Bank like there’s no one watching

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals Column.

As Barclays prepares for an inquiry into its practices, 15 banks lined up behind it, Bob Diamond must be haunted by what he said at last year’s BBC Today business lecture: “Culture is difficult to define, I think it’s even more difficult to mandate – but for me the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching.”

Well, we’re all watching now. Most of us are viewing with cynicism - with thoughts that sharp practice is fairly inevitable and that we’ll probably find more as the investigation unfolds. But perhaps we should all be more shocked. After all, we naturally treat others surprisingly fairly, even when given the power not to. What went so wrong here?
 
Here's a classic experiment that might help - it's known as the ultimatum game. In this game, you are given some money and one condition: you must share the money with another. If the other turns the money down, though, both of you lose it.
 
Now, the logical response to the condition is to offer your partner the smallest amount possible. They might be slightly annoyed, but at least they got something out of it. To the surprise of the economists who thought up the test, though, this is not what happened. Instead, subjects gave out far more money than they needed to.
 
What made them so generous? The researchers speculated that it was fear of rejection: they didn't want to make the other person angry enough to walk away from the deal. 
 
But what happens when the respondent’s power of rejection is taken away? A slight change to the ultimatum game turns it into the dictator game. In this version partner can simply dictate how much the other receives. No fear of rejection here - the second partner must just take what they are offered. But here again, the experimenters were surprised - dictators turned out to be unnecessarily generous. 
 
What's going on? It can't just be the fear of being turned down. One explanation that fits is that people have a sense of fairness. We simply don't want to act too selfishly. 
 

See no evil

 

But there was a way to change players’ commitment to fairness: isolation. When put in a separate room from their partners, with no access to their reaction, the dictators started handing out tiny amounts – the smallest they could get away with. The lethal combination of power and isolation seemed finally to put paid to their empathetic instincts. When no one was watching, they just didn’t care. 

Back to the bankers, then: we can’t expect people to act fairly or even legally if they are given a large amount of power in isolation from those affected by their decisions. We like to seem fair, but this only works with an audience. A culture where no one is watching is a culture doomed to corruption.
Shadowy figures. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories

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"They’re turning the frogs gay": The psychology behind internet conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are appearing on both the political left and right. 

They’re turning the frogs gay.

If you have ever watched a video by the internet’s premier conspiracy theorist, Infowars’ Alex Jones, you will know that this is an undeniable fact. Chemicals in the water are turning the (frigging) frogs gay.

The blatant absurdity of this conspiracy theory (which scientist is perving on homosexual amphibians, anyway? Stop them) makes it one of the most widely mocked and memed of Jones’ outbursts. Yet despite the ridiculousness of the red-faced ranter, he has a large and vocal fan base that even includes the 45th president of the United States himself.

We seem to be living in an era where conspiracy theories are booming. From Hillary Clinton’s paedophile pizza parlour, to Russian hackers, Red Pillers, Obama's communist coup and Trump’s 4D Chess – the internet has been flooded with conspiracies from both the Left and Right. Dr Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who specialises in mass delusions, believes that social media has exacerbated conspiracy culture.

“We now live in a niche world, making it easier for people to construct their own reality - a world as they want it to be, not as it is,” he says. “A person who believes that Obama wasn’t born in the US can just visit sites that reinforce his or her beliefs." Batholomew explains that because of the internet, conspiracies can be passed on “at the speed of light”, while other experts have noted that emotions can also spread online, in a process known as “emotional contagion”. 

Yet though social media helps conspiracies to spread, the psychology behind them is age-old.

“Conspiracy theories are a product of our psychology and our psychology doesn’t really change over time,” says Dr Robert Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “A certain proportion of people have always been receptive to conspiracy theories.” But who are these people – and what happens to make them fervently believe in gay frogs?

Brotherton emphasises that the psychological biases at work in conspiracy theorists’ minds are biases that we all possess to some extent. The “proportionality bias” means that if something big happens, we intuitively assume that something big must have caused it. Some of us can accept when this isn’t the case – when a lone gunman, for example, is responsible for assassinating the president from a grassy knoll – but others go looking for alternative explanations.

Humans also have a propensity to seek patterns, so we bend over backwards to connect unrelated facts (side note: why do the two psychologists thus far in this piece have remarkably similar names? Is there a psychologist Illuminati?).

“Confirmation bias” also means that we accept information that confirms our beliefs and ignore that which doesn’t. Once these biases lead someone towards a conspiracy theory, they might develop a “conspiracy worldview”, whereby everything becomes suspicious. Brotherton explains, for example, that after the Watergate scandal was exposed, conspiracy theorists weren't vindicated like you would expect - but instead believed that the official narrative was a cover-up and that Nixon was set up. 

A Pizzagate post on 4Chan, outlining alleged patterns and meanings

Yet though the psychology behind conspiracies is timeless, Brotherton does note that certain factors exacerbate our willingness to believe. And this credibility is not limited to right-wing Americans.

“One of the things I think that is most revealing is how quickly conspiracy fears have shifted to the Left, especially in the States, since the election,” he says. The night before the election, videos spread on right-wing social media profiles claiming to show that electronic voting machines were rigged to vote for Clinton. When Trump won, Democrats began to believe that Russians had hacked the voting machines in favour of Trump (though claims Russia manipulated the election are rooted in fact, there is no evidence they tampered with the actual count).

 

A Pizzagate meme

Brotherton explains that cognitive dissonance is to blame.  “In an election, if you voted for the losing candidate, that makes you feel kind of bad because it’s not what you wanted, and makes you look kind of silly, like why would you vote for the loser?"

The most obvious way to reason this out is to accept the candidate wasn't so good, and agree more with the other side.

"Obviously that’s not what happens at all," says Brotherton. Instead, he argues, we tend to go in the other direction. Instead of admitting that our candidate lost because they had flaws, we theorise about hacking and rigging in order to feel as though we were right all along.

A false claim about Donald Trump's administration

Yet conspiracy theories do continue to spread among the far right as well as the left, despite their electoral gains. Dr Mike Wood, a psychology lecturer and expert in the techniques used by conspiracy theorists online, explains that those with extreme political views might still be drawn towards conspiracy theories, even when they gain some power.

This is because their extreme position means they are still unlikely to get to accomplish what they want to do. "They have to rationalise that in some way," Wood says. "Often that leads to conspiracy theories.”

A Pizzagate meme

Alienation, a lack of control, and uncertainly are all facts that lead someone towards a conspiracy worldview, explains Wood. As he puts it: “basically conspiracy theories are a way to try and make sense of the world that in that moment doesn’t particularly make sense.” According to Wood, victims of social exclusion do tend to take conspiracy theories more seriously.

“If the world seems like a very random and kind of capricious place where things don’t particularly make sense and you can’t really control what's going on, that's when conspiracy theories are at their strongest," he says. Conspiracy theories "allege that things that are happening are basically controllable". 

It is hard to say whether any of this is at work in the mind of Conspirator-in-Chief Donald Trump. The President has previously spread information from Jones’ Infowars, most notably when he claimed three million votes in the election were cast illegally. “I won the popular vote,” he tweeted alongside this alleged fact, perhaps attempting to explain away his own cognitive dissonance. Yet whether or not Trump believes the conspiracies he spreads, the psychologists I speak agree on one thing. Having such a high-profile figure spreading conspiracies means they're not going away any time soon.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.