Why We Believe Stupid Shit
I’ve mentioned before that I have very close and good friends from both sides of the political spectrum. And I get a kick out of it when the political topic of the moment sends them into an inflamed state. This is typically played out through a string of angry texts from two different groups. I get to hear the outrage from proponents of both sides of the isle (usually on the same topic). Thankfully, these groups don’t see each other’s texts or, in Seinfeldian terms, worlds would collide. Seriously, why are we so easily outraged?
As a student of persuasion, I know better than to interject my two cents. But as a human being (and troublemaker), I can’t help myself. My contributions are usually in the form of challenging each side’s assumptions, which are generally pure conjecture. And my contributions are almost always summarily dismissed.
We don’t like to be challenged on our beliefs… no matter how unfounded or stupid.
So, why do people believe such stupid shit?
The short answer is because we’re wired that way. In his fascinating book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari explains why human language evolved into such a sophisticated form of communication. In large part, it was due to gossip.
All animals communicate with other members of their species about their environment—food and predators. But humans are especially adept at communicating information concerning social dynamics and relationships (aka gossip). Harari writes, “Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.” Information that is imagined: fiction.
Why is this important to understand? Because we are easily misled by mere fiction. We are both united and divided by gods, myths, legends and patriotism. Harari explains, “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.”
How do we get duped collectively? The two most powerful triggers of social influence are conformity and peer pressure.
Conformity is doing what you observe others doing. You might have heard it called the lemming effect. Conformity is a universal human trait, meaning cultural influences had no impact on our desire to conform. According to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, “Conformity experiments have been replicated and extended in more than 130 experiments from seventeen countries.” We all feel the need to conform.
Conformity occurs when we are exposed to the opinions and behaviors of others. We are more likely to conform when we know others will become aware of our opinions. Furthermore, we will actually come to believe those coerced opinions.
The remedy to conformity is anonymity. Obviously, we are less likely to conform when we are unaware of the opinions of others, but we are also less likely to conform when we know our opinions are anonymous. The reason why authoritarians resist secret ballots is because they want conformity.
Conformity leads to something called pluralistic ignorance, which is when we continue to follow or conform (even when we don’t like or believe in it) simply because most other people like it. This is also called the bandwagon effect and it can lead to dangerous consequences.
Peer pressure is facing disapproval from the group. The punishment for nonconformity is ridicule, or worse, ostracism. You’re either a “snowflake” or a “deplorable.” You can't be both. Pick a side.
Fear of reprisal is why peer pressure is so effective at enforcing conformity... even when we know (or suspect) the group-think is wrong. Simply put, it's bullying.
Back to the authoritarian voting example. Open balloting invokes peer pressure as the “stick” to conformity. Conform or face retaliation. Pretty nasty stuff. The next time someone pushes for an open ballot, you'll know why.
So, who is the arbiter of such methods? Enter the Charismatic Leader. He or she has a strong personality. This person is confident, consistent and resolute with their message. He or she leverages the principles of conformity and peer pressure in order to influence groups to behave in accordance with the charismatic leader’s desires.
Like anything else, these methods of social influence can be used for positive behavioral changes like exercising, eating healthier, depositing litter into trash receptacles and investing for retirement. However, they are often used for nefarious reasons (see any history book for references of the damage done by charismatic leaders).
Here’s the playbook: Divide, conquer, pressure, conform. Repeat. See if you can spot it in the world around you.
While your first inclination is to cite examples in the realm of politics, you will find this dynamic at work, school, recreational activities, social clubs and religious organizations—basically, anywhere humans gather together.
We are comforted by conforming and we are pestered by peer pressure. We want to believe in gods and myths and legends and patriotism because it justifies our membership in the group. Our group. The one with the common beliefs.
That’s why we believe stupid shit. Present company excluded, of course.