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  • Dan Connors

Why do smart people have stupid beliefs?

Updated: Jun 12

Misbelief: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things

“The individual journey that people take down the funnel of misbelief reflects a societal journey into mistrust. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, and no matter where you are in the world (with the possible exception of Scandinavia), it is hard to escape the ways in which our society's level of trust is decreasing, with alarming consequences.” Dan Ariely

Humans do have an amazing capacity for believing what they choose, and excluding that which is painful. In critical moments men sometimes see what they wish to see." Mr. Spock, Star Trek.

With the incredible volume of knowledge and wisdom that has accumulated over the centuries, you would think that the 21st century would be an age of enlightenment. Modern medicine has never been more powerful, scientific knowledge has never been so advanced, and people have never been so prosperous and educated. But for some odd reason, the opposite is happening. We are living in an age of disinformation and confusion about basic facts. Emotions and instincts are overtaking experience and verifiable results. Why is that? Why, with all of the wonderful wisdom we have at our fingertips are we as misguided as ever?

This is the main question for Dan Ariely's new book, Misbelief: what makes rational people believe irrational things. Ariely is a Duke professor of Behavioral Economics and the author of 44 books, including Predictably Irrational and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. His take on why our faulty shortcuts and misconceptions should be required reading for anybody who claims to know "the truth" about how the world operates. He is the inspiration for an NBC crime drama, "The Irrational", a great show that debuted in 2023.

Ariely was inspired to write this book when he discovered that he had become a target of online conspiracies during the Covid epidemic. People were posting terrible things about him and lumping him in with a cabal of elitist manipulators because he occasionally did consulting work for the government. After first trying to debunk his many haters, Ariely instead tried to get to know some of them and their motivations, which makes for a fascinating view of the rabbit hole of disinformation from someone who has encountered it directly and disturbingly.

The book details four steps that lead fairly normal people down what it calls the funnel of misbelief. "Misbelief" is a rarely used word, but it sounds more technical than "conspiracy theory," which comes with negative connotations. Ariely calls misbelief "a distorted lens through which people begin to view the world, reason about the world, and then describe the world to others." The funnel contains four main components:

  1. An emotional element. Emotions are the most powerful driving force that determine our behaviors. Once an emotion gets lodged in our brain, our mind looks for reasons to explain it, regardless of whether those reasons make sense or not. The main driver of these emotions is stress and fear. In times where our bodies and brains are threatened and stressed, we look for a way out. We look for an explanation for the emotions as a way to quiet them. And more often than not, we look for a cause or a villain to blame them on. Even if we are wrong about the causes, it still brings relief to be able to channel the emotions outward towards something else than to live with them.

  2. A cognitive element. This is where the flaws in our thinking come in. Once we have isolated a cause, we use motivated reasoning to convince ourselves and others that we are right and the villain is the real bad guy. The cognitive distortions that we come up against are well-documented.

  • The Dunning-Kruger effect makes us overconfident in our beliefs because we don't know the breadth of what we don't know.

  • Confirmation bias leads us to seek out information that confirms what we already believe and discount anything that conflicts with it.

  • Proportionality bias causes us to look for big, complicated causes and conspiracies for things that have big effects but random causes. (Like Covid-19)

  • Solution aversion causes us to ignore problems that we don't like the solutions to. (Such as climate change could require significant lifestyle changes.)

  • The availability heuristic lulls us into thinking that the things we see every day are representative of the world at large. It keeps us from thinking bigger and longer-term.

3. A personality element. According to Ariely, some people are more susceptible to misbelief than others. He points to personality differences to explain this. Some people are more likely to rely on intuitions over experiences, look for patterns in everything- even when they don't exist, or are just plain narcissists who think that the world revolves around them and their views of reality.

4- The social element. This is the glue that transforms a misbelief into a cult of misinformation. Humans are naturally social animals. We need others to survive, even if that survival entails just having others confirm our view of reality. People who fall into this trap can get stuck for years or decades. While they may lose old ties with friends and family, the pull of anxiety-reducing certainty provides a community of like-minded people who will gladly be your friends as long as you agree with them. Anyone who questions the new reality risks being ostracized, which is a double whammy since they've already isolated those from the old reality. So they double down and deny any data that doesn't confirm the new reality, going so far as to escalate things with outrageous stories to get attention and signal membership in the club.

None of us is immune to misbelief. We all have comforting stories that keep us from digging too deep into a reality we'd rather not know about. There are varying degrees of misbelief, but the more unsure and stressed people get, the more they fall into it. The Covid-19 epidemic was one of those times, and conspiracy theories multiplied during that era about the origins, dangers, and treatments of the pandemic that killed millions of people.

Ariely talks about the handicap principle, which is a sign that communications are reliable. It used to be that getting a lot of attention required people to handicap themselves by getting advanced degrees, certifications, and jobs that showed they had put some effort into what they were about to say. Now any clown can say anything and get a large audience. Critically, there are no consequences for their being wrong anymore, which means that misbelievers never have to face their errors once proven wrong. They just move on to the next conspiracy.

What can we do about all this? Why are so many people rushing to the crazy idea that the earth if flat, for instance? Ariely points to the need to restore trust in society, because without it there is no civilization. There are good reasons not to trust big pharma, the government, the banking system, or the military- they have all betrayed us in one way or another in the past. But without them we are preppers hiding in our basements with machine guns. Most humans, believe it or not, are worthy of trust in the right situations. Somehow we need to design our institutions better so that they are more accountable and trustworthy.

And we need to tackle fear, anxiety, and stress in a serious way to prevent these misbeliefs from taking hold in the first place. Unscrupulous leaders will try to use those fears against us. Our inner demons want to find a villain to blame everything on, but that villain is often ourselves. The 21st century is an age blessed with too much information, but not enough wisdom. Hopefully, as the years roll on, we will learn more about how to deal with reality rather than hide behind misbeliefs.

Dan Ariely is one of my favorite authors, and this book comes highly recommended. Here is a video of him discussing the events that led up to the book.

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