This article is part two of a multi-part in-depth summary of the brilliant course:
Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking
In this article we’ll look at why people believe what they do, how we rationalize beliefs, and how our actions are influenced by basic human desires and emotions.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous for writing the Sherlock Holmes series of stories.
Sherlock Holmes was a hyper rationalist, who clearly understood critical thinking and reason.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself however, was deeply into spiritualism, and firmly believed in the spiritual mediums of his day, and this eventually led him into conflict with his friend the famous illusionist Harry Houdini.
Harry Houdini was a rationalist, and he made a career out of debunking the spiritual mediums of his day, because he knew they were using the same escapist techniques that he was using on stage to entertain. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini came to blows over this, and it ended their friendship.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also famously taken in by the Cottingley Fairies, two girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who claimed that they were being visited by little winged fairies in their garden at Cottingley village, and they provided photographs as proof of this visitation.
In the end it was easily demonstrated that these photographs were of them posing with paper cutouts, that they had literally cut out of books and propped up on sticks. That was the flimsy evidence that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the author of Sherlock Holmes completely fell for.
The question is why?
How is it possible that the author of Sherlock Holmes could fall for this childish hoax?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was able to understand rationality well enough to create Sherlock Holmes, a rational, critical thinking character, and yet he chose superstition and fantasy, over reason and science. Perhaps if he understood his own motivations better, if he developed his own emotional intelligence better, he would’ve been a little bit more like his own character Sherlock Holmes, instead of falling for the Cottingley Fairies, or the spiritualist mediums of his day, who were using simple parlor tricks to fool the public.
Belief, Motivation, and Reason
Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, we all live with the illusion that we’re rational beings, but the truth is that our brains are belief machines. We’re motivated to believe. We’re born to believe – especially the things we want to believe.
What drives this human desire for belief?
The default mode of human psychology is to arrive at beliefs for largely emotional reasons, and then to employ our reason to justify those beliefs, rather than using reason to modify or to arrive at those beliefs in the first place. Therefore, in many ways we are slaves to our emotions – if we let ourselves be.
It’s helpful to try to understand this interaction between belief, motivation and reason in the context of neuroanatomy, understanding the way our brains are organized.
In a meaningful evolutionary sense, our brains are literally a lizard brain, inside of a mammal brain, inside of a primate brain, inside of a human brain.
Much of our cognition takes place in our subconscious, in the more primitive parts of our brain, which is also where our emotions take place. Emotions essentially make quick decisions for us that are mostly adaptive, evolved strategies, including fear, lust, hunger, anxiety, disgust, happiness, and sadness. These are evolved adaptive strategies.
The idea is that emotions provide a direct behavioral motivation so that we don’t have to calculate the risks of encountering a predator versus fleeing, for example. We simply experience the emotion of fear, and then we act upon that emotion.
Psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow made perhaps the first attempt to classify the different emotional needs that people have, which are now known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In addition to basic emotions, we also have a set of higher psychological needs that we seek: We desire to be safe, to be loved, to have self-esteem, and to experience what Maslow called self-actualization.
There is a basic punishment-and-reward system built into the hardwiring of our brain, and when we meet our psychological needs, our brain gives us a reward: It makes us feel good, and when we do something that is likely to be disadvantageous we feel bad about it, and when we do something advantageous, we feel good about it and we get a shot of dopamine to our reward centers.
Needs that motivate us
The desire for control
One of the needs that motivates us is the desire for control, or at least the illusion, or the sense of control. We don’t like to feel as if we’re victims of a capricious universe, or as if we’re helpless in the face of unseen forces or randomness. We like to think that we exert some control over ourselves, over the events that happen to us, and over our environment.
One manifestation of this desire for control is our belief in superstitions. We tend to develop beliefs that if we engage in a certain activity, it’ll protect us in someway, or it’ll enable us to perform better, or to succeed. Superstitious practices give us the illusion that we can exert some control over otherwise random events.
The desire for simplicity
We also have a desire for simplicity because the simpler things are, the more control we can have over them. We certainly don’t like feeling overwhelmed by our environment, the tasks we have to do, or the things that are happening in the world. Therefore, we’re motivated to oversimplify the things that we’re confronted with, to pigeonhole and stereotype.
Why we stereotype
We stereotype because it enables us to boil down a very complicated set of data into some simple rule. This can be helpful and adaptive when we understand that the rule is just a schematic, an oversimplified representation of a much more complicated reality.
However, when we start to accept our oversimplified versions of reality as if they are reality, that leads to things like bigotry, where we lump a group of people together and assume that they all share traits, rather than understanding all of the diversity and complexity that exists within groups.
A good rule of thumb: Reality is always more complicated than you think, or you would like to think
The desire for meaning
We also have a desire for the universe, and our lives, to have meaning. We want there to be a plan for us, something that gives us a sense of purpose, a filter, a way of making sense out of all the complex things that happen in life.
We want to believe that things happen for a reason, but the reality is probably closer to the fact that stuff just happens.
Big effects don’t need big causes
Related to this is our desire to believe that big effects must have big causes. We don’t like to think that there could be a massive consequence to a very innocuous or innocent cause.
The JFK assassination is one example of this. Many people still today believe that JFK was assassinated by a large conspiracy of a large organisation, by unseen forces working within the government. That it couldn’t have been done by one person acting alone, the so-called lone nut theory. It just doesn’t sit right with us.
The need for self-esteem
We have a need for self-esteem, a need to not only feel good about ourselves, but to feel that the others in our community respect us.
This largely has to do with the fact that we’re intensely social animals. A lot of our emotions and thinking are tied up with interfacing with other people in our environment. Not only do we need to have attention and feel love from other people, but also we need to develop very highly developed social skills, and part of that is looking after our own sense of self-worth and how others in our community look at us.
The need for self-esteem is often referred to as having an ego, and a certain amount of ego is very adaptive, but it also powerfully motivates us to interpret the world in a way that is favorable to our ego.
The fundamental attribution error
In psychology, the fundamental attribution error is the tendency to look for external causes to explain our behavior. When we do this, we’re very kind to ourselves, we’re very good at rationalizing away our own behavior in order to protect our self-esteem.
We also do things to avoid social embarrassment or stigma. For example, we may avoid appearing inconsistent. We always want to make our behavior and beliefs seem consistent to others.
We also have a very strong resistance to admitting error. We don’t like to admit that we’re wrong or to admit that we have flaws because that threatens our self-esteem and ego.
Much of how various motivations affect our thoughts and behavior can be explained with a theory known as cognitive dissonance, which is a state of mind that is caused by the act of holding two beliefs at the same time that are mutually exclusive, or that conflict with each other. We don’t like the feeling of cognitive dissonance, so it motivates us to resolve the conflict.
Initially, we may avoid cognitive dissonance through compartmentalization, in which we simply keep conflicting beliefs separate from each other, but when they are forced into conflict, we need to resolve that conflict somehow.
An adaptive way to resolve the conflict is to update one or both beliefs, if they’re in conflict with one another, then one or both must be in error in some way. If we find and correct the error that can resolve the dissonance, but what we tend to do is to simply rationalize away the belief that we want to hold.
Senses that motivate us
One of the senses that motivates us is a sense of justice. It’s not a learned sense, it’s innate and hardwired into our brains. Animals also have been shown to have an innate sense of justice. For example, there is a species of birds that defends each other from predators, and they seem to have an innate sense of reciprocity, of justice.
We also have the sense of essence, the notion that inanimate objects can carry the essence of their history.
Psychologist Bruce Hood in his book SuperSense gives a thought experiment:
“Would you wear a cardigan sweater that was once worn by a famous serial killer? You’ll get $20, the sweater has been dry cleaned, it’s 100% perfectly clean, there is no blood or anything else on the sweater. It’s just a sweater that happened to have been worn by a famous serial killer.”
Most people won’t wear the sweater. Would you feel comfortable putting on the sweater? If not, why not? It’s just wool or cotton, it can’t possibly harm you. Yet we have a sense of disgust that gets triggered by this.
This is because we have a sense of essence, the notion that inanimate objects can carry the essence of their history. There is something different about that sweater because it was once worn by a serial killer. It’s spiritually contaminated in some way. When we explore the belief it doesn’t make sense, but it just doesn’t feel right to us.
Influencing others behavior
Psychologists have looked at different ways to influence people’s behavior. One of the many practical reasons that we might want to do this is for public service campaigns e.g. We don’t want people to drink and drive.
When it comes to influencing others’ behavior, our initial instinct is to give people information, assuming that they’ll arrive at the correct decision and behavior through reason —but research has shown that this isn’t very effective.
It’s very difficult to change people’s behavior by making a rational argument to them, because their behavior is still overwhelmed by their beliefs and their emotions.
However, if you address the individual’s emotions, it’s much more effective. It’s still difficult to get people to change old habits, but if you convince them by using social pressures, then this utilizes a technique called social norming. If you tell people, for example, that other people don’t drink and drive, that’ll have more of an impact on their behavior than giving them reasons why they shouldn’t drink and drive.
Children vs Adults
Children are very socially inept. Their brains have not fully developed, specifically their frontal lobes, which give us the ability to socialize, to plan our activity and to think about how our behavior will be perceived by others. Children have many of the same basic motivations and emotions that adults do, but they don’t have the social filter that we have in place, so their motives are much more transparent. Therefore, children serve as a window into human emotions and motivations.
Adults are better at hiding emotions and motivations. We’re better at rationalizing what we want to believe, and we’re better at putting a socially acceptable spin on our behavior. The underlying psychological motivations, however, are largely the same for adults as for children.
Ironically, highly intelligent people may not necessarily be better at making decisions, but they are better at rationalizing their decisions.