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]


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  1. Joe Smith says:

    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.

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  2. Schizohedron says:

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

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  3. Nosybear says:

    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.

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  4. Sam says:

    The Sun does follow me when I play SMB3.

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  5. Christopher says:

    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?

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  6. Avi Rappoport says:

    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.

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  7. Johannes says:

    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?

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  8. Stephen says:

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

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