The Yellow Face, It Burns Us

Draw a picture of the sun. If you’re like us, you probably have to fight the urge to add a smiley face to it. That’s a cognitive leftover from our childhood: young children almost always add smiley faces to sun drawings, and believe that the sun benignly follows them around. It turns out that this same tendency, to assign agency to patterns and objects beyond our control, also drives conspiracy theorizing among adults. Our eagerness to find patterns may also help to explain why political myths and conspiracy theories persist or grow in the face of official denial — in that these denials can become evidence of an ever-widening conspiracy. [%comments]

Joe Smith

By and large politicians are not smart enough to organize or carry out the conspiracies attributed to them. Their criminal abilities seldom rise above the intellectual demands of petty thefts and frauds even though the actual sums involved may be large.


I freely admit that I clicked through for the header's Gollum reference.


And a study of probability and statistics should disabuse us of these notions but it doesn't. Seems it may really be a human trait to assign cause to random events, to look for control when none exists, to believe in invisible friends who send minions to look out for our well-being when the frequency of "blessings" is indistinguishable from random chance. Even knowing the numbers generally doesn't suffice to shake faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.


The Sun does follow me when I play SMB3.


Joe Smith:

Exactly! I extend this to all of government. Conspiracy theories that involve the FBI, CIA, and the like assume the government can operate at a level of organization and secrecy clearly not seen in real-life, non-conspiracy events.

I suppose you could say the government "fakes" their ineptitude so people don't believe conspiracy theories... but I think even that's easy to debunk.

To put it simply: the government can hide space aliens, spy on and control the lives of millions... yet can't balance a budget, and can't win a war against clearly inferior armies?

Avi Rappoport

crossing two of the Freakonomics blog topics: "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity."

Statistics are anti-intuitive, at least to those of us who don't find math very intuitive. The pattern thing makes us really bad at understanding random chance.


Speaking of conspiracies, when I saw this post in my RSS feed it was accompanied by a bright and shining animated ad for the Church of Scientology. Should I be amused or worried?


The Freakanomics editors are cruel, cruel hobitses! Luring us with you Smaegol references, and absolutely no connection with LOTR at all!


And one could argue there are similarities between conspiracy theorists and extreme rational choice economists.


From the article "In defence of absurd theories in economics":

A conspiracy "theorist" prefers to put nothing down to chance, happenstance, stupidity, or the unknown. Every little detail should slot into one and the same intricate pattern revealing a devious, monolithic plan that explains some episode of history as the result of a selfish, hyper-rational group or individual. Any detail or event put forward as an anomaly is taken as yet-to-be-explained feature that will - in time - fit into the grand picture. And finally, a good conspiracy theory integrates a wide variety of facts within a tightly argued theory unfolding from a few simple, almost tautologous "truths," and in the eyes of the theorist it fruitfully generates a search for further "evidence" concerning the same and other episodes in history that are used to support and develop the initial theory.

In the eyes of those who disbelieve a conspiracy theory, of course, such a "theory" is really only a flexible story-pattern that can be modified to incorporate anything you throw at it. The "theory" is compatible with anything, and thus does not "say" anything about reality. To the extent that it predicts correctly, it presumably does so because the putty-like flexibility has been shaped around observed and persistent regularities. To the extent that it predicts wrongly, it can be modified to fit any observed anomalies and retrospectively "explain" why they occurred.



Are the children really adding smiley faces to the sun on their own? Or they just replicate what they see in children books, toys, games, tv, movies & etc....

The idea of living in world of random and unpredictable events can be terrifying. Conspiracy theories are comforting at subconcious level. They gave the illusion of order, structure and control to chaos and the unknown.


I'm certain I never held a belief that the Sun followed my waking movements. I'd posit that many children associate happy faces with the warm fuzzy feeling of vitamin D creation on the skin.

Mike B

I think the sun-face effect might have more to do with selection bias than agent?icity. The sun is round, faces are round, the round sun invites a face more than the non-round objects on the page. I mean kids also draw faces on the moon and on flowers. Do they feel that there is some agent behind flowers opening? I doubt it.


Somehow as a kid I knew that the Moon is a celestial body w/ dust, craters etc. And then one night (I was ~5) I looked at the full moon and saw a smiling face. And it clearly followed me when I walked. I felt that my entire worldview is falling apart, even as my parents told me it's an illusion. I guess in the end I decided that an inanimate piece of rock got to make more sense than a face hanging in the sky.