Inherent cognitive vulnerability to conspiracist and extremist narratives

According to dual process theories of cognition, mental processes are divided into two broad categories: fast and automatic, and slow and deliberative.15 The human brain has a limited processing capacity. The external world of facts is complex, and the number of stimuli received by the brain far exceeds this limited capacity. Survival requires reconciling between data overload and available processing power. The brain has developed several strategies to that end. It filters incoming stimuli by attending to some and neglecting others, simplifies them, and organises and models them. For example, human ears only detect sounds within a limited frequency range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Human eyes can only see electromagnetic radiation within the visible spectrum (wavelengths between the ultraviolet and infrared). Further, through its mechanism of attention, the human brain singles out only a tiny fraction of received stimuli for processing and hides others. Less data is being stored in short-term memory and even less in long-term memory.16 To be more efficient and save precious and limited brain processing power, most complex cognitive and motor tasks and patterns have become automated. The brain has developed shortcuts and naïve thinking patterns, sometimes called heuristics or cognitive biases. For example, humans unconsciously detect stimuli that are deemed negative far more easily than those deemed neutral, and as such are risk-averse and have a negativity bias. Widespread recognition of this factor in economic decision-making has revolutionized contemporary economic theory (e.g., prospect theory). Other similar naïve thinking patterns and cognitive biases include confirmation bias, the availability heuristic, the illusion of control, and the endowment effect.17

On a more sophisticated and often conscious and cultural level, humans have further made connections between abstract concepts by creating theories, stories, and narratives. Myths are a higher-level means of modelling reality dating back thousands of years. Modern experimental science and evidence-based social sciences and humanities are other ways of making sense of the complexity of the world, and these are also based on models, metaphors, and narratives that connect different pieces of observation and evidence into a coherent theory. However, unlike myth-making, scientific methodology emphasizes objectivity, repeatability, and experimentation. This often results in explanations and theories that do not match intuitional and automated thinking patterns. It is true that science is fundamentally an attempt to extract patterns and make models from the complex natural environment, which necessarily requires highlighting some facts and hiding some others. However, unlike other forms of model-making such as religion, myth, or conspiracism, science only tolerates a limited degree of divergence from facts. Because of its commitment to ‘facts’, science is not necessarily capacitated to produce comprehensive, universal, perfectly cohesive and narrativised models of the world. Myth, religion, and conspiracy theories can, because of their loose commitment to facts.18 This commitment to facts and evidence and low reliance on naïve and automated thinking patterns functions as a communication hazard for science and other evidence-based human enquiries, thus making them more difficult to convey and persuade and longer to memorise and retrieve. Narratives underlying conspiracy theories and violent extremism match up better with some of our inherent intuitive thinking patterns and ancient and deeply held myths, metaphors, and symbolisms.19 It must be noted that this notion that people are cognitively vulnerable to narratives of violent extremism and conspiracy theories does not mean that such narratives are adhered to by the majority. Most modern societies have efficient educational institutions that at their core are aimed at training people to avoid these cognitive vulnerabilities and think critically. However, given the evolutionarily ingrained predilection to fast and easy thinking, people are still prone to irrational thinking, and more so, those who are less educated.