Can a New Book on ‘Intuitionism’ Explain America’s Political Crisis?

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/REX/Shutterstock

To look out at America’s conspiracy landscape in 2018 is to behold a confusing and terrifying sight. The internet, and more specifically social media, has supercharged conspiracy-addled individuals’ ability to consume and spread gonzo theories. There are people who really believe in Pizzagate — many of them. There are people who really believe in QAnon — many of them. The conspiracies that pop up on 4chan and Reddit seem to only getting weirder and more popular.

Americans have always had a particular weakness for conspiracy theorizing, and the popularity of Pizzagate and QAnon is just the most extreme edge of a much larger problem: tens of millions of Americans don’t believe in evolution or global warming or the safety and efficacy of vaccines or countless other important, scientifically validated findings. To this day, many people believe that former president Obama is a Muslim, or that the Clintons have murdered dozens. All of which, from the point of view of elites, makes running a big, diverse, complicated country even more difficult than it would be otherwise.

Those who critique conspiracy theorizing tend to make the same seductive mistake over and over: We often believe that if we could just give people the right information, they’d come around. One more video laying out the science of greenhouse gases; one more video showing that a certain camera shot of the 9/11 attacks is misleading. But this isn’t how it works. People’s beliefs — particularly their most emotionally charged, politicized beliefs — don’t come from a place of cold empirical logic. Something else is going on, and the complexity of that something else has stalled experts’ attempts to help people understand the world in a more accurate, less conspiracy-addled way.

A new book could shake some much-needed new life into this conversation. In Enchanted America: How Intuition & Reason Divide Our Politics, recently released by the University of Chicago Press, J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, professors of political science at the University of Chicago and Ohio State University, respectively, offer a new, intriguing way of understanding the roots of false beliefs — and, by extension, the cacophonous mess of American politics. While their approach is, as they readily admit, rather new and likely subject to significant revision, it’s worth paying attention to.

Photo: University of Chicago Press

The foundation of Oliver and Wood’s argument is the well-established fact that our brains have evolved a number of heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to help us quickly sift and act upon the world’s endless firehose of information. These heuristics can cause us to make less-than-ideal decisions. The representative heuristic, or the tendency to overrate the likelihood of an event based on the ease of summoning a mental example, might cause us to choose to drive rather than fly just because there was a big, recent, attention-getting plane crash. (In fact, according to research cited by Oliver and Wood, travelers’ decisions to drive when it would have been safer to fly caused something like 1,200 unnecessary deaths in the years immediately after the September 11 attacks.) If you’re offered a great price on a house but turn it down when you find out a terrible crime was committed there, you’re falling victim to the contagion heuristic, or the idea of certain objects or people having some sort of ineffable harmful essence.

Many of these heuristics had useful evolutionary purposes; in the long run, they allowed our ancestors to survive, for our species to escape the trees and the caves and create safer, more lasting settlements like suburbs and megacities. There was likely a much greater evolutionary penalty for being too lackadaisical about the possibility of lurking lions than there was for being overly vigilant. Evolution shaped us, in various ways, to be more fearful and paranoid than we need to be, living as we do in an era in which few people die from lion attacks or light scratches that get infected.

Because our brains developed in such a different environment than the one most of us live in today, we aren’t entirely wired for precision and rationality when it comes to navigating the modern world. The same disgust mechanisms that in the past helped keep us away from rotting flesh or animal waste can misfire, causing us to fear, to take one common example, LGBT people. It remains a fascinating enterprise to watch social conservatives explain why gay sex is immoral, and the logical pretzels that ensue make a lot more sense when you recognize that, at root, many of these arguments are likely mere rationalizations for deep-seated feelings of disgust.

No one is totally free of these heuristics; they’re really built into who we are. But there are individual differences in the extent to which humans are driven by heuristics, and by other gut-level impulses. Enchanted America is most concerned with those at one end of the spectrum — people who engage in a lot of what the pair dub “magical thinking”:

When we refer to magical thinking, we are referring to a process that makes causal attributions to unobservable forces. For a belief to be magical, it must point to some invisible power, be it luck, God, or the Illuminati, that is making things happen. Of course, simply believing in an unobservable force or forces doesn’t make that belief magical — plenty of scientific theories refer to things we can’t directly observe (for example, dark matter). Rather, for a belief to be magical, it must also contradict an alternative explanation that is based on observable phenomena. Magical thinkers assume not only that hidden powers are behind much of what happens in the world, but that this explanation is more correct than an empirical one. [Emphasis theirs.]

Magical thinkers are the anti-vaxxers, the 9/11-truthers, and so on — people who are much less likely to be swayed by what others would describe as solid evidence about the genuine truth of these matters. Oliver and Wood have long been curious about what gives rise to this tendency, and to learn more they eventually developed a scale that can place individuals on a spectrum, with Rationalists — those who make decisions more on the basis of reason and evidence — on one end and Intuitionists — those who rely more on gut-level stuff like heuristics — on the other.

Scores on their Intuitionism scale, as they call it, are generated by respondents answering three groups of questions. The first two are fairly straightforward. One measures respondents’ level of apprehension by asking them about their behavior — questions like “How often do you check the locks on your doors and windows?” The second measures how anxious they are about the future with questions like “How likely is it that there will be a recession in the coming years?”

It’s really in the third section that a propensity for magical thinking comes in most directly. Here are the six questions asked in that section:

1. On the whole, would you rather …

a) stick your hands in a bowl of cockroaches?

b) stab a photograph of your family six times?

2. Would you rather spend the night in …

a) a luxurious house where a family had recently been murdered?

b) a grimy bus station?

3. Would you rather …

a) stand in line for three hours at the DMV?

b) secretly grind your shoe into an unmarked grave?

4. Would you rather …

a) ride in a speeding car without a seat belt?

b) yell “I hope I die tomorrow” six times out loud?

5. Would you rather …

a) sleep in laundered pajamas once worn by Charles Manson?

b) put a nickel in your mouth that you found on the ground?

6. Suppose you wanted to buy a ticket for a $500-million lottery. Would you rather buy your ticket from a nearby gas station that had …

a) never sold a winning ticket but had no lines?

b) sold two winning tickets in the past three years but had a long line?

Intuitionists, as defined by this scale, are likely to be apprehensive and pessimistic, both in their daily behavior and in their thoughts about the future, and to be superstitious in the sense of being willing to choose potentially harmful or physically unpleasant activities (riding in a speeding car without a seat belt) over ones that feel wrong but won’t actually have any real-world effect (yelling that you hope you die). “[W]e don’t mean to imply that symbolic actions are costless for us — stabbing a family photograph may make someone feel awful,” Oliver and Wood write. “But magical thinking arises precisely from our willingness to imbue a symbol with this emotional significance — to give ordinary objects sacred power is to make them emotionally potent.”

The researchers have now spent years administering the Intuition scale via public-opinion surveys, and, they argue, it “is a remarkable predictor of magical beliefs,” as well as political beliefs. All else being equal, the higher an individual’s Intuitionism score, the more likely they are to believe in ghosts and spirits, to be a Republican, and to identify with orthodox or fundamentalist religion; Intuitionists are also less likely to be highly educated and wealthy. (It’s worth noting that these are only correlations; there’s no way to say anything definitive about what is causing what. The authors suggest that material hardship could cause people to become more superstitious and fearful, but it could also be the case that Rationalists are better adapted for high-paying jobs than Intuitionists. Most likely, the causes and effects can flow in either direction.)

As you might suspect — and as Figure 3.5 indicates — conservatives skew Intuitionist. And Trump fans skew even more Intuitionist than that. Here is how supporters of the seven final candidates in the 2016 race scored on Intuitionism, compared to the average score of respondents. Before scrolling further, try to guess which Republican candidate, other than Trump, had the most Intuitionist flock.

Yup, Ben Carson. But it’s the Trumpenvolk who are, relative to followers of other politicians, the most fearful and superstitious. It should come as no surprise that they were drawn to a man constantly raising fears of immigrant invasions, foreign terrorists, and globe-spanning conspiracies with anti-Semitic undertones.

Oliver and Wood make it clear that when it comes to the question of Rationalism versus Intuitionism, they are partisans. “The Intuitionist/Rationalist split is not like other political divisions in the United States,” they write. “Intuitionism poses an existential threat to democracy. It is neither benign nor temperate. It bristles against open inquiry, is intolerant of opposition, and chafes at the pluralism and compromise modern democracy requires. It is prone to conspiracy theory, drawn to simple generalizations, and quick to vilify the other.” But they acknowledge that this area of study is not far enough along for them to have all that many concrete suggestions.

Maybe the first step is for writers, pollsters, and all the other elites who remain confused about Trump’s appeal to better educate themselves about the Intuitionism scale, as well as other related constructs like conspiracism (what it sounds like) and need for cognitive closure (a preference for simple, straightforward thoughts without much ambiguity). Absent these insights from political psychology, it’s easy to get caught in an endless cycle of befuddlement: How could evangelical “values voters” be so unconcerned that Trump is a philanderer and former supporter of reproductive rights? How could down-on-their luck working-class whites have such enthusiasm for a brash mogul, born into a rich family, who has endlessly ripped off people like them, and who has openly stated he will cut the welfare benefits keeping many of them alive and housed? How could white, educated suburban women vote for a man who has been credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults?

Intuitionism can’t completely answer these questions, but it’s a start. It offers a concrete, promising foundation for better understanding Trump fans and others who don’t seem to have the same approach to facts and evidence that Rationalists have. And a better understanding of the genuine psychological underpinnings of these beliefs might, in the long run, bring with it better tactics for convincing the conspiracy-addled to rejoin the reality-based community.

Can ‘Intuitionism’ Explain America’s Political Crisis?