So, why do people believe?

While I take pains not to let it come through in posts, overall, I’m a fairly cranky person, and I know at least a few other skeptics are as well. It would be easy to take this and extrapolate that being skeptical makes you cranky, which some people really do believe and which is an excellent example of failing to understand correlation and causation. For my part, I know where it comes from, and can only say that the same may be true for others as well. Basically, I find far too many people to be irrational and even fatuous, and when you’re immersed in such a culture, it’s hard to be upbeat, you know? Especially as election season comes around.

Which is, naturally, why so much of this blog deals with critical thinking; it is (part of) my own contribution towards correcting this, and an exercise in reaching people. Not to mention that critical thinking has also been remarkably informative, about nature, about behavior, and about how things work overall, so I find it pretty cool, actually. The crankiness is what led to skepticism, as I struggle to understand why people are so spastic sometimes. Belief in things without firm evidence is rampant in our society, and it does make you wonder why. Herewith, some of my musings on why this is so often seen, and how it works out that way.

First off, people are complicated. Our minds are very dynamic, having to deal with the rigors of everyday living, the propagation of the species, and the vagaries of abstract thought. A simple solution to irrationality is too much to expect, much as we’d like one, and we have so many influences on our decisions that knowing exactly what the motivation of any one aspect is would be impossible. Yet there must be at least some pattern for such behavior to be common. Much of our daily behavior, regardless of what we’re actually doing, can trace back to instinctual influences that formed the backbone of our development as a species.

This list is probably incomplete, and I may add to it later on. Not all of the items are required for belief in questionable things, and some of them are actually contradictory. While many of the influences on our behavior are the same, individuals may emphasize some over others due to their own personal experience, for example. That’s part of what makes tracking these down so hard. But take a look and see how many you recognize:

The need for simplicity: Probably the biggest contributor. We want things to be simple, understandable, easy, validating, and so on, so when we find something of this nature, we tend to stop looking. For instance, the various cancers are widespread illnesses that crop up for reasons we have little understanding of, and so we cannot plan to avoid them very well. This is frustrating, and it makes many people seize onto the false claims of alternative treatments and preventive measures. Moreover, we don’t like ambiguity, and prefer to see firm, well-delineated choices, so anything that provides this is preferable to something vague, regardless of accuracy. In reality, it’s actually safer to say that firm answers are extremely rare, and anything promising such is suspect.

Importance: Not surprisingly, we have a drive to be important, to have some kind of impact, to “make a difference.” We’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has no desire to be better than they are (and would probably worry about their mental health if we did.) From hanging out on forums about UFOs and paranormal phenomena, one of the more frequent aspects seen is the idea that believers hold a special position, able to see that which the average person cannot. In other words, they have a higher status because of their knowledge of the subject. In this way, they stand out from the “sheeple,” the masses who remain ignorant of the True Order Of Things, whether by ignorance or manipulation from some organization – the secret government, Big Pharma, Bilderberg/Illuminati/Zionists, aliens, and so on. An interesting sidenote is that our folklore is rife with the lone hero who blows apart the conspiracy or causes the collapse of the power structure, yet our history yields almost no instances of this ever happening.

“Specialness”: While related to ‘importance,’ above, this one deserves its own attention. Many of us treasure some unique experience, something that sets us apart from others, giving us knowledge and insight that they do not have. This is reflected in the near constant one-upmanship that takes place among any group of people. Note that such experiences do not have to be positive, either, and that a certain cachet is obtained from going through something traumatic or injurious – this is perhaps a reflection of how strong we are. When it comes to, for instance, seeing a UFO or surviving an illness, we tend to resist explanations that would reduce the special quality of this experience, so ideas that we were fooled by a star or recovered without the assistance of green tea are anathema.

The puzzle drive: We want answers, and we get a sense of accomplishment from finding solutions. We engage in silly games and have a fondness for mysteries precisely because of this. It would also appear that we get internal negative feedback when we cannot find answers, or are wrong. These are fantastic drives and lie behind virtually everything we’ve added to our knowledge. So when something out of the ordinary is noticed, like a puff of ‘smoke’ from the side of a collapsing building, we have some impetus to figure it out. Of course, the more complicated and difficult the puzzle, the greater the sense of accomplishment we have when we find the solution. It’s easy to see how conspiracy theories fit into this aspect, and why such elaborate machinations are advanced as solutions.

Personal accounts: We are heavily biased towards stories and experiences from someone that we know, or have simply seen (on TV for instance,) and this even extends to someone we haven’t met or seen a photo of, but that we can converse with online. Very frequently, such anecdotes will take precedence over any scientific findings or research study, regardless of how many sample points and rigorous tests such sources utilize. Perhaps this is because we trust face-to-face encounters more, and believe that better information comes from ‘real people’ and not ‘data,’ despite the fact that it is thousands of times easier for ‘real people’ to lie to us. Too often, an eyewitness account or a personal success story is viewed as sacrosanct, something that many salespeople know very well.

“It’s not my fault”: Strange as it may sound, a very significant amount of beliefs are built around the idea that, if true, it would absolve the believer of certain responsibilities, and/or explain why their lot in life wasn’t as good as it could be. The sudden surge of ‘repressed memories’ and ‘childhood sexual abuse cases’ a few decades ago was actually a symptom of this, as is a certain number of ‘alien abduction’ cases, and the idea that ‘toxins’ can explain everything that keeps us from feeling 100% healthy. The believer latches onto such things as an explanation because it gives them a reason why they might have problems with success, fitting in, and so on – something that we all deal with from time to time.

“We are being controlled”: There is a certain amount of resistance to the idea of a larger-scale society, perhaps the thought that this is a denial of free will. Governments, large corporations, and other such entities are thought to have the ability to control a populace, which to some extent is correct. While this is obviously a problem if it’s for selfish or nefarious purposes, such attributions may simply arise from the resistance to being controlled in any manner. It’s easy to see the resentment over any government that requires contributions, such as taxes, but does not act in the interests of the contributors. It’s but a tiny step into government conspiracies, which can then be used to explain the lack of evidence for any other belief as well, such as the US military suppressing the evidence of aliens.

Lost childhood: When we were young, many things were ‘magical,’ including talking on a telephone to someone thousands of kilometers away and watching batter turn into cake. So much was fascinating and ready to be discovered. As we got older, we began learning how most of it functioned, and the magic went away, replaced by science and physical laws. This sense of wonder and fascination often disappeared, and is usually missed. So when something is introduced that retains this ‘magic,’ too often we’re influenced by this desire to accept such things at face value, rather than examining it critically. This is seen in such common topics like ‘spirituality,’ and ‘other ways of knowing,’ and various realms beyond our reach. That such ideas are supported only by ancient stories or blurry photographs doesn’t ever register.

The land of milk and honey: This is a tricky one, and one that I’m not aware of any research done in the field, so a lot of this is speculation; bear with me a bit.

There is a direct relation to the ‘Lost childhood’ section above, where something fantastic or mystical lies just outside of the realm of our senses, or just beyond the reach of science. But it’s not just the pining for the awestruck days of youth – it also incorporates the drive to explore, and seek new experiences.

Many cultures are also rife with the concept of someplace nearby that is much better than normal; paradise, Avalon, valhalla, through the wardrobe, over the rainbow, behind the mountain, in the next valley, across the water, down to Ft Lauderdale, and so on. A few centuries ago, explorers sought all sorts of magical lands, from El Dorado to the Fountain of Youth, Hy-Brasil to the Kingdom of Saguenay. We are a species that explores almost entirely due to such beliefs – something pretty damn cool is just waiting to be found. Curiously, while probability indicates that the chance of finding something bad is at least as great as finding something good, we’re often more convinced that such explorations will be beneficial.

Is this a survival trait that we evolved? It’s hard to say – even though it seems to have worked, this might only be because enough of the land surrounding the African continent where mankind first arose is temperate enough to be hospitable; bear in mind that the planet is littered with failed expeditions as well. But it’s easy to see where a belief that something better is just around the corner can lead to some questionable practices, especially when so much of our planet is explored and no longer mysterious.

Is there a pattern to all of this? Unfortunately, yes: virtually everyone possesses the above traits and instincts to some degree. It seems clear that ‘belief’ isn’t a defined trait, and that we can’t pin down what makes some particular topic ‘fringe’ or ‘irrational’ – and by extension, no way to classify people as such either. The crucial factor seems only to be how well we can examine our reasons, and/or recognize that subconscious desires and emotions can affect our thinking. And as mentioned before, our ability (or lack thereof) to examine alternatives and see what might hold the most weight.

Sometimes, finding out that something is ‘human nature’ causes people to think that it’s inevitable or uncorrectable, but this is hardly the case; we have numerous traits that are human nature, yet easily controlled by rational thought. Think of our sex drive, desire for certain foods, and even the various behaviors that we vicariously enjoy through movies and books. Those things that subconsciously influence us are easily overcome by conscious action. Unfortunately, a lot of people respond to these subconscious influences by rationalizing instead, thinking that if they hold a particular view, they must have arrived there for a good, conscious reason, and this is perhaps the hardest thing to overcome. There is often a mutual support structure in place within the mind, one that isn’t going to collapse with a single piece of good evidence or a strong argument. But, these things can start the decay, and as long as someone doesn’t expect to see immediate results, these are still among the best tools to help bring about critical examination.

Seen this way, however, the crankiness with which I (and likely others) view such instances of fatuous belief is lessened considerably. People, while not exactly victims of their instincts, are nevertheless influenced in ways that they may not even be aware of, responding to the same kind in inherent goads that make birds build nests and cats bury their feces. Most, if not all, of these traits have specific benefits in the right circumstances, and evolution simply hasn’t achieved enough specificity to temper those traits in inappropriate circumstances. That’s where the rational parts of our brains come in, though sometimes it takes some gentle (or not so gentle) reminders to engage them.