLOT every five seconds. See for example, the initial response to Foley Follies. It was all a trap, shut up you liars! Any debate about the war in Iraq would cause the soldiers to get depressed and the terrorists to gaily scatter IEDs about the place. And the media couldn’t bend over for Bush far enough, often enough to make them happy.

    However, I’m not willing to attribute perceived helplessness to the amount of screeching from those wankers. I think they’re just attention grubbing dickheads. But that’s kind of hard to put in a hypothesis.

  11. 11
    demimondian says:

    @Comrade Stuck: BWAHAHAHA

    Just you wait until you actually need to read an Excel spreadsheet. OO.o as a genuine Excel replacement? Yeah, not so much. And CUPS…hee hee hee

    — demi "no, I won’t fix your computer" mondian

  12. 12
    Comrade Stuck says:

    @demimondian:

    Well, luckily the new installer wubu? I was able to install Ubuntu and keep WindowsXP. So If I screw up U I can just switch back to windows in the startup. In the meantime I am excited about learning to be a Linux geek. Ha!

    And, we don’t read no spreadsheets at the Funhouse, just plain old English Snark :)

  13. 13
    Martin says:

    So If I screw up U I can just switch back to windows in the startup. In the meantime I am excited about learning to be a Linux geek. Ha!

    About 3 years too late. Mac is the new black. Office + Windows + UNIX™ + Textmate and Omnigraffle FTW.

  14. 14
    Comrade Stuck says:

    @Martin:

    About 3 years too late

    Story of my life.

    no more OT Tim, promise.

  15. 15
    liberal says:

    Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about as much political control as a bug in a jar.

    Would that it were so, given the way Henry Reid allows them to filibuster w/o actually filibustering, and to place anonymous holds.

  16. 16
    Scott says:

    Yeah, the way the Democrats tend to run Congress, the Republicans will still have lots of control over what happens. But they’re mad paranoiacs, so they’ll still think they’re being victimized by, oh, everyone, which means the conspiracy theories will be flying fast and furious.

  17. 17
    Lennox says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for a minute, but never commented, and first let me grateful I am for being able to partake of my daily helping of balloon juice.

    But let me offer something about this study. I have control issues out the ass. Helplessness terrifies me like a child looking at a zombie eating a hamster in his closet. But I’m liberal as fuck. So while I definitely see the connection between control issues and being vulnerable to conservative propaganda, I believe that helplessness-phobia is a much bigger aspect of the human state than as just a cause of conservatism.

  18. 18
    ninerdave says:

    @Lennox:

    I believe that helplessness-phobia is a much bigger aspect of the human state than as just a cause of conservatism.

    That, stupidity and the shear willingness to ignore what’s in front of ones face.

  19. 19
    Tim F. says:

    So while I definitely see the connection between control issues and being vulnerable to conservative propaganda, I believe that helplessness-phobia is a much bigger aspect of the human state than as just a cause of conservatism.

    I think that you misunderstand my point, such as it is. The point is not that conservative propaganda is uniquely paranoid, but rather that the state of total powerlessness will encourage conservatives to regress even farther into crazytown. The phenomenon presumably generalizes to any mix of powerlessness and superstition.

  20. 20
    Splitting Image says:

    I dunno.

    I think there way be a massive disconnect between the Republicans who are part of the "noise machine" and the average joes in Nebraska who’ve been voting G.O.P. all these years because everybody they know has done it for as long as they can remember.

    The noise machine is certainly going to be powerless for the next little while and they are going to go off the deep end for sure, but I think that if run of the mill yahoos have been feeling paranoid for the last few years it’s because they really didn’t have a foothold in either party. The G.O.P. was paying lip service, sure, but I think deep down a lot of them knew it was hooey. I think they were hoping rather desperately that it wasn’t.

    Last month a lot of them took a bold step and pulled the lever for a Democrat for the first time in decades. Not just in the states Obama won outright (Indiana, NC, etc.) but in states like North Dakota, Nebraska, Utah, and Texas.

    Now as a result of that they seem to be getting a president who can actually speak intelligently about issues and seems to want to do his job well. This is progress, and if Obama does well enough, all the Obamacans out there will feel more empowered, not less. If he ends up making a bigger mess of everything than Bush did, I suppose no one in any red state will admit to voting for him, but I think if things go well, Obamacans will talk about what they did with a certain amount of pride.

    Kristol and Coulter et al. will become shriller and shriller as they fade to insignificance. The rest of the country may settle for complaining about whatever Obama actually does wrong and wonder what they ever saw in all those fools.

  21. 21
    Nancy Irving says:

    This confirms a theory I have long held, that people believe in conspiracies because the idea that some evil force is in control of things is preferable to the idea that *nobody* is in control of things.

  22. 22

    Anyhow, about peak wingnut theory. Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about as much political control as a bug in a jar. You can make your own conclusions.

    Corollory: If we can subtly reinforce the Republican blogger sense of being helpless and out of control, we can drive them further towards the bug-fuck end of the spectrum. I foresee my plan for the next four years of trolling…

  23. 23
    Riggsveda says:

    Eschewing the political angle, I see this as simply the survival instinct kicking in. If an animal feels lack of control over its environment, it knows, at least on an instinctual level, that death could easily result. Seeking to regain some kind of control as a way of avoiding danger makes perfect biological sense, even if some of the ways it is done don’t. And at a biological level, grasping at straws for control may eventually result in, even accidentally, grasping one thing that works and keeps one safe.

    If you want to add the political angle, I see it more as a symptom of how deadly and polarizing politics has become, to the point that those on "the other side" are really believed to be potential (if not actual) murderers. This is a hell of a way for people living in the same country to live; it resonates of so many pre-war situations that arose in the past, from Germany to Bosnia to Rwanda. And before anyone accuses me of hysteria, remember: the same "it beggars belief" attitudes were held in those countries before hell broke loose, too. People who fear for their lives are capable of incredible lethality.

  24. 24
    Jason says:

    Now…if we can just figure out a way to extract the crazy from them, and convert it to electricity…

  25. 25
    Joshua Norton says:

    extract the crazy from them, and convert it to electricity..

    Preferably, both at the same time.

  26. 26

    If an animal feels lack of control over its environment, it knows, at least on an instinctual level, that death could easily result. Seeking to regain some kind of control as a way of avoiding danger makes perfect biological sense, even if some of the ways it is done don’t. And at a biological level, grasping at straws for control may eventually result in, even accidentally, grasping one thing that works and keeps one safe.

    Right. I can’t view the study Tim F. refers to without a subscription but I assume it is the grandchild of B.F. Skinner’s study of superstition in pigeons.

    If a clock is now arranged to present the food hopper at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behavior, operant conditioning usually takes place.

    The conditioning process is usually obvious. The bird happens to be executing some response as the hopper appears; as a result it tends to repeat this response. If the interval before the next presentation is not so great that extinction takes place, a second ‘contingency’ is probable. This strengthens the response still further and subsequent reinforcement becomes more probable.

    If you try to extrapolate this to politics it does get tricky. How is a shrieking Republican like a hungry pigeon? [Insert comment about intelligence here.] I guess you could argue that for the past eight years the Repubs have believed they’re in a survival situation (Terrists! Gheys! Immigrants!) and the behavior (screaming), reinforced by getting their way, gives them a sense of control.

    But I still think they’re just dickheads.

  27. 27
    Hyperion says:

    @kommrade reproductive vigor:

    But I still think they’re just dickheads.

    occam’s razor is your friend.

  28. 28
    David says:

    The second study confuses me. Assuming that customer reviews follow roughly same logic as polling customers about their experiences with the company, twice as many reviews should equal a substantially higher confidence level – the aggregate would paint a more accurate picture of the results you’re likely to get. The difference probably isn’t enough to justify investing "heavily" in one company over the other, but I don’t see how it’s more rational to see no pattern at all.

  29. 29
    DougJ says:

    If you want to add the political angle, I see it more as a symptom of how deadly and polarizing politics has become, to the point that those on "the other side" are really believed to be potential (if not actual) murderers.

    No it’s not. It’s a symptom of one party going batshit crazy.

  30. 30
    Amanda says:

    There is a good book on all this called Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition by Stuart Vyse. An interesting study showing the correlation of "helplessness" or lower levels of control in certain situations and superstitions was done on baseball players. The most successful batters are still expected to "fail" 7/10 times, whereas in the field you are expected to make every play that comes your way, and indeed there are many more, and many more elaborate rituals associated with the more risky pursuit of batting.

  31. 31

    […] now they cannot even nudge things one way or the other. So consider these two simple sentences from Tim F. – “Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about […]

  32. 32
    Robin G. says:

    I think a fair extrapolation – and I’d love to see research on it – is that those who feel helpless will love those whoo seem to take control.

    It’s pretty much what happened after 9/11, yes? People felt helpless – "Holy crap, shit can just blow up and we can’t stop it." Bush promised control, and 70% of the country loved him for it. Pretty straightforward, psychologically.

  33. 33
    loser says:

    Betcha the helplessness that matters is not at the level of current events but at the occupational/familial daily-life level. That’s the GOP base, marginalized, feckless losers, and that’s why the random stimulation of Clear Channel and FOX revs them up so much. They’re used to powerlessness. So my null hypothesis would be no change.

  34. 34

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