Behind Conspiracies Are the Patterns We Create to Feel in Control

Behind Conspiracies Are the Patterns We Create to Feel in Control

“Fear is the mind-killer.” So says the Bene Gesserit, a female-only religio-political group from the sci-fi epic series of Dune by Frank Herbert. The aphorism concerns the tendency for humanity to forget its more rational potential in the face of a lack of control. Because that’s what fear is, the perception of an upcoming loss.

Notice that fear is about the future. Fear is immediately replaced in the present by any number of other emotional assessments. If the loss was personal enough, it’s replaced by depression and/or anger. If the loss didn’t happen, it’s replaced by anxiety that it may still occur and/or relief. There’s another replacement that I want to focus on here though, that of vindication. Such occurs when fear is replaced by certainty. Whether based on an objective critical analysis or the self-serving manifestations of bias, doesn’t matter. Vindication replaces fear when the world moves forward in the way that you believe it will, whether positively or, insidiously, negatively.

Patterns are Always About Us

Pause for a moment and consider the feeling the last time something went wrong and you verbalized or thought a version of the phrase “I knew it would be bad.” Remember it? Vindication. It’s a complex feeling combining a perceived sense of control with a self-righteous belief that the world succumbed to your analysis of it. There are few things sweeter than vindication and given this definition, that makes sense, it’s attached to the belief that your singular mind captured the complexity of the whole of reality, if only for a moment. Of course that would be intoxicating. Don’t get me wrong, by “you” I am most assuredly including myself. “You” is humanity writ large. Vindication may be one of the most quintessentially human experiences in the universe.

Control and analysis/assessment are two sides of our pattern-building mental lives. From seeing images in clouds to John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” and the various “Bible Codes,” pattern-building is foundational to how our species spread across the globe and flung machines into the heavens. With control we are applying the immediacy of our emotional system, seeking a gestalt or all-encompassing picture of our experience. It is no mystery that we use the phrase “to grasp,” i.e. to hold within our power, when stating our understanding of a subject/experience. On the flip-side of control, is analysis/assessment, our long-term system, selecting pieces out of our experience to support and further our initial intuitive or unconscious understanding.

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If you paused a moment at that definition of analysis, that’s a good thing, because it’s counter-intuitive. We seem, as a species, prone to the belief that our minds are picking up on or illuminating the laws and systems of the universe. Knowledge is felt to be something “out there,” for us to grasp. See, there’s that word again. Rather difficult to get away from. We instinctively feel as if the world is something other than ourselves, that we are cut off from it in some way and constantly on a journey of discovering its secrets to use for our betterment. When put that way, our hubris or excessive pride in our achievements, seems a tad silly…and inevitable. As Erich Fromm noted, we are the only species capable of believing itself removed from Paradise, of having been taken away from our union with nature. While certainly a sad story and one that lies at the heart of many religious narratives, the true sadness is how utterly and completely false that story is and our seeming genetic drive to embrace it, like bugs to a zapper.

Patterns, whether the stories of mythology, theology, the sciences and governmental systems, are all about us. Not because we’re finding out how the world works, but because we’re actively engaged within and as it. Our felt separation from the world is a result of our capacity for perspective-taking. As “Dr. Jackson” said from the movie “Stargate,” every destination needs a starting point. That starting point is the “you” you believe yourself to be. Pattern-making is our way of seeing ourselves in our experience. By doing so we mollify, moment by moment, the existential dread/fear/loneliness that comes from feeling cut off.

Be Careful of Knowing

While patterns are immensely helpful in a myriad of ways, vindication can be as much a trap as the question of “what’s one more?” can be to an addict. Think back again to that feeling of rightness when confronted with a situation gone wrong. Did it inspire any self-reflection? Did it encourage you to broaden the scope of your thinking to see if just maybe you’d missed something? Of course not. The world made sense. Things happened the way you thought they would. Questions at that point would not only be superfluous, but damaging to your sense of self. Ah, but here’s the thing and you probably know what I’m about to say (feels good, doesn’t it?). For every story we make, we hide as much of reality from ourselves as we reveal.

Take a moment and look up, letting your gaze rest on a single object. Settle your mind upon it and let your eyes go soft and lazy. Notice that everything else starts getting more hazy, less distinct. Welcome to perspective. The more we focus on a thing, the more we lose sight of. That we have coherent “images” of the world at all is because our brain is busy filling in the vast emptiness surrounding the pinprick of light entering our retina. This filler is an imaginative projection based on previous experience pushed forward as beliefs about the immediate future. We know this process is limited every time something “appears out of nowhere” and surprises the hell out of us. If we were really seeing the whole of reality AS IS, we’d never be surprised.

This is where knowing is both enticing and dangerous. To know is to see, as in “I see what you’re saying/meaning.” And just as sight is limited, so is the felt sense of our understanding. The issue here isn’t that we can’t know anything or that the various sciences of our inquiry are not telling us truths about the universe of which we are a part of, it is that all such is tentative and progressive. Thing is, we really, really don’t like uncertainty.

We Are All Conspiracy Makers

In this time of global upheaval, where many of the systems and institutions we’ve built over the centuries are showing their cracks and fault lines, conspiracies are running rampant. Poking fun at them is as time-honored of a tradition as lamenting the burning of the library of Alexandria. Really? Just me? Well, run with me here a bit anyway. We like pointing out the absurd in others, but since they’re as human as we are, it’s good to remember that with a change in circumstance or perhaps even the passing of time, we may find ourselves in a position of being just as wrong about something.

The conspiracy makers/believers are attempting to bail the same boat we are, using the same tools we are. The difference is their buckets are simply filled with more holes. We’re sailing through a storm of fear, scooping uncertainty and throwing it overboard as fast as we can. Just as one group’s cult is another group’s religion, so one person’s conspiracy is another’s knowing. They all exist to address the same problem and are actively engaged in bringing about the same feeling: vindication. Nothing feels better than the belief in our rightness.

Take a moment to ask more questions, built upon a recognition of our shared human desire to feel in control. We aren’t going to remove the silliness, but we just might see something we missed.

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Weaving A Story of Food and Acceptance

Weaving A Story of Food and Acceptance

I recently had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Jared Levenson from “Eating Enlightenment” for a podcast interview. We covered a lot of topics, including shame, it’s relationship to eating disorders, religious ideology and my own journey from fundamentalism and how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be used in therapy and life in general.

I want to take a moment to look at how ‘tunnel vision’ works. We’ve all heard of bias and, if you’ve been reading me for any length of time, will recall I am at pains to remind people that bias is not only inevitable, it’s not something we can ever get away from. The best hope we have is to set up habits of introspective critical thinking as a counter to bias, to engage consistently with those habits and construct our lives around them. This means actively engaging with people and ideas you may not agree with. It means, when in dialogue, learning the other person’s perspective such that you can present it to them in the best way possible that they would agree with. It means recognizing how no single position or idea defines the whole of who a person is. Ideas matter, but so does intention. We can appreciate how a person wants to make the world better from within their own perspective, even as we condemn the real-world consequences of implementing their ideas.

The core of a healthy society is our collective ability to wrestle with big ideas, to learn how to be resilient in the face of difficulty, and to recognize that thoughts are changeable. To do the latter, we must engage with them, even if, when it comes to our own self-destructive habits, we do so for the purpose of letting them go.

Was a pleasure chatting with Jared and I encourage everyone to not only listen to our chat, but take a look at the services he has to offer.

How To Question Your Assumptions and Get Out of Tunnel Vision

Sharing Humanity Within Conflict

Sharing Humanity Within Conflict

Raised voices. Increased heartrate. Narrowed vision. All the physical hallmarks of a discussion that devolved into argumentation and conflict. That these same physical experiences can also be seen when participating in a game with a team or during intensely intimate moments with one’s partner, should make us pause. We quite quickly write a particular story to provide us direction for our behavior, but the ease with which this occurs can blind us to how else life is lived. If there’s even a shred of dissonance in your mind right now, that’s actually a good thing. Growth, personal and group related, occurs at the edges of comfort, not at the center of contentment.

Seeking Shared Values

At the heart of so much interpersonal conflict is seeing the other person or party to be devoid of anything shared with oneself. The groundwork for doing so is established through the dismissal of similarity, of what we share as human beings. It isn’t enough to rest there though, since to ‘be human’ is too vague. What we can start with is recognize our capacity to care about parts of life and identify those things through the naming of Values.

Declaring someone or a group ‘doesn’t share my/our values’ has become the go-to place for easy dismissal. The reality is that one of two things is happening: one, the means through which the value is being supported is not agreed with, and/or two, the value for which the behavior is supportive is not the same across both parties. Consider working late at your job and someone judges you for it, declaring you don’t value ‘family.’ One, this may be how you’re supporting family and two, when deciding on your behavior, the initial guiding value was of financial security or personal integrity. In both perspectives ‘family’ is not dismissed. The only person seeking to remove that value is the person passing judgment.

Notice that in the dismissal, the lack of engagement is the point. Once the other is made ‘other,’ there’s no reason for dialogue as there’s nothing in common to start the conversation. The person passing judgment wins by default of them declaring a wall around what is and isn’t a proper way of viewing your behavior. The whole of human experience is then limited to their singular place within reality. All else is subordinate. You cease to exist as an autonomous agent within the broad spectrum of human potential. There’s no exploration and therefore no possibility of growth for either party.

Connecting Stories

Life is not the book of mazes you picked up for entertainment as a child. There is no single path to the end because the end is more like a mountain range of many peaks instead of a dot on a map. This is good news as it means the potential for human flourishing is varied. You don’t have to be doing the same thing as another to find meaning, purpose and to live ethically.

The ultimate end of human acts is eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well, which all men desire; all acts are but different means chosen to arrive at it.

Hannah Arendt

Connecting our behaviors to what we care about, our Values, requires stories or narratives. We move within the world through the roadways and paths laid down by our stories. Unfortunately, any time we focus too exclusively on the path we’re on, we tend to not see what’s around us, including other potential or actual paths. In this day of Google Maps it’s easy to narrowly consider one and only one way to get to a destination. However, try bringing out an old-school physical map or simply not have the AI tell you where to go, instead opting to view the broader map and decide for yourself. Odds are you’ll both see more and find routes you otherwise never would have thought possible.

Seeing the other pathways is key to understanding other people or groups. This isn’t about agreement, it’s a concern for exploring the variations in human expression. If you’re able to step back from behavior and see the story of how a Value was attached to it, suddenly there’s the potential for a dialogue that otherwise was impossible.

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Accepting Differences

Dialogue has recently been receiving a bad reputation. To have a conversation with someone has suddenly been conflated with agreeing with them, as if giving someone a ‘platform,’ whatever the size, is a declaration of support. The principle simply doesn’t hold, else we’d have to say support every thought that finds itself on the platform of our conscious lives. Not sure about you, but disagreeing with things that enter my mind is part of good ethical practice.

Acceptance is the space within which disagreement has room to be healthy rather than dismissive. Acceptance isn’t agreement, nor is it lazy. Acceptance is an acknowledgment of that the state of affairs, whatever they may be, is part of the shared reality you’re in. I accept thoughts of depression, not to give them voice, but to acknowledge they’re already a voice. I accept my feelings, not because they’re always helpful, but to have them take up the space they already have instead of giving them more than they deserve.

The opposite of Othering is not “saming”, it is belonging. And belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our differences, in a society where “we the people” includes all the people.

John Powell

Accepting different behaviors is to appreciate the cognitive dissonance at the heart of life. We can disagree while acknowledging that if circumstances were different, and they most certainly have been in the past, we’d be doing things we find objectionable upon later judgment. Seeing that possibility allows us to live through the wisdom of “there but for the grace of god, go I.” Our shared humanity includes the good, the bad, the gray and uncertain. Being willing to wade into dissonance, into conflict, with a desire to understand starts with noting none of us have humanity exclusively to ourselves.

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Culture as Reality Shaping

Culture as Reality Shaping

Communication is more than words being exchanged between two or more people. It’s also more than the non-verbal physical cues made famous by such shows as “Lie to Me.” When people engage in dialogue, they’re seeking to build a relationship of perspective with reality and, if reality doesn’t fit quite well enough, get the other person(s) to agree regardless. This is true whether the discussion has to do with broad, socially significant, political opinions or the varied intimacies of one’s emotional state.

The significance of binding perspective to reality cannot be overstated. Opinions aren’t just mental states, they’re the means through which we gather the disparate pieces of reality and bind them to create an experience. That we all like to be right begins to make sense here, given the potential weight carried by our thoughts. Combine these two points and the many forms of communication can be seen in a new light.

We can start with cultural practices.

Dialogue with Humanity

Contrary to the majority of felt experience, our thoughts are rarely unique creations. They’re far more likely to be derivatives from our social upbringing and cultural backgrounds, to promotions of something we recently read and likely didn’t critique long enough. The latter is especially fun in conversation if confronted by someone who does immediately know more than we do, as our shallow understanding is highlighted. Did I say fun? I meant embarrassing.

The reason for the non-careful assumption inherent of many of our opinions depends on how critical you want to be about our humanity. For those with a more negative view, it’s due to our inherent laziness as thinkers. A more reasonable take has to do with time-management. It’s simply easier to assume that the information we personally encounter is more likely true than not. Taking the time to critically analyze everything that crosses our mental space is not only impossible (since a great deal is unconsciously taken in), but it’s really poor resource-management. We’re far too busy living our lives to halt at every thought.

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One of those ways we’re living is through culture. Consider cultural practices as mental shortcuts to meaning. Ever had a word that you used but didn’t know if it was the right one? Or hear one that you didn’t know the definition of? Sure you could look it up on you smart phone, but that takes time. Better if everything you hear has built-in definitions that you absorbed through experience. Enter cultural practices.

However, those built-in definitions and meaning can pose just as many problems as they solve. How aware is the person of their own history and what they’ve absorbed as normal behavior? How much self-ownership do they have concerning the meaning of any particular practice? Are they open to the practice having other meanings or purposes?

Remember, culture is a short-cut to meaning, a device for carrying entire narratives or stories tying together reality. If the weight of individual opinions is so heavy, and that’s just for a single person, imagine the exponential increase given to a story that has time/family attached to it.

Dialogue through Culture

To attempt addressing the very real difficulties, when considering a cultural practice, we can ask first what the purpose is. The person will provide a story. That story will give structure to the meaning the behavior has for them. It will be really easy now to immediately agree or disagree with the story, based on one’s own assumptions. Good conversation/dialogue is generative, it builds greater understanding. It isn’t warfare with two parties lobbing linguistic hand-grenades at each other.

Before engaging with the story, a full stop needs to happen. Use this space to reflect on:

  • 1) identifying what shared Value the behavior is serving to support…
  • 2) identifying whether that shared Value holds the same level of importance for each of you in the context you’re in.

To keep it simple, let’s take the practice of washing one’s hands. The primary Value to be supported is likely going to be Cleanliness, but is such always primary in awareness? If you’re rushing to the bathroom in the middle of a movie that you spent far too much money to see in a theatre, is Cleanliness going to be the top concern or is Time-Management and Pleasure? If someone saw you not wash your hands and immediately began chastising you, claiming you clearly didn’t care about Cleanliness, your response would likely be anger/frustration. Why? Not because you got called out for not caring about something you do in fact care about, but because the other person clearly doesn’t care about Time-Management and Pleasure! See the irony? The other person cares about those things too, it just wasn’t their priority in that moment, precisely because they aren’t you.

Starting with Value allows us to get behind the stories/narratives that so easily catch us up in the moment. At that point, another person’s behavior no longer stands on its own, instead being caught by our own construction of reality and judged accordingly. Importantly, this isn’t, at this level, about morality, nor does it remove issues of ethics. We’re simply looking at having good generative dialogue. Frankly, if a chief concern is to convince another person the error of their ways, no better place exists to start than with what you have in common and an appreciation for your shared humanity.

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An Issue of Interruption

An Issue of Interruption

There are few issues related to dialogue more annoying, more prone to misinterpretation, than interruptions. You’re happily sharing the latest and greatest from your mental repertoire, only to have it suddenly sidelined by a variable completely outside your control. It’s like that moment when walking down a city street, minding your own business, when an invisible crack in the concrete trips you up. Heart-racing, arms akimbo, head whipping around to see who saw, any shred of the thinking you were just engaged in shattered.

Art of the Conversation

Interruptions are a great way of showing what dialogue is largely about. Contrary to a common notion of it being an exchange of ideas, dialogue is far more concerned with the desire to be heard. If dialogue was really concerned with an exchange of ideas for the purpose of growing our knowledge-base, we’d be in a fight to see who could stay silent the longest. On the contrary, the struggle in dialogue is usually about who can say what more often, in the most witty, ear-catching way, particularly if it leads to the other person repeating what they just heard. This brings to mind the old advice we all got from our wise grandparents, that if God wanted us to talk more She’d have given us two mouths instead of two ears. Unfortunately, it’s more the case that we have two ears precisely because we want to make sure we hear ourselves talk.

We don’t share our opinions or behave the way we do without a bone-deep belief in the rightness of our actions. Having others acknowledge our words and actions, even at the cost of another person’s equanimity, is a small price to pay, in our eyes, for continued confirmation.

In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions.

Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The Power of Being Heard

Interruptions serve another purpose as well: acknowledgment. They’re a tacit, and sometimes not so much, attempt by the person doing the interrupting that they consider themselves and what they have to say as at least as important as whatever the other person is doing. I hazard to guess that interruptions occur far more regularly from bosses to their subordinates and, in the case of children interrupting their parents, is about asserting their importance. The vast number of stories about bosses getting in the way of work and children getting in the way of parental social situations seems to bear this out, albeit anecdotally.

Some, reading the above, may believe that what is truly going on there is about power. However, acknowledgment doesn’t necessarily have to be about power, or at least not at its most basic level. Power requires a certain social structure to be played out. Instead, the focus here is more generally a concern of existential angst, or, in other words: the need to be seen. 

We really, really, need to belong. It’s why there’s never a waking moment when we aren’t considering, at some mental level, who we are in relation to something, someone or some group.  And at the heart of that need is a concern with our continued existence. This is why banishing or ostracism has been such a powerful tool for punishment and social control. We crave the continued acknowledgment of our social ties because being alone or cut off is a yawning abyss. 

Seen in this light, interruption is a great indicator of one’s anxiety, connected to whatever relationship is currently being attended to. Rather than seeing it as some great social affront or pointing to a lack of care for the other, the broader concern for connection, being seen and knowing one belongs, can be acknowledged. Not every interruption points to a narcissistic pathology, sometimes, if not often, it’s simply about being human.

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Ignoring the Trees for the Forest of Truth

Ignoring the Trees for the Forest of Truth

Often it seems that the internet is where good dialogue goes to die.  The human tendency for confirmation bias becomes a glaring practice when faced with a near-infinite amount of information. The desire to feel right is supported, pushed along and given constant reinforcement by the capacity of online groups to be established quickly and easily controlled membership. Want to find like-minded people? Holler long enough and the walls against further inquiry will spring up with every ‘like’ and supportive comment.

While the need to create community is innate, the way we go about it can create the disconnection such a search seeks to avoid. When an interest in ideological purity trumps that of expanding understanding, the result is an isolation of parts of humanity and an avoidance, if not deliberate ignorance, of the fact that no single idea or human action exists in a void of its own making. There is always an interconnected context, always a relational reality in which idea and deed are embedded.

Proselytizing is the attempt to convince someone of the rightness of one’s position, with zealotry focused on a shift in language towards agreement rather than an engagement in expansive dialogue. These terms are often used in a religious context, but their practice is not contained there. Due to that context, the notion of proselytizing often gets a negative feel, but our lives are often defined within that term, having decided we’re right about a thing, we fervently seek to spread that truth. The extent of our promotional behavior is not based on our feeling of being right, as that exists almost always. Rather, the degree to which we act is limited by the depth of importance we give to the opinion and how supported we feel.

Why We Seek Community

An increase in either importance or support is why we seek community. However, because such a focus becomes ever more restricted the result is a loss of seeing the bigger picture. The zealot is never more dangerous than when at the front of a mob, nor ever more fervent in their righteousness than if the opinion is deemed cosmically important. Lost is recognizing the nature of truth being relational, an interactive dynamic between the reality-universal and the reality-subjective. The latter does not so much create as cordon off aspects of the broader canvas to make a smaller picture. Focusing only on a particular understanding or way of viewing a situation is staring so closely at one tree that the forest of variation ceases to exist.



This is about acknowledging and exploring the broader reality holding the pieces of every limited perspective. All dialogue contains the subjective precisely because it is communion between two or more human beings, each possessing a phenomenological, or what it feels like, experience. The rightness of one’s opinion has little bearing upon the acceptance of it by any other person. In focusing so strongly on the rightness of one’s opinion, the recognition of the other person’s concerns, fears, development and existential progress tends to be forgotten. Any of us who have fought valiantly against an opinion only to at some point in the future find ourselves agreeing with that very point can attest to truth’s acquisition being partly contingent upon one’s place in life. 

There is a time for standing on one’s ground with feet firmly planted, but more often than not dialogue should be less about being right and more on living a life where there is no ‘other,’ no ‘enemy,’ no ‘contrary force’ sitting across from us. Celebrating the process of sharing and expansion that is generative dialogue within our connection to others may result in a greater appreciation for the forest of human existence.


© David Teachout