— Dr. Conspiracy, June 2013
I have a collection of insights that help me make decisions and through which I try to make sense of the world. One of those insights is the addictive nature of intermittent reinforcement1, thought to be a mechanism behind gambling addiction. Intermittent reinforcement (sometimes behavior is rewarded, and sometimes not) can be more effective than positive reinforcement in animal models. I apply this principle in understanding primitive religion (throw maiden into volcano to make the crops grow next season), to risky speculative financial behavior2, and to my own hope that someday I will break even playing Windows Solitaire.
Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain explains the conspiracy theory phenomenon through the physiology of the brain and how particular regions of the brain carry out tasks such as pattern recognition and nonsense rejection. (Conspiracy theorists have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.) I think, however, that intermittent reinforcement may also be significant in understanding the extremes of birtherism.
My opening quotation goes against my thesis in that it suggests that birthers are never rewarded, but that isn’t true. Then never win in court, and they never win presidential elections, but they certainly feel like they win or they anticipate winning. Is not the expectation of a reward a happy thought, a reinforcement in and of itself? Orly Taitz often reads signs of victory. In 2009, Taitz misinterpreted something from Judge Carter and proclaimed that her lawsuit would would go to trial on the merits, which would have been vindication for Taitz, and just recently Taitz read into a dismissal from a Maryland judge a promise of a favorable outcome. Sheriff Arpaio’s involvement with Obama’s birth certificate was hailed widely by birthers as the certain undoing of Obama and Zullo/Gallups do everything they can to foster anticipation. It seems to me that the roller coaster swings between exuberant optimism and loss, experienced by the birthers, mirrors the feelings of a gambler’s winning and losing.
This brings me to a September 2013 article by Cody Robert Judy, birther litigant and presidential candidate, titled “The Birthers are Losers! The Birthers Are Winners!” Despite some misinformation about ObamaCare, the article is pretty mainstream. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually have any examples of birthers winning. Never mind. 😳
Even blogging can be a response to intermittent rewards, when some articles are well-received and some barely commented on. There’s that anticipation of one big scoop.
1I always called it “variable rewards.”