The psychology of crankery

ResearchBlogging.orgOur recent discussions of HIV/AIDS denial and in particular Seth Kalichman’s book “Denying AIDS” has got me thinking more about the psychology of those who are susceptible to pseudoscientific belief. It’s an interesting topic, and Kalichman studies it briefly in his book mentioning the “suspicious minds”:

At its very core, denialism is deeply embedded in a sense of mistrust. Most obviously, we see suspicion in denialist conspiracy theories. Most conspiracy theories grow out of suspicions about corruptions in government, industry, science, and medicine, all working together in some grand sinister plot. Psychologically, suspicion is the central feature of paranoid personality, and it is not overreaching to say that some denialists demonstrate this extreme. Suspicious thinking can be understood as a filter through which the world is interpreted, where attention is driven towards those ideas and isolated anecdotes that confirm one’s preconceived notions of wrong doing. Suspicious thinkers are predisposed to see themselves as special or to hold some special knowledge.
Psychotherapist David Shpairo in his classic book Neurotic Styles describes the suspicious thinker. Just as wee see in denialism, suspiciousness is not easily penetrated by facts or evidence that counter individuals’ preconceived worldview. Just as Shapiro describes in the suspicious personality, the denialist selectively attends to information that bolsters his or her own beliefs. Denialists exhibit suspicious thinking when they manipulate objective reality to fit within their beliefs. It is true that all people are prone to fit the world into their sense of reality, but the suspicious person distorts reality and does so with an uncommon rigidity. The parallel between the suspicious personality style and denialism is really quite compelling. As described by Shapiro:

A suspicious person is a person who has something on his mind. He looks at the world with fixed and preoccupying expectation, and he searches repetitively, and only, for confirmation of it. He will not be persuaded to abandon his suspicion of some plan of action based on it. On the contrary, he will pay no attention to rational arguments except to find in them some aspect or feature that actually confirms his original view. Anyone who tries to influence or persuade a suspicious person will not only fail, but also, unless he is sensible enough to abandon his efforts early will, himself, become an object of the original suspicious idea.

The rhetoric of denialism clearly reveals a deeply suspicious character. In denialism, the science of AIDS is deconstructed to examine evidence taken out of context by non-scientists. The evidence is assimilated into one’s beliefs that HIV does not cause AIDS, that HIV tests are invalid, that the science is corrupt, and aimed to profit Big Pharma.

The insights offered by Shapiro are that denialists are not “lying” in the way that most anti-denialists portray them. The cognitive style of the denialist represents a warped sense of reality for sure, explaining why arguing or debating with a denialist gets you nowhere. But the denialist is not the evil plotter they are often portrayed as. Rather denialists are trapped in their denialism.

Psychologically, certain people seem predisposed to suspicious thinking and it seems this may be true of denialism as well. I submit that dienialism stems from a conspiracy-theory-prone personality style. We see this in people who appear predisposed to suspiciousness, and these people are vulnerable to anti-establishment propaganda. We know that suspicious people view themselves as the target of wrongdoing and hold persecutory ideas.

I agree that this certainly represents a portion of denialists, but not all. I think others, for example creationists and global warming denialists, tend to have a different motivation and style, due to ideological extremism that warps their worldview. Ideological and paranoid denialism can co-exist within denialist camps, or even within an individual, but there are areas where the overlap is incomplete. Still, the issue of the suspicious personality style is important.

We all know this person. If you don’t, maybe you know Dale Gribble (AKA Rusty Shackleford).


I just know Mike Judge has met the suspicious personality style and encapsulated the extreme of this personality in this character. Dale inevitably sees every event as tied to some bizarre government/alien conspiracy, and inevitably the other men in the alley ignore his interjections or Hank simply says, “that’s asinine”. Hank is a wise man. To argue with a Dale would only make you look like the fool.

Some anti-denialists sites have recently brought to my attention a growing body of work trying to understand how people become conspiracy theorists. Two papers in particular are of interest, the first Unanswered Questions: A Preliminary Investigation of
Personality and Individual Difference Predictors of 9/11 Conspiracist Beliefs
[1] is an interesting study because it provides some explanation for crank magnetism.

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