Let’s be candid: there are few things more infuriating than other people’s stupid beliefs. What is an example of a stupid belief? Take the idea that the coronavirus is a hoax. I call this idea stupid because the virus has caused 640,601 worldwide deaths as I type, and I call this idea infuriating because it leads to behavior that increases transmission, making the situation worse for all of us. When I hear someone fiercely advocate for such a stupid belief, even saying that masks are bad for our health, I feel a sense of shock. How could a person possibly believe a thing so wrong? To answer the how question, I must examine why I am shocked in the first place.
My working theory of belief, I confess, is a simplistic one. I tend to think that every person is on a search for truth. Beliefs are the outcome of a search for truth. We all search for truth in our own ways, and it turns out that some people are quite bad at conducting this search, so they end up with beliefs that don’t make any sense. When I am confronted with such ludicrous beliefs, I tend to give the believer the benefit of the doubt. They are on a quest, just like I am on a quest, but they took a wrong turn in this particular case, just like I have certainly done in other cases. The outcome of their failed search for truth may be an outlandish and toxic belief, but nevertheless it arose from a desire that’s noble and universal: the desire to understand the world.
When I am shocked by a ludicrous belief, my shock comes from not understanding how anyone could be so ignorant of the facts in front of them, so incapable of simple reasoning, so inept at the most basic things we do when we search for truth. You would think that a person who believes the coronavirus is a hoax wouldn’t survive a day on this planet. Forget about their catching the virus. Surely they’d burn themselves on a stove, thinking the flame was a hoax, and promptly get hit by a bus, thinking physics is a hoax. But they don’t. It turns out that lots of people who believe horribly stupid things are actually great at surviving in the world. Not only do they not get hit by buses especially often, but they sometimes achieve great popularity and wealth despite their believing – or perhaps because of their believing the equivalent of 2+2=5. The fact that this surprises me tells me that my working theory of belief needs revision.
After years of watching American politics, observing the American response to climate change, and now the American response to the coronavirus, I’m forced into a sad conclusion: people, for the most part, aren’t on a search for truth, and beliefs are not best conceived as the outcome of a search for truth. Beliefs are simply stories that people adopt because there is a payoff of some sort. When we are shocked that someone holds a particularly irrational belief, our shock arises because the payoff is not apparent to us. If we were to identify the payoff, then we would find it clear why the person holds the belief.
A belief is an investment. If you are to make a financial investment, like purchasing a mutual fund or a piece of real estate, you first need to encounter it. You might find it on your own, or someone might actively pitch it to you. You might resist at first, but a skilled salesperson might overcome your objections. When you buy it, there might be a transaction cost. As you hold it, there will be ongoing maintenance costs, but you will accept these because there is a hopefully larger return. The investment might have some “intrinsic” value, but this intrinsic value might be totally disconnected from the returns you experience. If market conditions work in your favor, you might experience a great return on something that is intrinsically worthless.
When you adopt a belief, there is a transaction cost too. You might have to abandon something else you currently believe, and there might be something unpleasant in the new belief that you have to come to terms with. You might have to admit you were wrong in the past. As you hold the new belief, there will be an ongoing maintenance cost. Your own mind might periodically challenge the belief, finding gaps and contradictions within it. Your friends and family might challenge the belief, arguing with you, and even ceasing to associate with you. If you keep holding the belief in light of these costs, that’s likely because the returns are greater. If the belief happens to be true, then perhaps it helps you solve problems or navigate situations that require an accurate model of reality. But even if the belief is false, it may have other, more attractive returns. The belief might make you feel good. The belief might place you in a community of other believers whose company you enjoy, or distinguish you from those whose company you hate. The belief might make you feel superior to those who make you afraid. The belief might win you the attention you want. The belief might get you a job. The belief might serve as a social bonding mechanism, a calling card, or a salve.
The cost of maintaining a belief may depend somewhat on its veracity, but only somewhat. One would hope that it is harder to maintain a false belief than a true one, since the false belief would conflict with observed reality or contain logical inconsistencies that trouble the mind. But this is only a problem if the believer constantly searches for logical inconsistencies among his or her many beliefs and constantly tests those beliefs against observed reality. If the believer isn’t in the habit of doing these things, the maintenance costs go down considerably.
I used to imagine that a person’s many beliefs existed in some vast common space in their mind – mingling with each other as if in a great ballroom – and that if two beliefs contradicted each other, the host would inevitably notice this and feel disturbed enough to seek a resolution. I don’t see it this way anymore. The space of a belief is more like a forest at night, filled with hiding places. Denizens of the forest who might antagonize or kill each other if they met in daylight hide quietly in their own nests.
A person might hold two contradictory beliefs without those beliefs ever meeting and doing battle. And a person who valiantly endeavors to rid their beliefs of contradictions will have a hard time of it, because that person has no way of acquiring a complete inventory of their beliefs, no better chance than a naturalist might have of cataloguing every living being in a vast and dark forest. The mind harbors no unified list of beliefs that can be printed out. You can try to write all your beliefs on paper but I would wager that there are dozens of beliefs you will not know about and dozens that you may be too uncomfortable to write. There may be some that you begin to write and promptly deny. There are beliefs that only become apparent through one’s actions, in situations where one is too distracted to articulate them as beliefs.
When I look at the news and hear that throngs of people still think the coronavirus is a hoax, or still think climate change a hoax, I am astonished because I think of how painful it would be for me to hold those same beliefs. These beliefs would clash with my confidence in science and my faith in the scientific establishment. My friends, all of whom accept the coronavirus and climate change as real, would laugh at me. I would have to reconsider all the efforts I am making in my own life to try to reduce my carbon footprint. I would have to change my news sources and my idea of who is a trusted authority. When I imagine holding these beliefs, I am so caught up in the pain I would feel that I find it difficult to conceive there could be a payoff of any sort.
To understand people who call coronavirus or climate change a hoax I must imagine that the economics are different for them. For me, the transaction cost and ongoing maintenance cost of these conspiratorial beliefs might be very high; for them it might be very low. Their friends might already agree that the virus is hoax and cheer them on for saying the same. Announcing the belief might bring them love. They may not feel any great allegiance with the project of science, no matter that they use its products (computer, cellphone, modern medicine), so they would feel no hesitation in disputing scientific authorities. As they assert these beliefs, they may feel a sense of pride and power in challenging an establishment they consider oppressive. Believing the virus is a hoax may mean, for them, that they get to share more laughs and have more beers with friends. For them, the experience of holding the belief might be entirely pleasant. Why wouldn’t they believe it?
We might wish that it couldn’t be so pleasant to believe in something so dangerous, that it couldn’t be so lucrative to invest in something so wrong, but it can. A person’s beliefs may be more a record of what rewarded them than of what brought them closer to truth. Perhaps the dynamics of belief share the same skewed outcomes as market-based capitalism: beliefs are adopted, just like financial investments are made based on the immediate payoff, without accounting for externalities or hidden social costs. One can easily believe something, or invest in something that damages the common good, without ever realizing or paying for the damage, and so the damage accumulates, compounding until there is a collapse.