Eric Oliver
Big Brains podcst

The Science of Conspiracy Theories and Political Polarization with Eric Oliver (Ep. 25)

A UChicago political science professor explains how the same force that drives conspiracy theories is intensifying political polarization in our country. 

Eric Oliver
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

The “birthers,” “Pizzagate,” anti-vaxxers. Since the election of Donald Trump, it’s seemed that belief in conspiracy theories is on the rise. At the same time, our polarization is worse than ever. People can hardly even maintain a conversation across political or cultural lines. Could the underlying force driving conspiracy theories also be the same one that’s dividing our country?

University of Chicago Political Science Professor Eric Oliver, who’s been studying conspiracy theories for over a decade, says his research shows how one basic tension explains both belief in conspiracy theories and our political divide. Deeper than red or blue, liberal or conservative, we’re actually divided by intuitionists and rationalists.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.
(Episode published May 20, 2019)



Paul Rand: The American people have always been obsessed with conspiracy theories. 

Tape: Who actually fired the shots that killed Kennedy? Was there a conspiracy?

Tape: We’re now learning Area 51, America’s capital city for UFO sightings and the stuff of Hollywood science fiction is apparently real.

Paul Rand: What used to be regulated to the back corners and chatrooms of our society is starting to make its way into the mainstream…even to the White House.

Tape: It’s no overstatement to say that Donald Trump’s path to the White House began with a single conspiracy theory that being that Barack Obama wasn’t an American, the so called birther conspiracy.

Tape: Those Trump supporters you see waving around the letter Q printed on signs and on their tshirts are followers of Q, an anonymous poster on the message boards 4chan and 8chan. Q claims to be sharing insider government secrets with the masses.

Paul Rand: And things are actually becoming dangerous.

Tape: Fake news, real gunfire. A North Carolina man arrested in a DC pizza shop after brandishing a gun, telling police he was there to investigate a conspiracy theory called “Pizzagate”. 

Tape: There are measles outbreaks happening in Washington state and Oregon right now that have people furious at people who refuse to vaccinate their kids. They say the antivaxxers are putting their lives at risk. Why doesn’t this conspiracy theory die?

Paul Rand: So what makes one person believe in conspiracy theories while another laughs it off?

Eric Oliver: What we see when we see people engaged in conspiracy theories is that they're drawing on their own intuitions to make sense of the world.

Paul Rand: That’s University of Chicago Political Science Professor Eric Oliver. He’s been studying conspiracy theories, and the people who believe in them for a decade. What he’s discovered has led to a theory that could explain not only why people are drawn to conspiracy theories, but why our increasingly polarized country seems to be tearing itself apart.

Eric Oliver: In some ways people who exhibit extreme behaviors or extreme tendencies can be illustrative for us when we're trying to figure out how ordinary people make sense of the world.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago this is Big Brains, a podcast about the stories behind the pivotal research and pioneering breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, Eric Oliver, conspiracy theories, and our divided country. I’m you’re host Paul Rand.

Eric Oliver: I first got interested in conspiracy theories when I was a long-haired graduate student walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. As some people may know, Berkeley is filled with a lot of interesting characters who are typically shouting at other people. And this one guy comes up to me and says, hey man you got to look at this. The entire paper was filled in very small script with his conspiracy theory about Queen Elizabeth and the Trilateral Commission and aliens. And, at first, I thought, oh this guy's just another Berkeley crazy, but then I stopped and said, you know, this is actually how he's perceiving the world, and I, as a political science student, was trying to think about how people conceive of politics. And it occurred to me that, wow this guy has not only a different way of looking at the world but he's so motivated he wants to go out and spread it and maybe there's more going on here than I may realize.

Paul Rand: That interaction imbedded itself in Oliver’s memory. Ten years later when he was a political science professor collecting survey data, that disheveled man and his conspiracy theory popped back into Oliver’s head.

Eric Oliver: Well, I’d always been fascinated with conspiracy theories, and I always thought about this guy. And I actually had some room on a survey I was running, and it occurred to me like, oh I've got a few survey questions I'm curious how common these types of conspiracy theories are in the public at large. So, I've been asking about conspiracy theories for about 12 years now in various surveys. And, usually ask about six or seven different conspiracy theories. Usually find about half of the public will agree with at least one of them. These range from what might seem really outlandish conspiracy theories, for example, the idea that vapor trails that follow jets are a campaign of secret government spraying to ideas that , for example, the Food and Drug Administration is deliberately withholding natural cures for cancer from secret pressure from the pharmaceutical industry. And we using get about 40 percent of Americans agreeing with that idea. 

Paul Rand: My goodness.  And so those are some of the biggest ones that you’re hear out there right now.

Eric Oliver: Well, the most common ones would be something like that, the Food and Drug Administration one. The Obama birther conspiracy. 

Paul Rand: Still out there?

Eric Oliver: Still out there, still has some purchase. Not as common as when Barack Obama was president, but we still get about 18 to 20 percent of people, depending on the survey, will say that they agree with that. The 911 truther conspiracy theory usually gets somewhere between 17 and 20 percent of people agreeing with that one as well 

Paul Rand: Those are some staggeringly high numbers.

Eric Oliver: And I think, what got me interested in this was like, wow what is really going on here? Why are so many people engaged in conspiracy theories, why are so many people captivated by them and what do they say about how we comprehend the world? And so, when we started doing research, my co-author Tom Wood, who was a graduate student here at the time at Chicago, we started doing surveys. And we started looking around at what might be some things that correlate with belief in conspiracy theories. And the things that correlated most strongly with conspiracy theories were things like believing in supernatural or paranormal phenomena and then that's what got us interested in magical thinking and realizing that, oh well conspiracy theory seems to be similar to these things and it's a form of magical thinking. And what magical thinking is is when we basically make attributions to unobservable forces to try to explain some event. What's important about magical thinking is not simply that we just invoke the unobservable force, but that we also reject an alternative explanation that is based on something that's observable. What we came to realize, looking at the research in anthropology and psychology on magical thinking on magical beliefs, was that this was a form of intuitive thinking.

Paul Rand: Oliver and Wood used the data they collected to write Enchanted America. Their book shows that most people fall somewhere on a scale between being what they call an intuitionist or a rationalist. And it’s this polarization that may explain why our country feels so at odds. Deeper than blue or red, liberal or conservative, we’re actually divided by intuitionists and rationalists.

Eric Oliver: In the book, we talk about the difference between sort of rationalists and intuition parts of our minds. The rational part of our mind is pretty transparent for the most part. We can see kind of clear logic and deduction and facts and claims and rational thinking is notable for its ostensible transparency. Intuitions on the other hand kind of arise from the dark, murky, unconscious well of the soul. It's been something that poets and philosophers have struggled for centuries to try to understand. And so, we were trying to think, well how can we systematically understand how intuitions function? We came up with basically two general ideas from literatures and anthropology and psychology on this. One of which is that our intuitions are based in our emotions. And, when we're feeling uncertainty about the world, it generates a lot of anxiety. That's an uncomfortable position for us. Any animal that lives in uncertainty is in danger. And so, we spend a lot of our lives trying to reduce our uncertainty. We have very strong natural inclinations. And so, when we're facing something that's unclear our intuitions are, let’s find an answer as quickly as possible. Moreover, our intuitions also draw on our anxiety. So if we're feeling anxious, we look for an explanation that rationalizes that emotional experience. 

So my son, when he was five—and children are great intuitionists—my son one night was just convinced there was a month monster in the closet. And after 20 minutes of looking in the closet and turning on the lights and trying to rationalize with him and telling him that there's no monster in the closet, no monster in closet, he finally turned and looked at me and said, you know Dad, if there's no monster in the closet than why am I afraid. And I was like, you got me there, pal. But that's basically how our intuitions work, we feel fear and we look for explanations that accord with our own feelings of anxiety and in some ways, this is what conspiracy theories are out there doing. Since we're feeling afraid, there must be a monster in the closet.

Then the second part of intuitions is that intuition actually have a grammar to them. Our intuitions don't fly around willy-nilly, but they're bound by certain types of heuristics. And heuristics are these certain judgmental shortcuts that we make when we’re trying to understand the world. For example, it's very common across religious beliefs to have what we would call a contagion heuristic. The idea that if you touch something that's taboo you will be tainted, and you need to be purified, or that a relic that's holy has some sort of essence that if you have contact with it, you'll get that transmitted as well. And that's how our brains work.

Paul Rand: So, if we have listeners that are listening to this episode of Big brains, and they're sitting there thinking, well interesting, I wonder if I'm an intuitionist or a rationalist. How do you…do you look at somebody and say, oh I can tell who you are. Is there a mode of thinking that helps assess that?

Eric Oliver: So I can offer a few quick questions that are pretty good diagnostic. So, we typically ask people in our surveys a couple of things and say, just tell us the first answer that comes to your mind and say: would you rather stab a photograph of your family five times with a sharp knife or stick your hand in a bowl of cockroaches?

Paul Rand: That's a really crazy question.

Eric Oliver: It gets it gets better. 

Paul Rand: Thank you by the way for not asking for an answer from me.

Eric Oliver: And I'll explain the logic behind that. Would you rather sleep in laundered pajamas once worn by Charles Manson or pick a nickel off the ground and put it in your mouth? Would you rather spend the night in that dingy bus station or spend the night in a luxurious house where a family was once murdered? What we’re doing with these questions is we are asking people to compare basically what our tangible costs to symbolic cost. So, for example, stabbing a photograph of our family, it’s just a piece of paper. But, for a lot of people, stabbing a photograph feels like we're violating and are doing harm to a family member. It's like the equivalent of a voodoo doll. And so that's very emotionally costly for them seem. Similarly, sleeping in launder pajamas once worn by Charles Manson, they're just cloth on our body, but the idea that Charles Manson had contact with them, it's a contagion heuristic. So these things end up being emotionally costly. And so people who are very sensitive to these types of heuristics are people who tend to then rely on their intuitions a lot more.

Paul Rand: If you had to put a number, a percentage on the U.S. electorate, in terms of rationalist or intuitionists, how would you say that would break out today?

Eric Oliver: So like a lot of things, we tend to talk about the poles of the spectrum and most people tend to be in the middle. The same thing with ideology, most Americans are pretty moderate in their political preferences. They may describe themselves as conservative, but they actually have a lot of liberal policy viewpoints and they end up being kind of clustered in the middle. On our scales, most people are in the middle.

Paul Rand: 70 percent?

Eric Oliver: I would say probably around 60 percent are in the middle. It's actually hard to find very strong strong rationalists. I would say intuitionists in the remaining group outnumber rationalists by about 2 to 1.

Paul Rand: Once you begin to understand this separation of intuitionists and rationalists, you can start to see how it cuts to the core divisions in our country. That’s coming up after the break.


Paul Rand: Oliver’s theory about rationalists and intuitionists begins to provide answers to some troubling questions about our society. Conundrums like, Evangelical voters supporting a candidate who seems completely out of line with their values, or progressive Berkeley parents who are also anti-vaxxers, start to make sense. Oliver says this all came into sharp focus when he met a woman named Lucy Ryan.

Eric Oliver: When we were doing research into this book, we were doing both surveys and we were going out and talking to people in depth and Lucy was a woman who lived in Texas. And, at first glance, Lucy seemed like the kind of person who would be kind of a left-wing hippie. She's really into organic medicine. She was an elementary school teacher. She’s very very suspicious of banks and the financial industry. She wants to have more spending for the poor and for medical care. But then you talk to Lucy and it turns out that she was a member of a Tea Party. She believed that Barack Obama faked his birth certificate. She was a big supporter of Ben Carson in the primaries and then switched her allegiance to Donald Trump. And she really really hates Obamacare. And so when we were trying to talk to her and reconcile how can she have, on the one hand, some of these types of beliefs and some of these contradictory beliefs, and we were working with her and we were getting nowhere and finally she turned and looked at us and she said, you know the difference between you and me is that you believe in reason and I believe in the Bible. And that was a really prescient observation on her part because what she was basically telling us was that she didn't see the world in the same way that we saw the world. Whereas we were looking for logical consistency and facts, for her the world is a place of prophecy and symbol and myth and these are the things that organize her world view. And our reason-based way of understanding the world just doesn't hold a lot of meaning for her and relevance for her in comparison to her idea like, for example, that we're living in the end of times as foretold by biblical prophecy. And from that perspective everything is ripe with symbolism. And Lucy is not alone in that, about 30 percent of Americans share that belief that that we're living in the apocalypse.

Paul Rand: That's a very very high number. And so that actually getting to some of these things, if 30 percent of the people have that belief, If they're looking out of the same lens as Lucy, that starts providing some insight into some of the things that may be going on in our world and how this sense of polarization may be occurring.

Eric Oliver: Well it is, because when we're talking about the difference between liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans, we're not simply just talking about differences in philosophy of government. What's been happening over the past 40 years in the United States, is that conservatism has become increasingly an intuitionist movement. In other words, rational conservatives have been increasingly relegated to the wilderness and mainstream conservatism is dominated by conspiratorial type of thinking, emotional type of thinking, these kind of strong invocations of nationalism.I think what we've seen now in the past couple of years is really with Donald Trump, who is just the most stridently intuitionist political figure we've seen in our generation, the fact that he has come to dominate the Republican Party and dominate conservative politics and rationalist conservatives really find themselves on the right right now in the wilderness. Just really very much estranged from their own ideological brethren. And so one reason why liberals and conservatives have such a difficult time talking to each other, it's not simply that they have different policy preferences, it's that they have a different worldview oftentimes. One is evoking reason and policy and facts and one is evoking symbol and metaphor and gut feeling. This worldview is actually an organizing force in politics, in the same way that say party or ideology or even race are organizing forces in American politics. If you take a rationalist liberal and rationalist conservative, they may disagree about say starting principles, but there is a common language that they can use to discuss issues and debate issues amongst each other. However, if you’re like me or anybody who’s had a conversation with someone who has a belief, a strong strong belief in something, say a conspiracy theory or the idea that uncle Mural is coming back as a ghost. And you just cannot talk to that person and there’s just no basis of communication and then you realize you just have to change the subject.

Paul Rand: And your idea is that that's actually happening more and more and more.

Eric Oliver: I think so, I think our political discourse is getting more polarized along this dimension. And it masks itself as an ideological polarization, but it's really not ideology. And the interesting thing is if you look at contemporary presidential politics and the Republican Party, they don't really look like your father's Republican party. And there's something much much more populist. And that's that kind of populism that really speaks to this kind of intuitive sense of a politics. 

Paul Rand: So if we went back 500 years, are we seeing other periods of history where there is such a discrepancy between the intuition and the rationalists.

Eric Oliver: Well, if you went back 500 years you might say the difference is between kind of the beginnings of science and the Enlightenment versus the magical sources within the church in western Europe. In the United States, we don't really have data going back. I think there's always been a very strong intuitionist element, but it hasn't necessarily been aligned with one political side or the other, that's newer. And you know there's still a lot of intuitionism on the left. There's still a lot of conspiracy theorists on the left, there's a lot of magical thinking on the left. It's not like the left is immune to this by any means. But if you look at where the left begins in the United States, it's really during the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century. This was an idea of having a more science based orientation around politics. So, we can solve society's problems by taking the tools of science and developing policies and thinking very rational and clearly about these as a way of sort of bettering democracy. So, I think liberalism in the Unites States really begins kind of in the beginning the 20th century and kind of crystallizes most clearly in the New Deal. 

Tape: This Social Security measure gives at least some protection to 50 million of our citizens. 

Eric Oliver: Conservatism begins to really emerge in the late 1950s in response to the New Deal and crystallized in the 1960s. You can think about someone like William F. Buckley.

Tape: Tonight from Washington D.C., “Firing Line”. The role of the conservative being one that needs to avoid gimmicky solutions to every ache in the body politic. Even so, I wonder if the conservative community has been creative as it out to be.

Eric Oliver: And then what begins to happen is, as the conservative coalition seeks to build and expand and particularly in response to a lot of discomfort that a number of Americans were having towards the secularization and liberalization of American society, in particular like Supreme Court decisions that, for example, banned prayer in school in the 1960s…

Tape: The Supreme Court has made a judgement. A good many people will obviously disagree with it, others will agree with it. But I think it is important for us, if we’re going to maintain our constitutional principle, that we support Supreme Court decisions even when we may not agree with them.

Eric Oliver: There was a lot of apprehension around desegregation efforts in the south, where a lot of fundamentalist Christians were. And their fears of religious schools becoming integrated that really politicized groups that were otherwise not that interested in politics. They were strongly intuitionist and not that interest in politics, and then of course with Roe v. Wade and abortion, pulled this group into politics.

Tape: Good evening. In a landmark ruling the Supreme Court today legalized abortions.

Tape: I think that to raise the dignity of women and to give her freedom of choice in this area is an extraordinary event. And I think that January 22nd1973 will be a historic day.

Tape: In this instance, the Supreme Court has withdrawn protection for the human rights of unborn children. I think that the judgement of the court will do a great deal to tear down the respect previously accorded human life in our culture. 

Eric Oliver: And really politicized a set of religious beliefs and located them strongly within the conservative movement and began to orient the conservative movement around them.

Paul Rand: So if this deep, personal difference is what’s dividing our country, what can we do about it? That’s after the break.


Paul Rand: Each of us knows far too well what it looks like to see a rationalist and intuitionist debate each other. We’ve all seen stories of two relatives who, every Thanksgiving, are going to spend dinner yelling at each other and seemingly getting nowhere. But when that argument scales up to a national level, Oliver says it threatens to do real harm to our society. 

Eric Oliver: Well I'm alarmed by this. And the reason I'm alarmed is that, if you look at the history of modern democracy it's a product of the Enlightenment. If you look at our country's founders, they were looking at early Enlightenment philosophers and saying, how do we challenge the arbitrary power of kings and popes and whatnot. And we do this through reason and deduction. And James Madison writes very eloquently about this in the Federalist Papers that the whole sense of our government is to actually thwart passions and intuitions and their role in politics. And the whole separation of powers, and the structure of government was set up to because they were very apprehensive about this as a destabilizing force for democracy. People who tend to rely heavily on their emotions and their intuitions to make sense of politics, they don't really have a sense of tolerance for opposition. They're not really happy to extend civil liberties to people they disagree with. They're not really very interested in compromise, and particularly if like you're trying to compromise across this worldview spectrum, that's going to be something that’s very challenging to do when you have just a very different sense of what reality is that makes compromising that much more difficult. And that’s what democratic politics is, it’s about compromise, it’s about respecting other people’s rights. As long as this intuitive force was evenly distributed across the political spectrum its effects get muted somewhat, but when it begins to become concentrated on one end, that becomes a source of concern.

Paul Rand: So is there some counter. If you went back and, assuming the person that you ran into on the street as a young man in Berkeley, was not mentally ill but believed what he was actually telling you and you actually wanted to change his mind. Could you change his mind? And if so how would you do it?

Eric Oliver: Well I often get this question when I'm giving talks about this and it's often from a liberal audience and they want to know how do we reach the other side. And everybody has their example of going home for Thanksgiving and talking to that family member whom they just can't communicate with or somebody on the street, the difficulty of trying to reason with that person. And I oftentimes then go back and think about the example with my son and the monster in the closet. Reasoning and trying to reason away the monster in the closet did not make the monster go away. But listening to my son and acknowledging, oh you know the monsters there that must be very scary for you, that was the opening for conversation. Oftentimes we disparage conspiracy theorists, we see oftentimes the worst of conspiracy theories. But you know conspiracies do happen. There are bad actors in the world, operating in secret. Governments, corporations, other entities occasionally do bad things or intentionally try to do bad things. And saying that, yeah, the world's a big scary place and there are bad things that happen and there are things that we need to be aware of and saying okay that's happening and maybe this is very scary for you. I mean that's I think one way of trying to bridge this gap is at least acknowledging that where people are when they're drawing on conspiracy theories is that they're actually drawing on their emotions. And so we need to speak to their emotional side. How do we do this in a mass politics, I’m not so sure. On the more positive side, trying to think about say like what a Barack Obama does is talk about hope, or even a Ronald Reagan, talking about kind of hope, a positive vision of a unified country, sort of something that's more aspirational on that side.

Episode List

Why we die—and how we can live longer, with Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishan (Ep. 134)

Nobel Prize-winning scientist explains how our quest to slow aging is becoming a reality

What dogs are teaching us about aging, with Daniel Promislow (Ep. 133)

World’s largest study of dogs finds clues in exercise, diet and loneliness

Where has Alzheimer’s research gone wrong? with Karl Herrup (Ep. 132)

Neurobiologist claims the leading definition of the disease may be flawed—and why we need to fix it to find a cure

Why breeding millions of mosquitoes could help save lives, with Scott O’Neill (Ep. 131)

Nonprofit's innovative approach uses the bacteria Wolbachia to combat mosquito-borne diseases

Why shaming other countries often backfires, with Rochelle Terman (Ep. 130)

Scholar examines the geopolitical impacts of confronting human rights violations

Can Trump legally be president?, with William Baude (Ep. 129)

Scholar who ignited debate over 14th Amendment argument for disqualification examines upcoming Supreme Court case

What our hands reveal about our thoughts, with Susan Goldin-Meadow (Ep. 128)

Psychologist examines the secret conversations we have through gestures

Psychedelics without the hallucinations: A new mental health treatment? with David E. Olson (Ep. 127)

Scientist examines how non-hallucinogenic drugs could be used to treat depression, addiction and anxiety

Do we really have free will? with Robert Sapolsky (Ep. 126)

Renowned scholar argues that biology doesn’t shape our actions; it completely controls them

A radical solution to address climate change, with David Keith (Ep. 125)

Solar geoengineering technology holds possibilities and pitfalls, renowned scientist argues

Master of Liberal Arts