Petty Psychologies

Some vapid Conspiracy Theorists love to engage in guilt by association. The Socialist Unity Party, one of them might claim, was sympathetic to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Thus all socialists are communists, their peculiar brand of logic suddenly suggests. This strange inference, where the Conspiracy Theorist generalises from the (supposed) excesses of a sub-group to the claim that all members of the group intend to act, or are motivated similarly, is what I want to call an example of Petty Psychology.

Almost all of us engage in semi-rigorous form of reasoning about the motivations or intentions of others which is commonly called ‘Folk Psychology’ (those of us who do not are usually psychologists who, understandably, use refined psychological notions rather than folksy, crude approximations). This form of psychology is folksy; rather than being based upon academic, tested notions its relies on an appeal to things we all think are plausible, if not true. It is folksy in the same way that folk tales are folksy; there is either some kernel of truth to the folk tale or its supposed plausibility is explicable even if it gets the relationship between cause and effect the wrong way wrong, et cetera. Most of us will quite happily admit to using folk psychology; indeed, in Philosophy we use folk notions all the time in examples, with the admitted caveat that things in real life are probably (quite) different.

There is a major problem, however, in that all to often our use of folk psychology as the justification for explaining why a certain agent (or group of agents) acted the way they did is merely an example of the ‘Just So’ fallacy; an example of the inference to any old explanation (rather than an appeal to the best possible explanation). The problem with folk psychology (like all folk disciplines) is that it isn’t academic and rigourous; the evidence for the conclusion is often handpicked and annoying counterexamples, conflicting rationales and so on are often written out for no reason or glossed over as unimportant.

Now, just as the ‘Just So’ fallacy probably occurs more often in professional psychology than we would like to admit (and seems like a proper bogeyman to evolutionary psychologists) for the folk psychologist it is an ever present danger. Thus (good) folk psychologists must make sure that they are using plausible explanations that are not too bold, the story must not just fit the facts but must fit plausibly, to whit have good, defensible, motivations, intentions and reasons on the parts of the described agents. You cannot make the claim that ‘All the French are terrorists’ just because two persons of French nationality blew up a boat in your harbour.

Folk psychology is, it turns out, a rarefied notion and we can see this in the writings of Conspiracy Theorists. Take one group, those who hold that contemporary environmentalism is just Communism in a new hat. These Conspiracy Theorists use what I call ‘Petty Psychology;’ petty in that it is:

a) petty in its motivations (it smears people with the worst possible motivations, intentions and reasons),


b) petty in that it is an inference to any old explanation and thus not a considered opinion (thus think petty here as in regard to ‘petty thief’ or a ‘petty vengeance;’ actions not worth the agent’s time and effort).

People who saw Reds under the beds in the 60s and 70s were engaging in petty psychology. So are those who claim that contemporary environmentalism is redressed communism. Such theorists (and as my focus is on Conspiracy Theories I’ll think about Conspiracy Theorists) infer that as certain members of a greater group might have the motivations or intentions x, then all members of that group have the motivations or intentions x. This is, of course, inferring to an (intentional) explanation but it is not an example of an inference to the best possible explanation.

Petty psychology is not folk psychology because petty psychology only pretends to tell a plausible psychological story. Folk psychology is (usually) an example of the inference to a best explanation (although, really, it is probably more, once we admit that we’re engaging in folk notions, an example of the ‘inference to a pretty good explanation given that we aren’t actually psychologists’). Petty psychology is, at best, something psychologists (folk and otherwise) might study; by identifying someone’s petty psychology (i.e. what they vapidly infer about others) you could develop and refine your (proper and folk) psychological theories.

Petty psychology poses a problem, in respect to putative explanations (of which Conspiracy Theories are examples thereof) because petty psychologists use petty psychology to justify their explanatory inferences. There are, at least, two errors in reasoning that the petty psychologist commits, both of which are related to the ‘Just So’ fallacy (the inference to any old explanation).

The first error is that of the the petty inference; the petty psychologist commits the fallacy of the inference to any old explanation. They assume their story is the explanation (or best explanation, if we are charitable) rather than an (or any old) explanation.

Petty psychologists, unlike folk psychologists, base their psychological reasoning upon implausible or unjustified assumptions. They infer intentions and motivations for epistemic agents with the flimsiest of reasons. Take our aforementioned environmentalists, who are often cited as being redressed Communists. The petty psychologist takes common characteristics of one group (most environmentalists want state-regulated controls on what industry can and cannot do in regard to their emissions) and finds them in some other group (most communists want(ed) state-regulated control on what industry can and cannot do) and infers, from this, that both groups are the same.

(Given that my focus is on Conspiracy Theories my thesis about petty psychology is largely negative; petty psychologists infer the worst possible motivations and intentions to epistemic agents. However, petty psychology, plausibly, could be used to ‘justify’ positive character inferences; certain left-wing commentators might well use petty psychology to argue that the (presumably) left-wing government’s recent tax cuts where, in fact, socialist policy in disguise (rather than being indicative that the government is becoming more centrist).)

The second error, on the part of the petty psychologist, is that the petty psychologist not only does not admit to using petty psychology but they go so far as to insinuate that their proposed explanation of how the agent(s) acted is the actual psychological explanation. The petty psychologist could get away with petty psychology if they admitted that they are basing their putative explanation upon unjustified psychological premises (using such tactics as ‘Well, that’s my opinion’ or ‘You might think differently but I maintain that…’) but when petty psychology is presented as folk psychology or (even worse) psychology proper the petty psychologist is, in essence, arguing that their inference is an example of the inference to the best explanation. Thus the petty psychologist either thinks that their explanation is warranted or they believe they can persuade their audience to think that (In the latter case the petty psychologist might well be writing for other petty psychologists (or, at least) other similarly minded inferers).

Petty psychology is, I think, yet another rationale as to why we think that the term ‘Conspiracy Theory,’ as a label for a kind of explanation, is a pejorative. My proposed explanation, however, is no solace to those who are sceptical of Conspiracy Theories. Whilst it is true that a great many Conspiracy Theories rely quite heavily upon petty psychologies (such as the claim that as the Executive Branch of the Government of the United States of America seek a global imperium then all the associated agencies must also share the same motivation) this does not tell us that every Conspiracy Theory rests upon some petty psychology. Conspiracy Theories must still be analysed in respect to their content. More importantly, my thesis about petty psychology suggests that our view, that Conspiracy Theories are suspect, might be, in part, based upon a petty psychology itself. If we think that all Conspiracy Theorists are people like David Icke, Ian Wishart and Lyndon LaRouche then are we not guilty of the same inference to any old (psychological) explanation?

Answers on a postcard.