Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Too Open to Ideas?

By Matthew Browne

Why do intelligent people believe incredible things? Psychological studies suggest that the answer may lie in personality type rather than any measure of intelligence.

It’s easy to become fascinated as to why people come to have the beliefs and attitudes they do. For example, what leads an apparently sensible and rational person to become a Scientologist? Or to declare with conviction that beneficial energy waves are emanating from a particular form of crystal? That aliens are visiting Earth regularly to abduct and probe us? Or my personal favourite: that a vast and complex conspiracy centred on shape-shifting lizard people is controlling and manipulating our societies. There seem almost no limits to what some people are prepared to believe.

I’ve become increasingly interested in why an increasing number of Australians are embracing complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs). To a naïve observer they seem, in many cases, to have as little going for them as the lizard-men conspiracy theory in terms of evidence and common sense. So, why do so many intelligent and cultured people whole-heartedly adopt homeopathy, “energy” therapies and the rest while other people remain completely indifferent to their charms?

As a psychologist, my first impulse was to hit the literature. It turns out that recent research is shedding some light on the individual factors that can explain CAM adherence. Before I can tell you about it, though, I need to introduce a couple of psychological constructs: intuitive versus analytical thinking, and the personality trait of “openness to experience”.

Openness is one of the “big five” personality dimensions that reliably describe individual differences in personality. Openness involves an active imagination, an aesthetic sense, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. People high in openness tend to be more liberal and unconventional, and also have a moderate tendency towards hypnotic susceptibility and fantasy.

The idea of contrasting intuitive versus analytical thinking comes from a cognitive perspective, which emphasises how people process information. It recently got a lift in the public consciousness with Daniel Kahneman’s popular book Thinking Fast and Slow, which describes a “System 1” (intuitive) that is fast and emotional, relying on swift heuristic associations to process information, and a “System 2” (analytical) which is slower, more deliberative and logical.

Growing evidence supports the idea that the analytical-rational and intuitive-experiential modes operate somewhat independently. Although each one of us uses both systems all the time, there are significant individual differences in terms of our cognitive preference – which of these two systems we tend to use when evaluating new information.

Research has shown that people who score highly on openness are more likely to have positive opinions towards CAM and to use it more often. Also, there is evidence that an intuitive thinking style results in a greater likelihood of endorsing CAM.

Putting this together, we can gain an understanding of what is going on when individuals turn to CAM. First, the richness and variety in CAMs seems tailor-made to appeal to “open” minds. Paradoxically, our intellectual curiosity can make many of us vulnerable to unsubstantiated (but attractive) belief systems.

Secondly, CAMs are designed to “feel” right to our intuitive minds. The lack of logic and evidence of CAMs only come into play when we subject them to logical and scientific scrutiny. However, some people never get past an intuitive evaluation.

Of course, factors related to CAM use are many and varied, and go beyond just cognitive and personality dimensions. For example, CAM adherence is associated with a less scientific world-view, stronger spiritual beliefs and a belief in the paranormal. Links between CAM adherence and conspiracy theories about the medical “establishment” are particularly interesting to explore.

Nevertheless, considering cognitive and personality factors may help us to understand the divide between scientific and popular opinion on this issue. The dialogue between the two camps sometimes seems to be coming from completely different planets. In terms of different cognitive frameworks employed, they are most certainly are.

Dr Matthew Browne is a Lecturer in Psychology at CQUniversity and a biostatistician at the Institute for Health and Social Science Research.