The Psychology of Belief: How We Maintain Delusions

October 12, 2015

The following content was recently presented at Seekerfest STL in St. Charles, MO. 

I have a confession to make: I want to believe in the EmDrive. The claim is that we have built an engine that can provide forward thrust without the need to expel a propellant. If it works, it would enable us to travel through space on inter-generational trips without the need to bring along heavy fuel, and makes the Star Trek nerd in me giddy with excitement to think about. Also, if it works, it appears to violate the law of conservation of momentum, in a similar way that virtual particles appear to violate the law of conservation of energy.

It sounds like crazy talk, and it probably is. But I can’t help but want to believe it’s true. And that, my friends, is how delusions get their start.

Defining Delusion

A delusion can be defined as “…a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact.” Most of us are familiar with delusions in the clinical sense – the person who thinks they are dead, people who believe themselves to be incarnations of Jesus or other historical characters, people who think they have super powers, and so forth. However, as a species we are also subject to less serious but significantly more deeply embedded cultural delusions on a grand scale. For example, I grew up believing that when your nose itches, that means someone is thinking about you or that you will have a visitor that day. When Mother Teresa and Princess Diana died within a few days of each other in 1997, I kept waiting for the final shoe to fall because – as we all know – bad news comes in threes. Ever notice that significant number of hotels in the U.S. skip the 13th floor in their numbering schemes because it is an unlucky number? Despite the fact that there is absolutely no statistically valid evidence to believe in *any* of these or the innumerable other superstitions to which we hold, societies all around the world are subject to unfounded cultural delusions that touch our everyday lives whether we like it or not.

The term delusion is often thrown out as an insult during religious or political discussions. In the context of this blog post, it is not intended to be so. In this context, I am simply ascribing the term by its definition: a fixed belief resistant to reason or fact. ANY belief that fits that definition is going to be considered delusional, by definition.

Why Are Delusions So Common?

Why is it that delusions so easily permeate our culture? I propose this is the result of at least three basic factors.

Confirmation Bias

I have discussed confirmation bias quite a bit in my writing. Basically, this is the human tendency to interpret information in terms of whatever one already believes to be true, and to seek out and magnify sources and examples that validate those beliefs.

Selective Attention Bias

Selective attention bias, in this context, is the other side of confirmation bias. It is the tendency to actively ignore or minimize sources of conflict with our already held beliefs. For example, if you are already politically liberal, you are likely to ignore or discredit sources like Fox News or Breitbart. Similarly, if you are already politically conservative, you are likely to do the same with MSNBC or The Daily Kos.

Appeals to Ignorance

The third thing that allows us to lock in our delusions is the logical fallacy known as the appeal to ignorance. In logic-based discussions, the person who has to prove something is the one making a positive claim. I do not get to say “You cannot prove socialism wouldn’t cure cancer, therefore I am justified in my belief that it would.” In all of reality, it is impossible (or exceedingly difficult to do in a satisfactory way) to disprove *any* reality. We would find it silly to take a default position in which we believed everything that could not be proven untrue. Still, as a species we find it all too easy to fall back on this position when we are cornered, and we ignore the fact that we would reject this kind of reasoning for the beliefs of others.

For example, at one point you noticed your nose itching the same day you got a delivery from UPS. Because this confirms your belief in the magical prophesying power of itching noses, you lock that into memory and pull it out as an example from this point on. At the same time, you ignore the innumerable times your nose has itched when no one came to visit, or change the belief to mean one of two things – one of which, you correctly assert, cannot be proven false. Congratulations, you have just formed a delusional belief and effectively inoculated yourself against data and evidence to the contrary.

The Wisdom of (Carefully Selected) Crowds

We further bolster our delusional beliefs by surrounding ourselves with those who fall into the same delusions. For example, there are people alive today who claim to be Jesus incarnate (a claim I daresay most of my readers would reject) who have *hundreds* of followers. When we seek out information to validate our beliefs, actively reject information which would challenge them, use bad logical fallacies to defend ourselves when cornered, and surround ourselves with only those who agree, it’s no wonder we fall prey to delusion as a species on a regular basis, and often find them so deeply ingrained in our cultures.

Universal Application

Please note here that I have gone to great lengths to avoid calling out any individual or group or specific belief (other than, perhaps, those who believe themselves to be an incarnation of Jesus.) The fact of the matter is that we *all* fall victim to delusional thinking, atheist and believer alike. As we continue, I will detail some easy delusions that I have fallen victim to in the not-so-distant past (for example, my at one point unshakable belief in peer-reviewed science…) and how I now seek to avoid falling into them.