Why do people believe weird things?

There are a lot of weird things that people believe. This has puzzled me most of my life. It is a puzzle I take very seriously. I have trouble dismissing it off hand by crediting the innate stupidity of people or the inadequacy of education. Michael Shermer, in his book Why People Believe Weird Things sums it up as a combination of wishful thinking, need for simple, uncomplicated explanations and immediate gratification. I have in the past believed some pretty weird things (and sadly, probably still do).  I have known many thoughtful and intelligent people to believe weird things too, some of them quite complex. And apathy doesn’t seem to be the issue either. Many times the weirdest things people believe are the ones they are most passionate about and care about the most. But I think this I think offers a clue.

The world is complex. There is a lot going on. We cannot personally verify every idea, statement and opinion that we run across. Even if it were possible it may seem like a ridiculous waste of time. There are so many things that are of little importance or relevance to our lives. As a result we adopt heuristics or short cuts to allow ourselves to be reasonably sure of most things without being overwhelmed by the details. This, of course, leaves us susceptible to promotion and propaganda, myths and conventional wisdom. This tendency occurs even if we assume the purpose of belief is somehow related to knowledge or truth.

From what I have seen, the purpose of belief has very little to do with truth. I suspect the more important function of belief is social cohesion. Widespread agreement and connection within social groups is probably more critical to our success and survival than veracity and reason. Totems, and our modern equivalent, branding, provide a basis for self-identification and social structure. These clusters of ideas tell us who we are and how we fit into the world. They are the building blocks of armies, churches and corporations; of railroads, atom bombs and the internet.

Sometimes these clusters include some rather odd ideas, but it is easier for us to accept a few peculiar wrong ideas than to risk our social cohesion. Intelligent design is equated with strength of character, morality and reverence. Climate change denial supports the values of hard work, responsibility and patriotism. Colon cleanses demonstrate our concern for social justice, sustainable economy and our environment. We cannot check everything—and more importantly that social cohesion is usually more valuable than being right—so we tend to accept the whole basket of beliefs that define our groups, rather than sorting them out individually.

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~ by severalfourmany on July 19, 2012.

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