Conspiracies, Elections and Mental Enhancement


Brain Byte #2–bringing you research reports and big ideas in 5 minutes or less.

Conspiracy theories

People who believe conspiracy theories are more inclined to believe contradictory theories about the same event. That’s according to a survey study of 140 British college students. They answered how much they believed the moon landing was faked, that 9/11 was caused by the U.S. government, and so on. Students who believed one plot were more likely to believe in other plots related for unrelated events. But their belief in one plot also correlated with their belief in a contradictory plot about the same event. This meant there was a link between thinking Princess Diana faked her death and thinking she was murdered. Similarly, thinking Osama Bin Laden was dead before the U.S. raid was associated with thinking he was still hiding. It seems that when people distrust the most accepted explanation, they have more trust in all non-authoritative explanations. This study is in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Flawed elections

A study of California’s city-council and school-board elections found that 10% of the winners owe their success to being first on the ballot. California randomizes the names on the ballots, so across many elections, every position on the ballot should get the same proportion of the vote. That’s not what happened in this study of 8,000 elections from 1995 to 2008. And candidates who won for being first were not reelected as often, suggesting they were weaker on average because of the unfair advantage that brought them into office.  This research is in the journal Political Behavior.

Mental enhancement

Bioethicist Allen Buchanan makes the case for human mental enhancement in his book Better than Human. He argues that we humans have a long list of design flaws that reflect how we were cobbled together by evolution. He also points out that people have always strived to improve their capacities with creations such as writing, numbers, institutions of science, and now computers and the internet. For Buchanan, technologies that electrically stimulate the brain to aid learning are one example of the next step in our exploration and progress. It’s also possible we’ll develop pills and genetic techniques that improve intelligence and morality. Movies and novels often paint a grim picture of what this means. The movie Gattaca shows how genetic engineering could create a caste system, where people who don’t get genetic enhancement become a marginalized lower class. Buchanan acknowledges the real danger of these sorts of scenarios, but he is hoping for technologies that will become easily available very quickly. If he’s right, we might all be plugging brain stimulators into our phones in the not-too-distant future.

Download the podcast here.