Thursday, October 2, 2014

Programmed to Believe

By nature, we are believing creatures. We have evolutionarily developed to err on the side of caution as a survival mechanism. To borrow Michael Shermer's oft-used explanation, our ancestors survived if they assumed the rustle in the bushes was a predator and fled, even if it wasn't. If they had figured it was just the wind when it actually was a predator, their DNA would have perished and we would not have been born.

Likewise, we readily believe, subscribing causation and reason to events and things. These beliefs (as well as decisions) are generally reached by purely emotional impulses.

Once a belief is formed, we intuitively filter all incoming data through our biases to fit our belief system. We have our idea of what the world is like, and then we find confirming information in the data we take in.

If we happen to come across contradictory ideas, we experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. This must be resolved, so in comes the rationalization of why that information isn't important or true, or perhaps we twist the information to suit our narrative. (This is how news stories can be seen to support both sides of the political spectrum depending on how they are spun by the media.)

Once that contradictory information is explained to ourselves, we are mentally and emotionally rewarded with a feeling of pleasure. Our mental equilibrium has been restored.

Another technique to resolve dissonance that was commonly used by the COG to help clear up contradictions was to advise members when they were in doubt about any belief, to "wrap it up in a bundle of faith" and set it aside. This is a clear application of our mental inclination to compartmentalize. We can manage like this, but of course, the most emotionally satisfying method would be rationalization, as mentioned above.

We are very good at inventing reasons to justify our beliefs. And ironically, it appears that more intelligent people are even better at this. That is why you may see very smart people who believe very strange things.

As an aside, I will bring up the interesting case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who the world remembers for his rational, logical character, Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps not so well know was his avid interest in the supernatural and mysticism. His friend, the famous Harry Houdini, tried to convince Doyle that mystics employed tricks just like he did, yet bizarrely, Doyle chose to believe that Houdini himself possessed supernatural powers. He even fell for the childish hoax of the Cottingley Fairies, cardboard cutouts of fairies posed with an amateur photographer's daughters, going so far as to use them as illustrations in an article he wrote for The Strand about fairies, and then later in his book, The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1922.

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