Why we believe what we want to believe

Many people have a deep-seated and powerful emotional need to support their favourite ideology or worldview

Why do so many smart people believe in things for which there is little or no evidence, like conspiracy theories for example? The answer seems to be that they believe because they want to believe.

America is big on collecting statistics and recent polls have found that 71 per cent of Americans believe in “miracles”; 42 per cent believe ghosts exist; 41 per cent think extrasensory perception, eg telepathy, is possible; 29 per cent believe in astrology; 20 per cent believe in a link between autism and vaccinations; 37 per cent think global warming is a hoax; 21 per cent think the government is hiding aliens; 28 per cent believe a secret elite power is plotting a new world order, and 14 per cent believe in Bigfoot.

These statistics are also stable over time. A 2014 study by experts on conspiracy theory surveyed 100,000 letters sent to The New York Times and to the Chicago Tribune from 1890 to 2010, finding that the percentage of letters that argued for any particular conspiracy theory barely changed over time.

Part of the answer as to why many people believe in such things lies in the way people think about things, that is whether a person is an intuitive or a reflective thinker. An instinctive thinker tends to rely on an instinctive feeling or a “gut feeling” when making up his/her mind, while reflective thinkers will tend to repress and suspect the automatic intuitive response and will ponder the matter more analytically. Studies have shown that intuitive thinkers are much more likely than reflective thinkers to believe in things like the paranormal.

Here is a little test to see if you are an instinctive or a reflective thinker. A hurley and a ball together cost €1.10. The hurley costs one euro more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Answer at bottom of column.

Despite the correlation between reflective thinking and scepticism about theories unsupported by evidence, the puzzling thing is that many people who score highly on rational and intellectual metrics still believe in disproven ideas. I described a particular example of this phenomenon in a recent column on science communication (The Irish Times, November 16th, 2017), pointing out that many people, including many who are scientifically literate, will not accept the scientific consensus on issues such as global warming or the safety of vaccinations.

The explanation for this phenomenon seems to be that many people have a deep-seated and powerful emotional need to support their favourite ideology or worldview. This need can overpower their cool rationality on certain issues where the scientific evidence threatens the emotional capital they have invested in their particular position.

Environmental activists are, in my opinion, particularly prone to such emotionally driven thinking, trumpeting scientific evidence when it supports their positions but denying science when it contradicts other positions. Thus they enthusiastically quote the scientific evidence that human activities are now largely driving global warming. But they will not accept the scientific evidence that genetically modified food (GMF) is safe to eat and that GMF offers many advantages to agriculture. The reason for this patchy response to science by environmental activists is that, in my opinion, at bottom much of their motivation is ideologically based, eg anti-capitalism.

Some scientists can also fall prey to emotional thinking and use their cognitive skills to persuade themselves that what is untrue is actually true. Any reasonably clever scientist who really wants to believe that food grown with the aid of pesticides is unsafe to eat or that current global warming is the result of solar activity, and so on, can build a case complete with supporting ‘evidence’ that seems credible to many.

Of course there are scientists who conduct their investigations in the most clear-headed manner but nevertheless come up with answers that contradict the majority of their peers. Such scientists should be treated with the same respect accorded to the majority and the discrepancies between their findings and the majority are a matter to be thrashed out by respectful professional scientific debate.

And so, the take-home lesson for today is that the ability to think analytically is a very fine thing but it’s not enough – you must also have the inclination to do so.

l Answer to Question: The ball costs €0.05. The quick intuitive thinking answer is €0.10

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC