How the human brain is hardwired to fall for obvious falsehoods, and the unfortunate consequences that follow from this fact.
We humans persistently over-rate our intellectual capabilities. We watch TV shows and movies that pretend memory is like a videotape: infallible, and capable of being replayed later with perfect fidelity. We imagine our narrow incomplete view of the world is a universal and comprehensive perspective. And we almost never have even the vaguest grasp of the limits of our personal knowledge base.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that our perceptions of reality are inadequate. What’s more important is how easily we’re fooled.
For nearly all of our evolutionary history, calories were scarce and uncertain. This is nearly impossible to imagine today when an excess of calories is available everywhere we turn, but it was the harsh reality for our ancestors and their primate ancestors before them. The consequence was that thinking was a much lower priority activity than moving around to find food or evade predators. As an active brain can consume thirty percent of the body’s blood glucose this meant that thinking was, for nearly all of our evolutionary history, a liability. It consumed energy that was more likely going to be needed for foraging, hunting, or running away.
Although today we live amid abundance, our brains are still exactly as they were 30,000 years ago: hardwired to accept assertion in favor of thinking things through, and lacking in many of the mental modules necessary for coherent reasoning.
For nearly all of our evolutionary history it was “good enough” to accept without question whatever assertions we were given by authority figures (our parents, the tribe leader, the shaman, whoever was teaching us to nap flints and sharpen wooden spears). Evolution has no end-goal in sight; whatever is “good enough” at the time is what is conserved. Thus our brains work on a “good enough” principle that is suitable for simple environments but which is catastrophically unsuitable for the complex inter-connected global world we’ve built due to the technologies created by a tiny percentage of clever people.
If we step back and think about how to minimize brain activity, it’s obvious that we’ll favor simple ideas over complex ideas. Simple ideas are easier to grasp, so the effort required is far less. This is why very few people learn calculus or study cosmology, but millions learn to brush their teeth and fasten their Velcro shoe-laces.
We can predict therefore that nearly all human beliefs are based on simple ideas and that no matter how absurd or clearly counter-factual these ideas are, they will persist because of their simplicity alone.
Everywhere we look we see examples of this phenomenon. The best-selling “psychology/self-help” book in Sweden for several years is one that claims all people can be sorted according to four colors (though it contradicts itself in many places, saying that people can also be multiple colors). These colors are supposedly correlated with personality types, and so a harmonious marriage, classroom, or work group can be achieved by ensuring the right blend of colored people.
(Seriously, I’m not inventing this: the book is called, appropriately enough, Surrounded By Idiots and it’s been on Amazon’s best-seller list in its English translation for a couple of years now).
In case you think this is an unfair and isolated example, let’s remember that Japanese corporations still hire people and sort them into groups based on their blood type, and many French organizations still use handwriting analysis as part of their hiring and role assignment processes. Meanwhile in the English-speaking world the absurd Meyers-Briggs framework is devoutly accepted by millions. And let’s not forget the old standby Zodiac signs, which have tens of millions of simple-minded believers who are convinced that their personality types are a function of their date of birth.
Phrenology (the study of the shape of a person’s skull) is no longer as popular as it was in Victorian times but who knows? Perhaps the next NYT best-seller will reintroduce this hilariously silly concept. After all, there are still plenty of Freudian and Jungian analysts out there conning naïve individuals out of significant sums of money each week for “analysis.”
And finally of course, the vast majority of our species continues to believe in a variety of gods and goblins and ghouls despite the logical absurdity of such beliefs and the total invalidation of such ideas by literally every single empirically proven fact we have about the universe we briefly inhabit.
The single unifying strand uniting all of these nonsensical beliefs (and so many more I haven’t listed here) is: simplicity. All these ideas are very, very simple. That’s their great appeal and the reason they persist for generations. They require no effort, no acquisition of real-world data, no reasoning. All we have to do is believe, and belief is the easiest thing in the world because our brains are hardwired to default to belief in order to save calories.
Thinking is, quite frankly, very hard and it’s no surprise that most of us manage to avoid it throughout our lives. What we imagine to be “thinking” is nothing more than the repetition of whatever someone else has told us. As countless studies have shown, when reality contradicts our beliefs we solve the problem by resolutely ignoring reality. We have a self-referential mental world in which the simple is always dominant.
Unfortunately, simple is usually totally wrong. This didn’t matter when there were only a few hundred thousand humans on the planet, scraping an existence on the margins of survival. It didn’t matter if our brains were limited and our ideas absurd. Today however, due to the technologies available to us, our follies and false beliefs are magnified beyond imagining and the consequences are devastating.
Think of the tens of millions who’ve perished because of squabbles over who has the best imaginary invisible magical friend. We call these “wars of religion” but they are really wars of stupidity.
Think of the tens of millions who’ve perished because of squabbles over who has the most deserving nation. We call these “wars between nations” but they are really wars of stupidity.
Think of the tens of millions who’ve perished because of squabbles over who has the best political theory. We call these “wars between political systems” but they are really wars of stupidity.
Adding to the problem is the fact that it is nearly impossible for us to reason our way out of simple false beliefs because at no time during our evolutionary history was there any selection pressure to promote the capacity for consistency checking.
What is consistency checking? At base, it’s the ability to compare two concepts and determine whether or not they are compatible with each other. For the most part we humans can’t do that.
For example, let’s take two beliefs common to people who believe in the Christian mythology. On the one hand they believe their invisible magical creature created the universe and has an infallible Plan for every single element of this universe that is so wise and so perfect that it is impossible to improve (because if it was imperfect, it would basically indicate the invisible magical creature isn’t so smart & stable after all). Yet at the same time these people believe they can get their invisible magical creature to change its Plan based on their own personal desires.
Clearly these are incompatible beliefs. Yet tens of millions of Christians are incapable of seeing the problem. When pressed, many will attempt to explain it away by means of very faulty reasoning. But none will ever truly understand the core problem because the human brain isn’t evolved to perform the logical reasoning necessary to do so.
Other examples include people who say they “believe” in evolution while also believing in one or more invisible magical creatures. Clearly this is an incoherent position because (i) evolution is not a “belief” but a framework that is substantiated by all available evidence and which provides explicatory power beyond anything contained within magical thinking, and (ii) evolution is inherently non-teleological whereas belief in invisible magical creatures is fundamentally teleological. Yet again, those who think they “believe” in both propositions don’t see the incompatibility.
The reader is invited to think of more such examples; there are literally thousands to select from.
It’s worth noting that many people can hold absurd beliefs not because they can’t perform consistency checking but because they are profoundly ignorant. For example, people who believe in Zodiac signs rarely have even the vaguest notion of cosmology and generally lack the intellectual capacity to grasp modern scientific ideas such as vector fields, vector transformation over Reimann surfaces, quantum indeterminacy, and so forth. Thus lacking in real-world data, many people hold silly beliefs because they have nothing against which to compare the simple ideas they have been fed by a best-seller book, an article in a glossy magazine, or a blog purportedly written by a social media influencer.
This is why many people believe in a flat Earth: they lack even the most rudimentary education in physics. It is why many people believe in their particular god, goblin, or ghoul: they are completely unaware of the origins of their mythology and how it’s merely one of thousands we humans have conjured up over the millennia, all of which are consistent in their banality.
Yet we should not make the mistake of imagining that ignorance is at the root of false beliefs. While it’s true that ignorant people are far easier to persuade than educated people, the examples given earlier show that simple but utterly false ideas spread quickly even in societies comprising reasonable well-educated citizens. The Swedish educational system is far superior to that of the USA yet the Swedes fell hook, line and sinker for a silly book telling them that there are four “colors” of personality. Corporations around the globe utilize nonsensical “personality tests” for which there has never been the slightest shred of evidence, and which many studies have shown to be actually worse than random chance.
This is the clearest evidence we have for the proposition that the human brain is simply hardwired to choose simple over complex whenever possible. We can’t avoid it, any more than we can avoid how we walk and run: we have two legs, not four, so cantering and galloping are not options for us. Nor is coherent reasoning.
Ideally we’d recognize our cognitive limitations and take steps to mitigate them. We’d try to reason through a concept before blindly embracing it. We’d attempt to perform consistency checking. We’d become slightly less easy prey for the blustering charlatans who tell us they’ve found the formula for happiness, self-confidence, great relationships, national success, or whatever.
As it is, there are no signs that we’ve even begun to understand we have a fundamental problem. We continue to embrace simple-minded ideas that result in enormous self-harm.
In Sweden, couples divorced because the book told them they were “incompatible colors.” In Japan, potentially valuable people are put into the wrong jobs because of their blood type. In France a person’s handwriting can shape their entire career. In the UK and the USA the results of a Meyers-Briggs test can influence not only one’s dating choices but also one’s working life. And for the British, a spurious appeal to “national independence” resulted in the most ridiculous self-harm any nation has ever inflicted on itself: Brexit. Meanwhile in the USA the infantile moron Trump was elected to the most powerful office in the world because his supporters found his simple-minded ideas more comforting than attempting to struggle with complex reality. The same phenomenon is repeating around the world, with Babiş and Bolsonaro and Duterte and Orban and Erdogan and Putin and Modi and so many others all promising their followers a great future if only they uncritically embrace simple-minded slogans than heap all the ills of the world onto one or more groups of “not-us” and promise simple quick fixes to systemic complex problems.
A dispassionate analysis of the human species must conclude that we have little chance of avoiding self-extermination in the coming 200 years. Our technologies are amplifying our fundamental incapacity for reason and exponentially increasing the resultant harms.
Social media, whether open or controlled by the State, spreads simple-minded ideas at the speed of light. Weapons of mass destruction enable morons to kill millions at the touch of a button. Far more insidiously, we’re poisoning the planet we depend on. Forget about climate change: we’re acidifying the oceans by pouring billions of tons of CO2 into the air, from whence it is absorbed by the oceans and converted to carbonic acid. This ultimately kills the billions of tiny phytoplankton that create 80% of the Earth’s oxygen, without which nearly all animal life will die. We’re also denuding the oceans by massive over-fishing and wrecking the ocean beds by deep-sea trawling, so that entire ecosystems die in an instant.
So even if we somehow manage to avoid killing 50% or more of our number through wars and subsequent diseases, we’ll still manage to kill nearly everyone by making the Earth uninhabitable. It just may take a little longer than 200 years. No doubt our distant descendants will cling on until the end, living in underground shelters breathing recycled air that every year contains a little less oxygen until one day there’s simply not enough and the remaining humans fall into a sleep from which they will never awaken.
All because we aren’t recognizing our fundamental cognitive limitations and trying to mitigate them through conscious design.
Yet this is not an impossible concept. We’re developing computational technologies that, properly adapted, can be trained to identify human mental activity and flag problems. We should be, at least in theory, able to engineer system of governance that explicitly take into account human mental incapacity and are designed to mitigate the worst consequences. Now that we understand the concept of evolution we can (in theory, at least) design systems that self-evolve so as to avoid being captured by special interest groups and manipulated for their advantage.
We could in theory avoid what seems to be our inevitable fate. Unfortunately, it would require us to accept the fact we’re a rather limited ape species with brains incapable of dealing with the complex modern world we’ve accidentally created. It would require us to be humble and more self-aware than we are. It would require a great deal of hard thinking, careful reasoning, and generations of testing and iterating as we learn what works (and why) and what doesn’t work (and why).
But we humans hate ambiguity. We hate waiting. We want everything to be simple, unambiguous, and presented to us right now. Because we are largely incapable of reasoning, we can’t accept that we’re largely incapable of reasoning. It’s a catch-22.
So the world will almost certainly continue to belong to those who proffer simplistic answers and promise salvation to their credulous followers. We will most likely continue to walk down the path of self-harm until we reach our inevitable terminus. Sadly, it’s also evident we’ll take most of the planet down with us as we go.
Nature doesn’t make mistakes, because evolution isn’t teleological. But if we were for a moment of self-indulgence to personify nature, we’d have to accept that homo sapiens has been Nature’s greatest mistake.
I’d like to believe we can do better than this. I’d like to believe we don’t have to stumble blindly forward into extinction, destroying the planet as we go. I’d like to imagine a future in which we come to terms with our fundamental cognitive limitations and begin to engineer our way out of the mess we’re in, so as to reduce the harms we do and increase the thoughtfulness with which we approach our many challenges.
I’d like to believe, but the evidence is showing otherwise. And the clock is ticking awfully close to midnight.