How can some individuals and groups perversely deny what seems to many of us an obvious truth? Many factors apart from reason, including personality, experience, teaching and social pressure, affect how and what we believe to be true.
Do you believe that human activity is responsible for climate change? Or that Covid vaccines are effective and safe? If so, it is difficult not to be dismayed by those who cling to the dubious notions that human-caused climate change is a myth or that Covid vaccines are ineffective, dangerous, and may even involve insertion of microchips to monitor our movements. Dubious to us, yet these beliefs are embraced by a significant minority of the population. And like a mirror image, they similarly decry what they consider to be our credulity and the dubiousness of our beliefs about climate change and Covid.
The difficulty in understanding why some cling to such dubious beliefs in the face of overwhelming disconfirming information arises because we tend to think of beliefs as simple containers of information: Paris is the capital of France; rattlesnake bites can be deadly; regular brushing helps preserve your teeth. Beliefs like these generally do change in response to contradictory evidence from trusted sources: I was wrong in my belief that New York City is the capital of New York State; Google informs me that the capital is Albany.
No one deliberately harbours erroneous beliefs, and so when beliefs that we consider dubious do not change when challenged, it is because the individual continues to believe – and most often needs to believe – that they are true. This occurs because many beliefs have functions that go beyond being mere information vessels. They serve important needs. Modifying or negating them would leave those needs unmet and so action is taken to preserve the belief. This happens automatically, generally without awareness, and often involves discrediting the source of contradictory information.
What are those functions and needs? Some beliefs play an important role in promoting and maintaining self-esteem. Donald Trump provides a good example: To accept that he lost the 2020 election would be a significant blow to his self-esteem and so it is likely that he truly believes that the election was rigged and that he did not really lose.
Self-esteem also derives from our membership in important groups, and this also influences our beliefs. For example, the self-esteem of proud Canadians is boosted by the belief that, as a group, Canadians are a decent and fair-minded people. To maintain that belief and the self-esteem it engenders requires finding ways to negate information that challenges it. When Ben Johnson won the gold medal in the hundred metre sprint in the 1988 Olympics, Canadians were proud and delighted at Canada’s success. However, when he subsequently was stripped of the medal after failing a drug test, many now referred to him as a Jamaican=Canadian or even as a Jamaican immigrant. A cheater; not really one of us. And the myriad complaints about abuse in the Indian residential schools, and the charge that the schools had been set up by the Canadian government to eliminate native culture while preparing them for low-level, labouring employment, fell largely on deaf ears. Instead, collective self-esteem was maintained by viewing these schools as designed to help indigenous peoples find their way in modern industrial society. However, the emotion generated by the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of residential schools overwhelmed this line of defence for many people.
Other beliefs function to reduce anxiety. To believe that human activity is bringing about climate change that is ruining the planet for future generations arouses anxiety, but we can escape that anxiety if we reject the notion that climate change is a threat. Hence, the appeal of climate change deniers who claim scientific expertise.
How to explain the bizarre appeal of conspiracy theorist David Icke whose Internet forum has nearly 100,000 followers, and whose YouTube channel has had millions of views? He proclaims that the world’s political and economic elites have been replaced by interdimensional shape-shifting reptilians who are working to bring about chaos and destruction.
Religious beliefs also serve to assuage anxiety. The death of a loved one and the contemplation of one’s own demise are anxiety-arousing for most people. Belief in post-mortem immortality and ultimate reunion with those who have gone before offers soothing relief.
Some beliefs foster important feelings of belonging. We are generally more attracted to and comfortable with people who share our key beliefs, and banding together with people who think like we do increases our confidence that our beliefs are correct. These shared beliefs provide common purpose as well as feelings of camaraderie, and such feelings are particularly important to those people who otherwise feel isolated and insignificant. In modern times, it is much easier to find people who believe as we do, regardless of how idiosyncratic our beliefs may be. In times past, it was wise to keep unpopular and peculiar beliefs to oneself for fear of ridicule and rejection, but the Internet now provides ready (and anonymous) access to others who think similarly. As a result, “virtual groups” develop that provide feelings of belonging to their members. They reinforce each other’s beliefs, which strengthens their shared convictions, and this can result in the “us versus them” sentiment that is characteristic of populist movements. This in turn provides a further boost to self-esteem. For example, “We are standing up for freedom. We are the good guys.” When feelings of belonging are at stake, it is not surprising that shared beliefs are resistant to disconfirmation.
Roots of belief
How do these beliefs that are so dubious take root in others in the first place? Why does scientific evidence demonstrating the efficacy and safety of the vaccines not offer adequate respite from anxiety about Covid? Why do some people express suspicion of science and yet, in the absence of supportive evidence, believe that a drug used for deworming animals (ivermectin) or an anti-malarial agent (hydroxychloroquine) offer effective remedies?
And why are so many people attracted to conspiracy theories based in the belief that authorities manipulate and lie? How can they believe that the pictures of astronauts walking on the moon were faked, or that the real perpetrators of the 9/11 attack in New York have yet to be identified? How to explain the bizarre appeal of conspiracy theorist David Icke whose Internet forum has nearly 100,000 followers, and whose YouTube channel has had millions of views? He proclaims that the world’s political and economic elites have been replaced by interdimensional shape-shifting reptilians who are working to bring about chaos and destruction.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the appeal of such beliefs.
Influences on belief: Weltanschauung
Weltanschauung is the German word that psychologists historically used to refer to a person’s overall conception of the world and of humanity. This encompasses important assumptions that not only shape our thoughts and feelings and emotions but influence how we deal with new information, especially information that is inconsistent with what we already believe.
One’s Weltanschauung has an important influence on how beliefs are formed and maintained because new information is screened for compatibility with it. For example, someone whose worldview incorporates a belief in post-mortem survival is much more likely to react positively to an account of someone having seen a ghost than would a person whose belief system does not include discarnate souls.
The Weltanschauung takes root in early childhood and is shaped by both family and society at large. As a result, some children are reared in circumstances that lead them to believe that the world is ruled by a deity who has a continuing interest in their day-to-day circumstances and listens to their importunate pleadings. Children reared in other circumstances may grow up with a devotion to logic and rationality while still others will develop a general distrust of authorities and a negative view towards people of other races and religions.
For example, when it comes to Covid, the religious fundamentalist may believe that God will not allow the faithful to suffer from its ravages – or conversely, that Covid is God’s punishment for human “vices” such as abortion or homosexuality. On the other hand, someone reared with a secular worldview and a respect for logic and reason is more likely to respect science and be heartened by the development of vaccines. And those raised to be suspicious of authorities may well have difficulty trusting that vaccines are safe and instead fall prey to conspirational notions of ulterior motives behind vaccination.
Influences on belief: Personality
There are some important aspects of personality that render people more or less likely to give fair evaluation to information that opposes important beliefs. Personalities vary, from being open-minded to dogmatic regarding information that is inconsistent with important beliefs. Those whose personalities involve open-mindedness give due consideration to information that contradicts their beliefs, but dogmatic individuals, on the other hand, tend to hold their important beliefs with absolute certainty and protect them from threatening contradictory information.
Dogmatism develops in childhood as a defensive strategy in reaction to pervasive feelings of insecurity. It involves a strong desire to be accepted by others in one’s social group, and this leads to distrust of those, including authorities, outside the group and a rigid resistance to competing ideas and beliefs. Dogmatic individuals may experience system identity threat, the belief that society’s fundamental values are being trampled upon as a result of rampaging social change. This is a strong predictor of being attracted to conspiracy theories that offer an explanation of who or what is behind the threat.
Attraction to conspiracy theories sometimes reflects schizotypy, an aspect of personality that shares some characteristics with schizophrenia. It involves a general distrust of others, difficulty with normal social relationships, and a tendency towards frequent perceptual anomalies. The general distrust promotes acceptance of conspiracy theories, and the perceptual anomalies are likely to be explained by attributing them to supernatural influences. Individuals high in schizotypy are more likely to be drawn towards truly bizarre beliefs, such as the notion that shape-shifting extraterrestrials are now running the world.
Influences on belief: Experience
Many of our important beliefs, whether accurate or not, are reinforced by personal experience. Those who distrust authority or discriminate on the basis of gender or race or religion can usually cite personal experiences that demonstrate for them the truth of their beliefs.
However, experience can be a poor guide to reality. A simple example: Many otherwise rational people have been convinced by their own experience of the effectiveness of mega doses of vitamin C in warding off the common cold. Whenever they feel a cold coming on, they dose themselves with vitamin C. As a result, they claim, they avoid the cold, or it if it does come on, it is much less pronounced than it otherwise would have been. Of course, such personal validation is unreliable in the extreme. Yet, for them, the experience is so impressive that they are unpersuaded by the scientific research that shows that vitamin C offers no such benefit.
Influences on belief: Teaching
Many of our most important beliefs are not the result of personal experience, but instead are taught to us through both formal and informal instruction. And because much of this teaching occurs before children have developed the capacity for logical or critical evaluation, powerful beliefs build up that are never questioned and go on to serve as axioms in the individual’s belief system.
Just as important as teaching the beliefs themselves is teaching children to think critically. A key element of this is how to evaluate the credibility of sources of information. Yet, critical thinking skills are often taken for granted. Consider the contrast with language: In the normal course of events, language and the ability to communicate with others develops naturally. Nonetheless, every society dictates that children spend years in school being taught vocabulary and grammar and effective communication. In contrast, while children also spontaneously develop a modicum of critical thinking ability based on experience, relatively little formal effort is devoted to teaching them critical thinking skills.
Whether an individual can think critically about new information – and about the source of that information – plays a huge role in belief formation and maintenance. For example, very few of us have the means to conduct our own climatological or immunological research, or even the expertise to scrutinize and make sense of the research data of others. However, our ability to critically evaluate the credibility and reliability of the source of information will determine the extent to which our beliefs are influenced. Those whose beliefs are dubious to us generally trust information sources that we would consider to be completely unreliable.
Influences on belief: Consistency:
Our beliefs are for the most part interrelated; change in one often impacts our confidence in the accuracy of others. Another Donald Trump example: If you are one of the many American citizens who believe that Trump is an honest, unselfish, and well-meaning individual motivated only by the best interests of the country, then you may well share his belief that he actually won the 2020 presidential election but was deprived of the victory because of political skulduggery. Now suppose that you gradually come to the conclusion that the election was not rigged, and that Trump really did lose. It would not be easy in that case to continue to believe that Trump is honest and unselfish; the inconsistency would be difficult to bear. The easiest way to avoid such cognitive dissonance is to reject information that counters the belief that the election was rigged.
Influences on belief: Group support and social pressure
We tend to be most comfortable in the company of people who think as we do about important issues, and we tend to avoid those who challenge our important beliefs. The individual ‘s beliefs gain strength from the reassurance offered by the group, and the desire to be accepted by the group in turn discourages serious evaluation of key beliefs. Deviation from important beliefs can even threaten exclusion from the group. As a result, beliefs that are shared by members of a group are much more resistant to change, while the at same time, any emerging doubts are soon quelled by group pressure.
Not surprisingly, a person’s values, especially those shared by the group, play a major role in rendering beliefs resistant to counter-information. Once an important value is involved, the associated beliefs become all but impregnable. Consider “freedom”; it is an important value and when it is invoked in defence of a belief, it has a powerful influence. The populists’ call for freedom seemed justification enough for the truckers’ occupation of Ottawa. But values are always somewhat vague. Freedom for whom? Should the truckers who were ensconced in Ottawa be free to blare their air horns in protest throughout the night, causing widespread distress to local inhabitants unable to sleep? And should people have the freedom to exclude from their midst unvaccinated individuals who pose a risk?
Shared values can even trump the influence of scientific literacy. Consider recent research into the roots of climate change denial. Researchers wanted to know if those who deny that human-induced climate change is occurring are simply lacking in science literacy. However, it turns out that there was no correlation between science literacy and belief that climate change poses a serious danger. Indeed, those with the greatest degree of science literacy showed the greatest polarization, some strongly believing that humans are causing climate change and others expressing strong disbelief in that regard. The perception of climate change risks reflected the values of the groups with whom these individuals identified. Someone from a community that is reliant upon oil production was much more likely to reject the notion that human activity is causing climate change, regardless of the degree of scientific literacy.
Similar results were found regarding vaccine risk. In response to the recommendation that adolescent girls should be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus (which is sexually transmitted and causes cervical cancer), beliefs about the benefits and risks of the vaccine reflected shared social and cultural values, not scientific literacy. Some believed that the vaccine offers important protection, while others feared that the protection offered by the vaccine would lead to promiscuity. Rather than increasing support for vaccination, the provision of additional information about the vaccine produced greater polarization as cultural beliefs and values pushed people towards one extreme or the other.
Some stability of key beliefs is essential, for our lives would be difficult if important beliefs were to change each time we encounter information that challenges them. On the other hand, it is maladaptive information.
As noted earlier, important beliefs, such as those that bolster self-esteem, or reduce anxiety or reflect important values or underlie our membership in cherished groups are generally resistant to change even when confronted by information that contradicts them. People are generally adept at finding ways to preserve such beliefs, be it through rationalization (“My prayers weren’t answered because God is testing me”) or by discounting the source of the contradiction. (“The government wants us to be vaccinated because they want to take away our freedom to choose”). We should therefore not be surprised that many people cling to beliefs that are dubious to us. But as we recognize that there are important needs that underlie the dubious beliefs held by others, we should also be aware that some of our own most cherished beliefs may also be resistant to change because of the (unrecognized) needs that they serve in us.