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Rational behaviour emerging from irrational certainty?

Last Updated 2022/04/12

Updated 05/08/2020 Whether you think you are rational or irrational, you’re right. Do you believe in the time-worn adage "The customer is always right" or "A fool and his money are soon separated." How about "Birds of a feather flock together"? If so, do you also believe "Opposites attract"? Even if you believe none of these, you will have multiple core beliefs - or axioms - that you consider self-evidently true. How often do you question the validity of these axioms? "Birds of a feather flock together" and "Opposites attract" are contradictory, or are they loosely indicative of a more nuanced truth that needs clarification? Conspiracy theorists are maddening because they appear to be rational in their justifications; their statements have an internal logic if you accept that the primary axiom, or the foundational truth which they believe is unshakeable. This is why it can be so difficult to convince them with what appears to be logical. The truly worrying aspect is that - despite perceiving ourselves as rational beings - we all suffer from this type of malady to some degree, even if you do believe in the validity of the moon-landing, the oblate-spheroid earth shape, or vaccines.

How much is the ball?

Consider the bat and ball problem:

A bat and a ball together cost £1.10. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much is the ball?

You have probably warily muttered '10p' to yourself. You know this is likely wrong, but your intuitive initial answer convinces you that it must be 10p. Now when I tell you it is wrong, what are your first assumptions? If you are thinking "It's a trick question or "It must be a riddle". You are following the exact path of a conspiracy theorist.

Gödel help us

Well, you are following them to a point: a conspiracy theorist will steadfastly refuse to revise the belief that their first intuitive answer must be true. Instead anything contradicting their intuitive belief must be side-stepped, as it would be more outlandish for that axiom to be wrong than any circuitous reasoning that justifies it. An individual's ego-driven need for certain axioms to be true is universal. Atheist or theist, chemtrail-ist or contrail-ist, you are likely to be highly emotionally tied to the underlying beliefs which inform your viewpoint. It is almost impossible to convince someone that their axioms are flawed, because beneath the primary axiom is this meta-axiom of self-belief that is never addressed by logically deconstructing an argument about Obama’s birth certificate, Sandy Hook as a false-flag, or lizard people.

"I am the rational keeper and protector of sacred, esoteric knowledge"

This meta-axiom must be preserved at all costs, as it is the basis of all self-worth for the conspiracy theorist. A recent study demonstrated that conspiracy theorists would believe in a fabricated conspiracy if they heard that a small percentage of the general population believed it (<20%), but would be indifferent if it was generally believed by the population (>80%). This may be the reason that we will never extinguish the tendency with de-platforming: there will always be a fresh conspiracy to take its place, and the thirst for conspiracy is not quenched by the validation of an existing one.

What are you certain of?

According to philosopher Justin E Smith, human beings are uniquely irrational rather than rational, and attempts to impose rationality in society results in a huge reaction of irrationality. He argues that the excellent results of rational thinking in mechanical engineering and science led to the modern idea of a human as a ‘sub-machine within a big machine of society’, but that this weak analogy does not adequately frame human behaviour. Phenomena such as the halo effect, court judges being more harsh before lunch, and evidence that using science in an argument actually makes people more partisan all contribute to this perception, and possibly to a growing sense of anxiety about the future of humanity. The counterpoint to all this bleakness is that we humans are successful by dint of our irrationality. It is impossible to be perfectly rational at all times even if your axioms are sensible, as all the myriad factual information is not available that could conceivably affect an outcome. If you refuse to contemplate taking action until all the facts are in, then there will never be any decisive action. Emotions play such a part in your decision-making process that any damage to the region of the brain associated with emotion leads to endless procrastination in the individual. How does this relate to conspiracy theorists? Well, as discussed above conspiracy theorists most specious axiom is that they are one of the select few capable of true rationality. The key to unlocking their obsession may be in revealing the contextual advantage of irrationality itself, and the inevitability of both succumbing to it and succeeding by it. The ego-driven axiom of being the “rational keeper of sacred knowledge” may be undone by making the awareness of irrationality a quality to be brandished, just as the pursuit of perfect rationality has been in the past. If this can be marketed to individuals the same way the sage wise man/nerd-savant is marketed to teenage boys, then there may be hope. The same applies to any beliefs about business: you may make decisions about your market, growth, or employees based on an axiomatic choice that you made years ago without revisiting in the present day. Just look at industries that tried to hold on to business models that were long defunct: the recording and film industry with streaming (who both saw it as a conspiracy by their customers, and had them arrested), the camera film industry with digital sensors (kodak invented the first digital camera, then suppressed it). Axioms may be self-evidently true at one time, but you are not the sole arbiter of the persistence of that truth, and you are not entitled to be magically informed any time that changes. I cannot be certain, of course: the ball may actually be 10p, and to think otherwise is just what 'Big Supermarket' wants you to think.

Adam Sykes