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#29: Why People Believe Crazy Things

#29: Why People Believe Crazy Things

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Welcome to another MF’in Monday email, the only weekly newsletter that probably has a worse hangover than you do. Every week, I present three interesting ideas to hopefully make us all less terrible human beings. This week we’re talking 1) conspiracy theories — why do people believe them? 2) good news: the great mental health collapse of 2020 may have been greatly exaggerated and 3) some new science that suggests that swearing is useful! 

Let’s get into it. 

1. Why people believe crazy things – Over the past two months, I have been receiving a steady stream of crazy conspiracy-laden emails—far more than usual. These range from your typical anti-vaccine nonsense to “5G data networks causes coronavirus” to the idea that the entire pandemic (or, excuse me, “plandemic”) is a well-coordinated hoax by some shadowy international cabal looking to… I don’t know, make lots of money, or something.

Many other readers have emailed me over the past month saying that they are alarmed at how many of their otherwise smart, well-adjusted friends and family have gone looney tunes recently and bought into this nonsense. They have asked me what it is about these theories that is so appealing. Why do smart people put their brain on hold while they check the other line for a few months?

Fortunately, I, too, was once 16 years old and believed every theory I read on the internet. So I kind of feel I understand where these people are coming from. As with most human behavior, conspiracy theorizing doesn’t appeal to us on an intellectual level, it appeals to us on an emotional level. And once you understand that, it all starts making a lot more sense. 

Conspiracy theories originate from: 

  • A) A Desperate Need for Certainty – Human minds are meaning machines. When something good happens to us, we demand to know why. When something bad happens to us, we also demand to know why. The better or worse the thing that happened, the more powerful the instinct to deduce the reason and cause.

    The problem is that many of the most impactful events in human history can happen for no apparent reason. This drives the human mind bananas. The idea that millions of lives can end or be changed forever (and it was not consciously decided or controlled by some outside force) is just inconceivable to our brains on some level. We don’t like randomness because randomness means uncertainty and uncertainty means we’re not safe.

    Therefore, we all have an extremely strong emotional urge to make sense of calamities in a way that gives someone or something conscious control of that event. The easiest way to do this is to find the people or groups who are most likely to benefit from said calamity. Generally, in crises, uber-wealthy people and governments benefit the most. They also have the most power to begin with. Ergo, most people’s minds have a strong gravitational pull towards believing that uber-wealthy people and governments must therefore be orchestrating the calamity in some way.

    But the fact is that even the most competent individuals and governments are horribly inefficient and inept in most cases. Remember the first maxim of Negative Self Help — humans suck. You could add an addendum to that by saying, “Humans suck; human organizations suck even more.” I don’t care if you’re the CIA, the NRA, the Gates Foundation or the Hare Krishnas — human organizations are generally slow, wasteful, incompetent, and woefully unaware of the consequences of their actions. The idea that thousands of people could coordinate perfectly—in secret!—to accomplish some nefarious goal is insane, at least to anyone who has actually dealt with other humans in a significant capacity.
  • B) Feelings of Moral and Intellectual Superiority – When you believe something most other people don’t, you experience a sense of superiority and righteousness. You feel pity and outrage at the uninformed masses—outrage that you must become a great martyr to help save humanity from its blindness.

    Ah, how dramatic!

    If the craving for certainty attracts one to a conspiracy theory, the false sense of moral superiority cements it. Not only do you get to know why the virus spread, but you get to feel sorry for the confused masses. You get to be angry that more people don’t “open their eyes” or “wake up.” You get to argue really, really intensely on social media, or with some dickhead with a newsletter, that nooooo, if only you understood.

    Basically, people hold onto conspiracy theories for the same reason they root for the underdog in sports, or they pick the most obscure film or band to be their favorite music, or they try to join secret clubs—the exclusivity grants them a feeling of importance.

    The tragedy of all of this is that attacking these people for their beliefs makes them more determined. “Of course you’d attack me! The truth is too much for you to handle!” And on and on the false sense of importance goes.
  • C) Lack of Critical Thinking – I’ve always found it funny that governments can hardly pay for a toilet without it leaking to the press in some way, yet we’re supposed to believe that tens of thousands of people coordinated across the planet and not a single person broke the silence?

    Or, how about the purported motive of most conspiracy theories is some form of “Rich guy wants to be even richer!”

    Well, what the fuck? Why doesn’t he just invest in Amazon. I mean, given how long it would take to plan and execute a pandemic, that’s probably just as lucrative and you don’t have to kill millions of people!

    Generally, I’ve found that conspiracy theorists are unable to think two or three moves ahead on the chess board. They fail to detect the difference between evidence and conjecture, what is fact and what is opinion. I’ve also noticed they’re just bad at math. For instance, they look at a situation with vaccines where you might have 37,000 deaths and 200 million lives saved, and because 37,000 is a really big number, they just assume it’s bad… without considering the fact that it’s 0.0018% of the number of lives saved.

    But most importantly, conspiracy theorists just strike me as intensely lonely. To be able to believe such outlandish things about human nature, to assume that vast organizations can coordinate in such ways, and to see that amount of raw evil in the world… this seems only possible for someone who doesn’t get out nearly enough. Go talk to a couple of government officials and spend a few months in a corporate hierarchy. You will quickly see that they could hardly organize a children’s parade, much less build network towers that beam viruses into people around the globe simultaneously. 

So, what do you do with a person who believes in a conspiracy theory? I think the best thing you can do is simply state facts while trying to relate to them on an emotional level. You can challenge their claims. But do it patiently, respectfully. Be kind. They will lash out emotionally—because, after all, conspiracy theories are about emotions, not logic—and they might call you names, say you’re evil, feel sorry for you, etc., etc. 

But you’re not going to change their minds in one go. No, instead you must pepper them with information and perspective, and then just let it all take hold in the soil of their minds, like seeds of rationality. 

And eventually, when these people do come out and start experiencing the world in all of its complexity and ambiguity, those seeds will sprout. And they will (hopefully) realize that, yes, they were being a dumbfuck. 

And the world will rejoice. 

2. Perhaps there is no Great Mental Health Apocalypse – About a month ago, deep in my own little quarantine, I wrote an article lamenting that we were likely going to see an explosion of mental health issues in 2020—due to social isolation, boredom, and general fear and anxiety about the world. 

Well, I have some good news. It appears I might have been wrong. Two new academic papers are in the process of being published, both looking at people’s mental health under quarantine. And the results are encouraging. 

The first one studied people’s feelings of social connection and relatedness under quarantine. After a few weeks, the vast majority of people reported little to no drop in feelings of social connectedness, including extraverts. And while many people reported increased feelings of lethargy, overall life satisfaction was barely affected.

The second study looked at a group of Dutch students and found that mental health problems did not increase over a measured three-week period in March and April. In fact, early on, mental health problems slightly decreased. 

Perhaps we underestimate the resiliency of the human mind. Perhaps our fear of social distancing outpaced the emotional reality of it. Perhaps, as I discuss in Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, the challenges of the crisis reinforced our mental fortitude rather than wrecked it. Perhaps, as usual, I need to relearn the lessons from my own books. 

For me, personally, the last few weeks have been much better. It feels as though there was a mental adjustment period the first two to three weeks and since then, problems have been minimal. I certainly do miss my friends and being able to go enjoy a night on the town. But overall, my mood and energy have stabilized. I’ve developed routines. And I feel pretty good. Better problems and all that.

3. Fuck yes! Swearing works! – As you can imagine, I get criticized for my use of profanity all the damn time. In fact, I received so many complaints that a few years ago, I wrote an article called, “Why I Have a Potty Mouth”. In that article, I explain the social uses of profanity, how the meaning of words evolves over time, and why profanity is actually advantageous in the context of personal development.

Yet, my critics were unimpressed. 

Well, the other day I stumbled across a new study that says, in fact, I was fucking right. Shouting the word “fuck” not only increased people’s pain tolerance, but it also heightened experiences of humor and emotion. You’re goddamn right it did! From the study: 

“For conventional swearing (“fuck”), confirmatory analyses found a 32% increase in pain threshold and a 33% increase in pain tolerance, accompanied by increased ratings for emotion, humor, and distraction, relative to the neutral word condition.”

Fuck yeah, science. Score one for Team Mark “Fuckface” Manson. 

So, the next time someone whines at me about my habitual use of the F-word, I will say, in the words of the great Jesse Pinkman, “Science, bitch!”. Because apparently, when dealing with the more painful aspects of life, few things come in handy as much as an enthusiastic F-bomb. 

Until next week,