The horrific shootings that have played out in recent days has me thinking again about the intersection of gun culture, disinformation, and mental health. Below I share an adapted excerpt of the opening pages of my book Mental Immunity, which highlights the need for a science of immunity to mis- and disinformation. Of course we also need common-sense gun control.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” —Voltaire
I pulled open the glass outer door of the Tree of Life synagogue and went in to retrieve my son. It was a crisp fall day in Pittsburgh, and Kai—then about four—attended daycare in the now-infamous house of worship. Kai hugged his friends goodbye, took my hand, and we walked outside. The family car sat by the curb, my wife at the wheel. Kai liked the challenge of climbing up and into his raised car seat, so I waited as he made his ascent. He completed the maneuver and smiled up proudly. I buckled him in. “How was school, buddy?” I asked. “Good,” he replied, “We met God.”
Heidi shot me in an astonished look. I returned it, and slid into the passenger seat. “Wow!” I said, “Can we hear the story?” Kai was matter-of-fact: God came in, talked to his teacher, and gave him a ‘high five.’ Then he left. Really, dad, it was no big deal.
Later, we made inquiries, and his teacher told a different story: apparently, the synagogue’s bewhiskered rabbi had popped by to say hello. His teacher introduced him as a “man of God,” and Kai, who knew God to be bearded, had connected the dots.
Years later, a deranged ideologue named Robert Bowers parked his car where Heidi had parked ours. He got out, reached into his trunk, and pulled out a semi-automatic rifle. Then he threw open the synagogue’s glass outer door, entered the sanctuary, and began shooting. People he’d never met began dying. Panicked congregants barricaded doors; others called for help. Sirens wailed and police scrambled to the scene. Screaming “All Jews must die!” Bowers turned his guns on the arriving officers. He wounded two and retreated into the very annex that housed my kids’ daycare center.
Within the hour, a SWAT team arrived. A firefight ensued and Bowers took a bullet. Trapped and bleeding, he finally surrendered. Cops took him into custody and medics hastened in to tend to the victims. Sadly, 11 of my neighbors were beyond helping. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in America’s history.
Bowers was taken to a nearby hospital. There, he received care from incomparably better human beings, many of them Jews.
I count myself lucky to have grown up in Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where all this happened. Some believe Squirrel Hill was the inspiration for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the nurturing fictional world created for public television. (The show’s gentle host—the late Fred Rogers—lived close by.) Now, our neighborhood—Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood—was the site of a horrific hate crime.
When Bowers began shooting, my family was out of harm’s way. Kai’s teacher and “God” were also safe: They’d both left the congregation years before. As for me, I was mere blocks away, developing a vaccine for extremism.
A Plague of Ideologies
We learn about tragedies like these, come together in grief, and resolve “Never again.” Then, seeking remedies, we ask questions like, How can people do such unspeakable things? We try to fathom the thinking behind such acts, find ourselves baffled, and label it “unthinkable.”
Words like “unthinkable” serve to express our horror, but they also smack of denial. For people do think such things, and some go so far as to plan them. Apparently, a sufficiently disordered mind can speak the unspeakable and find sense in the senseless. There’s a dreadful phenomenon at work here, and so far, it has defined our best efforts at comprehension. Examine it carefully, and you’ll find something genuinely anomalous—something we can’t explain within existing frameworks.
Yet explain it we must. For similar forms of derangement are cropping up everywhere. Extremist worldviews, conspiracy thinking, and hyper-partisan politics spread like cancers online. Mass shootings, terror bombings, and hate crimes occur almost daily. In recent years, we’ve seen culture wars erupt, zealous fundamentalisms make a comeback, and toxic nationalisms gain strength. In 2017, American Nazis marched openly through the streets of Charlottesville chanting “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us.” Why is this happening? Why again, and why now? Evidently, something quite fundamental is amiss. But what? And how in the world do we fix it?
I want to develop a novel understanding of these phenomena—and with it, an overlooked approach to addressing the problem. That approach centers on a strange and unsettling idea: Bad ideas are mind-parasites—pathogens that quite literally “infect” minds. Happily, minds have “immune systems”—operations meant that keep bad ideas at bay. Sadly, though, these systems don’t always perform well. Sometimes, bad ideas overrun them, and thoroughly disorder minds. In fact, a mind’s defenses can collapse under certain kinds of stress—especially the kind of stresses ideologies subject them to.
The mind’s immune system has a marvelous ability to protect us from many of the bad ideas out there, but it can fail to protect us from divisive ideologies. Cultural immune systems—the things cultures do to prevent bad ideas from spreading—are also prone to collapse. That epidemic of unreason we’re witnessing today? It’s rooted in a cultural immune disorder.
Interpreting our situation in immunological terms sheds an uncanny light on our “post-truth” predicament. It highlights root causes and suggests novel remedies. It opens the door to a more systematic approach to controlling the spread of bad ideas, one based on the premise that boosting mental immune performance can be enhanced. I think this approach will help us achieve something a century’s worth of critical thinking instruction has failed to accomplish: “herd immunity” to ideological contagion. By patiently inoculating willing minds, we can prevent deadly outbreaks of unreason.
Scientists have done a lot in recent years to expose a root cause of our dysfunctional politics. The psychologist Jonathan Haitt summarizes the research in his book The Righteous Mind, His conclusion? Our brains have a kind of tribal architecture. As he puts it, we’re “groupish” creatures: Beneath the level of conscious awareness, our thinking is bent by the need for tribal solidarity. Passionate loyalty to an in-group “us” makes it hard to think in a fair-minded way. When an out-group “them” is made to seem threatening, our thinking becomes especially bent. Demagogues and propagandists exploit these vulnerabilities: They stoke judgment-warping fears and manipulate their own loyalists.
Robert Bowers was a textbook case. A staunch conservative, he became a follower of aggressive right-wing media. He consumed online propaganda, embraced a militant Christian identity, and viewed the mainstream media as a big conspiracy. He came to trust the delusional claims of white supremacists. Then, in October 2018, a group of several hundred Hispanic refugees began a long march for the US border, hoping to gain the asylum. America’s president saw a political opportunity, and cast them as an invading mob. Online, conspiracy theorists alleged that American Jews were orchestrating an “invasion.” Apparently, Bowers was unequipped—or disinclined—to question this narrative. Within days, he snapped. On a website for extremists, he posted a message that speaks to the depths of his derangement: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered… I’m going in.” He then loaded his weapons and headed for Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
Bowers failed to question ideas central to his identity. He became deranged, and others paid the price. He is not alone: Billions of us make similar—if less lethal—mistakes when we fail to ask basic questions, embrace self-serving beliefs, and saddle others with the costs. Such garden-variety irresponsible thinking by otherwise decent people paves the way for extremism. This is a huge problem for humanity—and always has been. But now, with Internet connectivity, it has become an existential threat. Climate denial alone could do us in, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I study psychology because I want to understand how thinking goes haywire. For a time, I thought that references to the brain’s tribal architecture sufficed as an explanation. I came to realize, though, that it can’t be the whole story. We all have brains with the same basic architecture; why then do some but not others shoot up synagogues? Why is humanity sometimes more tribal, and sometimes less? Why do people exhibit different levels of susceptibility to divisive ideologies? Evidently, biological constants interact with cultural variables in ways that make a difference. And here’s the thing: The variables are the very thing prevention efforts must vary. They’re our levers; the things we must adjust to solve the problem. We need to understand them. So what’s the rest of the story?
We know that Bowers’ moral sensibilities had been scrambled. We also know that ideologies had a hand in the scrambling. for me, the term “ideology” means a system of ideas that doesn’t serve its human hosts well—a system that is infectious, dysfunctional, harmful, manipulative, or stubbornly resistant to rational revision.
Ideologies in this sense have enormous power to disorder minds. Like demagogues, they exploit mental vulnerabilities. For thousands of years, ideologies have spread like diseases, warping worldviews, inciting violence, and wreaking havoc on human prospects. They’ve destabilized magnificent civilizations. They’ve sustained suppressive orthodoxies. They’ve divided peaceful societies, provoked devastating wars, and unleashed genocidal furies. History is a living, breathing testament to this truth: Outbreaks of ideological thinking end in tragedy. Yet we still lack the kind of understanding that would allow us to prevent such outbreaks. This must change.
An ideology can hijack a mind without any help from a propagandist. In fact, demagogues rise to power in populations where ideological rigidity has already taken root. This is true, for example, of the country that elected Donald Trump: As pundits became fond of saying, his electoral victory was merely a symptom. To understand the disease, we must grasp how ideologies circumvent common sense, take up residence as belief, and alter the way people think.