CQUni psych researcher tackles "guru " boom on popular podcast

19 May 2021

A pandemic project for a CQUniversity psychologist and an Irish anthropologist has become a hit on the podcast charts' as the duo delve into society's self-appointed "gurus".

Decoding the Gurus is a fortnightly podcast' hosted by CQUniversity Psychology and gambling researcher Professor Matthew Browne' and his Japan-based friend and fellow-researcher Dr Chris Kavanagh.

Since launching in September 2020' the episodes have reached reaching tens of thousands of listeners around the globe' and looked at psychology driving the mass influence of household names like Gwyneth Paltrow' Jordan Peterson' Russell Brand and many more.

Based in Bundaberg' in regional Queensland' Prof Browne said the idea for the podcast came as countless conspiracies about the pandemic emerged in social and mainstream media' and as he and Dr Kavanagh noticed these "gurus" driving many of the theories.

"I've always taken a rationalist' sceptical kind of approach – and from a psychological perspective' conspiracies all appeal to the basic motivations' like paranoia' fear' and promises of simple answers to complex questions'"

he explained.

"I know people personally that have fallen for conspiracy theories really hard' and it can do a lot of damage to their relationships' and their life."

Prof Browne' who has also been researching psychological factors in anti-vaccine attitudes' increasingly sees connections between anti-vax movements' 'miracle cures' touted by wellness experts' and suspicion about mainstream health' government and media services.

In Australia' Prof Browne says "wellness influencer" and celebrity chef Pete Evans is an example of the global "guru" movement.

"We haven't gotten around to an episode on Pete Evans' and honestly he's just a poor copy of so many of these grifter-gurus around the world'"

he said.

Prof Browne said self-appointed gurus are not a new thing' but the reach of the internet has super-charged their reach and their impact. Traditionally' they have tended to be of a religious or spiritual variety' but recently a new crop of 'secular' gurus has appealed to particular cultural' political or conspiratorial worldviews.

"One reason conspiracies tend to a cultural constant' is that humans are primed to detect patterns' and there's good reasons for that. Better to think you see a tiger lurking and be wrong!"

he said.

"But we also see patterns that are not there' like in the clouds. And the information on the internet is like the clouds' and you can find pretty much any pattern in there if you're looking for it – and often the internet is where people find confirmation of their pre-existing biases.

"History has shown us that panic' mob-like behaviour' conspiracies and religiosity' all come in periods of stress and particularly epidemics.

"At the start of the pandemic I read a book by Daniel Defoe' A Journal of the Plague Year' based on his experiences in London in 1722. It was striking how many similarities there were with contemporary trends.

"More people were looking to God for help' there was an explosion of crack cures' there were so many crazy theories about where the plague had come from' and especially there was xenophobia against the Dutch traders' blaming them for being the source of the plague.

"The psychological perspective can sometimes be a little depressing' because in some ways humanity doesn't change.

"But I think the solution is to use the tools that modernity has given us: We need to rely on evidence and rational analysis' encourage information literacy' and build trust in strong scientific institutions. So with this podcast we're aiming to have fun' but also to help people deal with some quite manipulative and deceptive voices out there in the infosphere."

You can listen to Decoding the Gurus by searching "Decoding the Gurus" in your podcast app.