Saturday, October 04, 2008

Conspiracy Theories, Superstition, and Loss of Control

OK, so our financial system is in deep shit, and it's really hard to understand and really impersonal. You watch it and think, "What the fuck?" You feel helpless, buffeted by something out of your control. You just know there are shenanigans happening here. Seriously, some guys are making out like bandits--that much is clear. But could it even be bigger? Could this be a conspiracy between various government insiders and financial bigwigs to deliberately push the economy into a crisis, and then take greater authoritarian control as a "response" to the crisis. That's the basic theory of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, right?

Anyone who knows me knows I am a big disbeliever in conspiracy theories. I feel there is randomness all around us, but there is something inate in humans that seeks to find patterns in the randomness. Apparently Jennifer Whitson, a professor at the McComb's School, has experimentally determined this to be so. Her experiments were about how much we found patterns in randomness based on how "helpless" or "out of control" we felt. She had her tests subjects and her control subjects put in situations where they either were not in control (in an unpleasant way) of a situation or masters of it. Then she had the groups look at TV static. And the ones who were feeling a lack of control were more likely to see patterns in the static.

This strongly suggests that this tendency to see patterns (whether or not they actually exist) when stressed had some evolutionary benefit back in the days of our primitive ancestors. One can imagine our ape-like forebears in a jungle, stressed by the constant danger of predators, disease, inclement weather--things primitive men had no control over. Then there is a rustle in the leaves, then a strange noise. Is it just random noise--wind blowing, a chipmunk or a bird? Or is it a pack of predators? Our ancesters assumed the latter, ran like hell, and lived to gather bananas another day. In other words, this stress-induced pattern recognition helped them survive.

But this survival instinct causes all kinds of irrational behavior in civilized men. We can see it in history. Think of medievel man, trapped in his "demon haunted world." He couldn't understand anything about his world, and any deviation from the patterns he expected must have caused him great distress. It's easy to see how such a man would imagine a virtual parallel unseen world, overlaid with ours, full of malign Walpurgis Nacht-like creatures. Reading Patrick O'Brian's brilliant series of books set on British warships in the Napoleonic War, one is struck by the variety of weird superstitions that sailors (and even the officers) had. But if you think that at that time, there were few people less in control of their enviroment than sailors, it makes perfect sense. Those superstitions are their attempt to achieve a kind of spurious control.

I expect we'll see a variety of conspiracy theories arise out of this crisis, as people feel helpless and sense ominous rustling in the jungle.

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