Mental models, and making sense of crazy uncles

By Gordon Rugg

The crazy uncle is a well-established and much-dreaded part of Western culture. There’s probably a very similar figure in other cultures too, but in this article, I’ll focus on the Western one, and on what is going on in his head.

Why are crazy uncles permanently angry, and keen to inflict their opinions, prejudices and conspiracy theories on other people? Some parts of the answer are already well covered in popular media and in specialist research, but other parts are less well known.

In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the better known elements, and then combine them with insights from knowledge modeling, and see what sort of answer emerges.

Topics well covered elsewhere

The literature on the authoritarian personality dates back over half a century, and provides a good set of insights into this worldview. The classic book on the topic can be downloaded free here. As you might suspect, there has been considerable debate about this subject in the research community; the Wikipedia article gives a good overview.

The term “authoritarian personality” can imply that there is some sort of Platonic essence of authoritarian personality. That interpretation of the phrase is not very productive; a more fruitful model involves thinking in terms of beliefs which commonly co-occur. This is similar to, but not identical to, the concept of political tribes.

For brevity, I won’t go into that topic further here; instead, I’ll focus on the classic core beliefs of the uncle. I’ll start with points from the authoritarian personality literature, and then look at what knowledge modeling can add to our understanding of this issue.

Insights from the classic literature

Binary thinking: One prominent feature of crazy uncle thinking is that it involves a lot of binary either/or categorisation. There’s good or bad, right or wrong, us or them, with nothing in between. This extends into gender roles, social roles (e.g. leaders or followers) and politics (left or right).

This type of categorisation gives a lot of power to whoever decides where the boundary is drawn between the two categories. I’ve blogged about the implications for inter-group dynamics here.

Purity: A related feature of this worldview is that one of the categories within each pair is treated as a “pure” category, which can be contaminated by even a single drop of the “impure” category, as in the mocha model. This extends beyond the obvious implications for racial prejudice into areas such as welfare policy, where it manifests as e.g. a desire to stamp out all fraud completely, even at the cost of refusing welfare to some honest claimants.

Duties and hierarchies, versus consent: The topic of welfare highlights another key feature of this worldview, which is that it’s heavily grounded in concepts of hierarchy and authority. It believes that people owe obedience to those above them, and have power over those below themselves. In this worldview, the role of being an uncle automatically entitles an individual to various forms of respect from nephews and nieces.

In principle, the role of uncle also entails various responsibilities towards the nephews and nieces, but this isn’t symmetrical with their responsibilities to him, since he perceives his higher role in the hierarchy as involving judgment; if he perceives the nephews and nieces as falling short of their duties, he sees it as his role to scold or punish them.

This is very different from the view that individuals work out among themselves what their relationships will be, on a case-by-case basis.

This can be represented neatly via graph theory, in terms of trees versus nets.

Listening to authority figure thought leaders: Another feature of the hierarchical worldview is the role of thought leaders. From a knowledge modeling viewpoint, this reduces the cognitive load on the authoritarian follower, because the thought leader does the heavy thinking for them, and produces an easy-to-grasp conclusion.

From the socio-political and theological viewpoints, one interesting issue is that authoritarian followers usually can and do shop around for thought leaders whose conclusions suit the follower. This has far-reaching implications for populist religion, where there’s more competition for followers than is the case with more institutionalised religions.

This tends to lead to a higher rate of “doctrinal churn” in populist religion and politics, where thought leaders have strong incentives to come up with concepts that will have immediate appeal to followers, such as the prosperity gospel, even if the internal logic or theological grounding of those concepts have room for improvement.

Inherently right and wrong: A common feature of authoritarian thought is the belief that various things are inherently right or wrong. This belief doesn’t stand up well to questioning. If you do question it, the authoritarian will often appeal to nature or to history (“it’s natural, look at the animal kingdom” or “it’s always been like this”). If you show that this reasoning is logically and/or factually wrong, then you’re likely to get a furious response, because you’re threatening the underpinnings of their entire worldview, including everything that they value.

Insights from knowledge modeling

The topics above have been well covered by others. In this section, I’m going to pick up on some points that have been noticed but underestimated in previous work, and others points that have gone largely un-noticed.

Expressive and instrumental behaviour: A recurrent theme in the topics above has been that the authoritarian worldview is often internally inconsistent, and/or inconsistent with reality if you think through the implications for more than one or two steps. This makes much more sense if you view what the uncle says as expressive behaviour, affirming his belief group’s values, rather than instrumental behaviour, about actually getting something done. I’ve blogged about this here and here and here.

Short span of implications: Even when you do factor in the role of expressive behaviour, one striking feature of authoritarian worldviews is that they often use a very short span of implications. This would bear more detailed investigation; it’s tempting to think that people who can’t handle long spans of implications will be drawn towards simplistic worldviews with short spans of implications, but that’s just a speculation at the moment.

Pre-emptive closure and construing and box-ticking: A related issue is that authoritarian personalities tend to stop at the first possible solution that looks okay to them, rather than going for an overview of the problem as a whole, or testing the possible solutions. This can manifest itself via cherry-picked statistics, or talking point factoids, which use single examples without a broader context. It also appears in reaction to proposed innovations, as “Oh, we already do that” where the person pattern matches onto one surface feature of the innovation, and then pigeonholes it as being the same as something that they already know.

Surface features of conformity versus deep structure: Authoritarian worldviews also tend to be keen on easily visible surface features of conformity, such as hairstyles and clothing. This interacts with the issue of binary categorisation, leading to a desire for easily visible markers of group membership (e.g. male versus female clothing and hairstyles). There’s typically less emphasis on less easily observable, deep structure, issues. A common finding when surveying self-described evangelical Christians, for instance, is that they often know very little about core Christian theological issues; typically, less than atheists do.

Conspiracy theories: Because many core features of authoritarian thought involve a fairly superficial approach to facts, they tend to clash with reality sooner or later. Authoritarian individuals aren’t usually strong on admitting that they were wrong, because they perceive that as entailing a loss of status, so they’re often very receptive to conspiracy theories as a way of reconciling their beliefs with a version of reality.

Front and back versions: Most of the issues above involve a mismatch between actual reality and simplistic views of reality. The issue of front and back versions in this context involves a different dynamic, and hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves.

The concept of front and back versions was introduced by Goffman in the 1950s. The name comes from the metaphor of the theatre, where there’s the front of stage version of the performance, versus what goes on backstage. This distinction is widespread throughout everyday life, with people systematically behaving in one way to outsiders (customers, clients, students, etc) and in another way behind the scenes with colleagues.

A key point here is that there’s usually little or no intention to deceive; for instance, nobody thinks that the actors on stage are actually killing Caesar. This is so much taken for granted that it is used as the humorous punchline in one of the Naked Gun films. The front version is often used to reassure nervous patients or clients, in the case of doctors or airline pilots, or as a polite way of avoiding social taboos (e.g. euphemisms that sidestep the need to mention toilets).

A common criticism of authoritarian individuals is that they are hypocritical about morality, claiming to be virtuous while actually behaving badly. (This is different from some religious views of humans as sinful, which lead into theological issues that go outside the scope of this article.)

Some of this apparent hypocrisy makes more sense if you view it in terms of front and back versions of morality. In this view, there’s the front version which you profess in public as expressive behaviour, and there’s an acceptable back version which one doesn’t talk about. In addition, within this worldview, there are things which are unacceptable, even as back versions, though in reality the boundary between acceptable back versions and unacceptable things is usually vague, and subject to a lot of motivated reasoning.

This also makes sense of why authoritarian personalities often view mentions of their hypocrisy as “uncivil”. By definition, back versions aren’t mentioned, and discussing them with outsiders is impolite.

Pulling it together

When you pull together the issues above, a lot of features of crazy uncle worldviews become more understandable. Not necessarily right, but understandable…

Manners: He has a different model of good manners from most of his nephews and nieces. He believes that he is owed respect because of being an uncle, but that he doesn’t owe the same amount back to the nephews and nieces, because part of his role as uncle involves assessing how well they have behaved, and what they have earned. He also believes that it’s rude to discuss some topics because they should be treated as back versions.

Angry: He perceives society as sliding into disrespect, rudeness and immorality, so he feels a range of emotions; anger is a prominent case in point.

Exasperated: Something that’s received less attention is that he’s also permanently exasperated. He believes that problems are simple, with simple solutions, and he thinks that other people either can’t see this, or are producing objections because they’re nit-pickers or obstructive. This makes him frustrated and exasperated.

Fearful: He’s fearful of loss of status, because of social changes; again, this is well covered in the literature on the authoritarian personality.

A less widely known but highly relevant finding from the work on human bias is that people in general are very loss-averse, and that this often plays out in paradoxical ways. For instance, someone who gains something and then loses a little of it will typically feel less happy than someone who finds a smaller amount, even if the first person still ends up with more overall than the second person.

So, what can you do about improving the situation?

You probably won’t get far with an evidence-based logical demonstration of why he’s factually wrong in his core beliefs and reasoning. In system theory terms, that will produce a strong feedback loop, where he will defend his beliefs even more furiously because of feeling threatened. Yelling at him will usually be equally counterproductive, and will strengthen him in his belief that the younger generation have bad manners.

However, change is possible. Some methods that often work are as follows. They’re all well established in the literature on belief change, but usually they’re described at a pragmatic level; I’ve located them within more systematised concepts, which provide a more powerful way of applying them.

Clashing scripts, schemata and facets: One common route for change occurs when two beliefs within the uncle’s worldview come into conflict with each other. I’ve blogged previously about ways of describing worldviews in terms of scripts and schemata and facet theory. A classic example is the conflict between being polite to guests, and being rude to members of out-groups, if you bring along a guest who is a member of an out-group when you visit the uncle. Often, the belief about politeness to guests takes priority. Not always, but often. From there, it’s a short step to the uncle viewing that particular individual as okay, on the basis that they’re an exception to his generalisation about that out-group. There’s still a long way to go before the uncle changes his mind about that out-group as a whole, but it’s a start.

Small cumulative changes beneath the radar: A related issue involves the span of consistency. The uncle may be unwilling to make a significant break from his previous beliefs in one step, but may change towards a new view via a series of small steps, if each of those steps is within his span of consistency, so that he can reassure himself that he’s not abandoning his core beliefs.

Tacit learning versus explicit learning: A related strand involves various forms of tacit learning, where the person gradually learns something without being aware that they are learning it, or aware of how they are learning it. Often, this occurs via nonverbal cues, such as the nephews and nieces frowning when the uncle behaves in one way, and smiling when he behaves in another. They’re often not aware that they’re doing it. This sort of nudge has the advantage of being below the uncle’s radar, and therefore less likely to trigger a feedback loop where he pushes back.

I’ll end on that positive note. I hope that this article helps someone, somewhere, to build a happier set of family relationships…

Notes and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

You might also find our website useful:

Overviews of the articles on this blog:


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