The Physiology of Fanaticism

July 19, 2021

I first heard Nick Carmody on an April episode of the Lincoln Project podcast, and he totally fleshed out some of the observations I’ve made in dealing with climate deniers, and more recently, the squadrons of the broken and lost that get mobilized and weaponized on Facebook, for Qanon, against vaccinations, or wind energy, or solar energy, or science in general, or whatever the latest target of the fossil fuel disinformation complex is.

Anger is a drug, and causes addiction in the body just like a drug. Just. Like. a. drug.
And some really bad people have noticed this, and put it to work.

Nick Carmody on Patreon:

Several years ago I started observing the parallels between addiction and political tribalism as marriages, friendships, and families began to implode over politics and Donald Trump.

Specifically, I started noticing the parallels between the effect that addiction has on relationships when those relationships (interventions) threaten the continuation of the addictive behavior/activity:

When confronted with a threat to the addiction, the addict will often cut the loved one out of their life, rather than cut out the addictive behavior.

This has occurred countless times over the last five years as people have cut family and friends out of their lives over politics.

For example, a daughter told me that her 80 something year-old mom told her that if Trump and the daughter were both drowning, she (the mother) would save Trump first, and the daughter, second, if at all.

This is one of many stories people have DM’d me looking for help. 

Initially, the addiction appeared to be related to the outrage, anger, or fear.  But then I came across research explaining dopamine, which is related to the reward center of the brain, in terms of “subjective utility”.   This got me thinking about confirmation bias, and made me realize the “addiction” wasn’t to the outrage/anger/fear.  Instead, the addiction was created by repeatedly receiving a dopamine reward every time their subjective beliefs (bias) were confirmed by Rush Limbaugh, Hannity, Tucker Carlson, or whoever they plugged into…and the outrage, anger, and fear was merely the by-product of the addictive process.

But, as I explained on the Lincoln Project podcast, this addictive process may have a second, compounding factor to it because research has shown neuroanatomical regions associated with physically painful experiences exhibit increased activity when people experience social exclusion or separation, as I explained in this article about Qanon morphing into a religion:

“…political polarization/partisanship problem actually goes even much deeper because research has shown there may be a physiological component: fMRI scans were used to show that neuroanatomical regions that are associated with physically painful experiences. exhibit increased activity when people experience social exclusion or social separation. These findings indicate that it can literally become a *painful* experience when people disagree or speak out against groups of which they consider themselves to be members. This would seem to indicate that there are physiological components at play that cause people to prefer to be comfortably wrong (incorrect/uninformed), rather than uncomfortably right (correct/informed), when being right or correct would put them in contradiction with a group with whom they share an identity, or if being right or correct would threaten their group membership. If motivation or incentive for pain avoidance exists, it not only could conceivably create an aversion to objectivity or moderation, but it would incentivize groupthink, “collective narcissism”, etc.”.  Similar to speaking out against a group that people derive their identity from…..there may be a pain avoidance component involved with aversions to refuting a conspiracy theory, or speaking out against a belief the rest of the group believes/propagates.”

As mentioned above, dopamine is related to the “reward system” of the brain, and is involved in the pleasurable experiences related to sex, gambling, etc.  Dopamine is also associated with the high experienced with cocaine use/addiction. 

Similar to social exclusion/separation…..pain/discomfort avoidance is also a factor in certain addictions.  For instance, the “DTs” (delirium tremens) experienced by alcoholics who suddenly quit drinking….and intense withdrawal symptoms experienced by opioid/heroin addicts who suddenly stop using.
In these instances, “relapse” provides relief from those miserable/painful withdrawal symptoms.

With this as a backdrop, it’s conceivable to conceptualize political tribalism (and perhaps even cultism), through an addiction model….. where there’s a cocaine-like hit on the front end that lures them back into it….and a painful, opioid-like withdrawal that prevents them from pushing away from it.

But there’s another important factor at play in this process that not only appears to contribute to tribalism, confirmation bias, but also conspiracy theory susceptibility, radicalization, and Qanon.  That factor?:


Or, as Robert Sapolsky explains in the video above:

The power of “maybe”.

Now consider how anticipation affects the role dopamine plays in confirmation bias.  In this context, the dopamine hit isn’t experienced by having a correct opinion/belief (their bias being confirmed), the dopamine hit is actually experienced from the “anticipation” of being “right”. 

But all of this really gets interesting when viewed through the lens of dopamine optimization being tied to the 50/50, anticipation-to-reward ratio, because it would seem to have implications for radicalization and extremism:

Since dopamine production/release isn’t maximized by correctly anticipating the outcome 100% of the time….in order to experience optimal dopamine production….people would need to constantly seek out new “sources” and new information that would consistently introduce “unanticipated”/unknown details in order for them to have a heightened dopamine experience……because being 100% correct doesn’t produce that.

If someone watched FOX for decades, and had memorized the talking points….they would eventually be able to anticipate future narratives 100% of the time.  This would produce a limited dopamine experience, even though their biases are completely confirmed.

However, when right wing news consumers then turn on OANN, Newsmax, Alex Jones, etc., and hear new fantastical details that are added to the mainstream right-wing narrative, these people’s anticipation-to-reward ratio has now been disrupted.

And as Sapolsky demonstrated in the video above, this disruption will cause dopamine spikes that are optimized when people are not able to correctly predict or “anticipate” 50% of what they are being told.

This creates an incentive structure where they are “rewarded” by continually seeking out more extreme, more radical, and more delusional information and narratives in order to continually maintain the optimum 50/50, anticipation-to-reward ratio.

This process  mirrors “tolerance” as seen in other forms of addiction, except that rather than building a tolerance to increased levels of an addictive substance, the individual builds a tolerance to the known (dis)information.  And instead of having to increase the ingestion of an addictive substance to chase the “high”, they need to continually increase the amount of new, un-anticipatable (dis)information.

This results in people perpetually seeking out more delusional, more fantastical, and more conspiratorial information because, eventually, anything remotely factual has already been heard, and therefore can be “anticipated”.

With this as a backdrop, it’s easy to see how this dynamic plays into Qanon and conspiracies theories.

As Sapolsky said, “’maybe’, is addictive like nothing else out there”.

“Maybe”, is the essence of conspiracy theories:

“Maybe, X is happening/occurring”…

The “anticipation” and the 50/50 optimization of dopamine production may explain why people aren’t deterred when predictions, and the expectations created by those predictions, do not come true in cult situations or with Qanon.

Based on this model, the delusional, non-occurring predictions may actually reinforce belief in the conspiracy/cult because it supplies the necessary 50% “miss rate” needed for optimum dopamine production……with the other 50% of perceived “accurately anticipated” events being the result of delusional subjective interpretations of events that create “false positive” confirmations.


4 Responses to “The Physiology of Fanaticism”

  1. jimbills Says:

    Yep. My dopamine levels approve of this post.

    Some new thoughts for me from Karmody and Sapolsky. I had always put the social disbarring aspect down as just mental, but it’s interesting, and likely true, that the mental extends into the sensation of physical pain.

    The ‘anticipation’ rule is a new one for me, and I’ll add to that a bit of I could. It ain’t 50/50 anticipation to reward. That’s being way too generous. It’s more like 99/1. The anticipation exists if there is even the slightest chance of confirmation bias. I find a lot of the people who are particularly prone to this sort of addiction have both really bad and highly selective memories, too. They’ll instantly forget or block out anything that goes against their bias and latch onto the one little crumb that ‘might’ give them confirmation. The Q folks will bend themselves every sort of direction for the one little scrap that can keep them going.

    The internet is the perfect place to foster this sort of addiction as well. It’s easy to find what’s needed for that dopamine hit, because there is always someone somewhere out there putting it online. That could be the lone nut out there, but I’m more than a little sure that it’s also the basic business model for some media sources.

  2. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Definite ring of truth above.

  3. pendantry Says:

    it can literally become a *painful* experience when people disagree or speak out against groups of which they consider themselves to be members

    This rings bells with me.

  4. Robert Huie Says:

    How may are going to be “recreational users” who are “not really addicted” and “can stop any time”?

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