Why Do We Believe In Unbelievable Things?

Jun 20, 2014
Originally published on August 19, 2016 5:50 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Why We Lie.

About Michael Shermer's TEDTalk

Michael Shermer says the human tendency to believe strange things boils down to two of the brain's most basic, hard-wired survival skills.

About Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is the founder and publisher of Skeptic Magazine. He writes a monthly column for Scientific American, and is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University. He's the author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - why we lie, why we believe in those lies and, as it turns out, humans are actually pre-programmed to believe a lot of what we're told, which naturally makes us susceptible to lies. Unless you are Michael Shermer who is a professional skeptic and...

MICHAEL SHERMER: Publisher of Skeptic magazine.

RAZ: And Michael has a theory on why this is. Why we evolved to believe so much of what we're told.

SHERMER: So my thought experiment is imagine you're a hominid on the plains of Africa.

RAZ: And say you're walking in a grassy field, just minding your own ancient human business. Until...

SHERMER: You hear a rustle in the grass.

RAZ: And, at that point, your mind starts to ask questions.

SHERMER: So is it a dangerous predator? Is it just the wind? So if you think that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it turns out it's just the wind that's a relatively harmless error to make.

RAZ: No problem. But...

SHERMER: By contrast, if you think the rustle in the grass is just the wind and it turns out it's a predator - you're lunch. You've just been given a Darwin award for taking yourself out of the gene pool early. So, you know, the explanation for that is we evolve the propensity to just believe all rustles in the grass are real, just in case they are, because believing that they're not is not that expensive.

RAZ: So self-deception is actually about survival?

SHERMER: Yep. The reason people believe weird things is not because they're ignorant or uneducated or anything like that. It's that all of our brains are wired to just believe everything because in our ancestral environment that was right, often enough, for survival purposes. And therefore you pass along, to your offspring, this capacity for just believing all patterns are real.

RAZ: But how much self-deception is a good thing? Here's Michael on the TED stage.


SHERMER: So what I want to talk about today is belief. Belief is the natural state of things. It is the default option. We just believe. We believe all sorts of things. Belief is natural. Disbelief, skepticism, science is not natural. It's more difficult, it's uncomfortable to not believe things. So like Fox Mulder on X-Files who wants to believe in UFOs, well we all do. And the reason for that is because we are - we have a belief engine in our brains essentially we are pattern seeking primates. We connect the dots - A is connected to B, B is connected to C and sometimes A really is connected to B and that's called association learning. We find patterns. We make those connections. Whether it's Pavlov's dog here associating the sound of the bell with the food and then he salivates to the sound of the bell or whether it's the Skinnerian rat in which he's having an association between his behavior and a reward for it and therefore he repeats the behavior. And that's called superstition and that, I'm afraid, we will always have with us.

RAZ: So we're really susceptible to this, to self-deception. I mean, to, like, seeing patterns where there are none.

SHERMER: Yep. And that is you believe that what you believe is real. You know, so does the con artist who's stealing people's money, conning people out of money, do they really believe what they're doing? I think most of the time they do. Just think of psychics or cult leaders, astrologers, palm readers, you know, if you believe your own lie then you're less likely to give off the tells if you really believe it. So that's where self-deception kicks in.

RAZ: OK. So I get that self-deception from, like, an evolutionary stand point is about surviving but isn't is also just about, like, getting on, like, getting through life?

SHERMER: Certainly. I mean, life is full of failure. And the entrepreneur is never going to exceed if he doesn't deceive himself to a certain extent in what's called the optimism bias where you tend to think things are going to go better than they really will. And we know from research on entrepreneurs they, you know, they have, like, a super optimism bias. They all exaggerate by like an order of magnitude how likely they are to be successful and in a way you sort of have to do that because most people that start businesses - they fail. But if everybody believed that then there'd be no new businesses. No one would bother.

RAZ: And Michael says the same principle behind the optimism bias is what allows us to believe in things that don't always make sense but sometimes helps us make sense of the world.

MICHAEL PERSINGER: Ms. Hagerty? Can you respond please?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I can, barely, you're very muffled.

RAZ: There's a researcher who's been trying to find the source of this phenomenon. He's using an invention he calls the God Helmet. Michael Shermer has written about him and his name is Michael Persinger.

SHERMER: He's a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, and he puts this easy-rider type helmet on your head and it bombards your temporal lobes with these electromagnetic fields.

PERSINGER: The basic approach is that we're going to activate your right hemisphere, such that the processes involved with a sensed presence will be kindled or activated.

RAZ: A few years ago a friend of ours, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who used to cover religion for NPR actually tried the God Helmet. And this her recording of that experience in Dr. Persinger's lab.


HAGERTY: Try speaking now.

PERSINGER: Can you hear me?


PERSINGER: OK. Fine. Just relax.


RAZ: OK. So the helmet's on and the electromagnetic waves are pulsing into your brain and you get this strong feeling...

PERSINGER: Your temporal lobe is responding a bit more.

RAZ: That there's a supernatural force.

PERSINGER: This is about a third of the way through.

RAZ: Right there with you.

HAGERTY: I'm not sensing a presence, per se, but I saw tiny little goblins off to my left there - like they were in the forest, Sherwood Forest.

PERSINGER: You just reported the goblins. And the small humanoid type pattern is a very, very common.

RAZ: And so when Barbara was seeing goblins it happened because her temporal lobe was stimulated. But that process is also something that probably happens in our brains naturally.

SHERMER: Turns out that people that are alone and fatigued, tired, sleep deprived, hungry, you know - the Iditarod dog-sledders, or solo-sailors, mountain climbers - these people all report somebody with them that they talk to. Charles Lindbergh talks about this in his "Spirit of St. Louis" and that's only 36 hours without sleep and yet he still had a cabin full of these angelic-type creatures that he was talking to during his fight.

RAZ: This could be a way that the brain kind of naturally lies to you.

PERSINGER: OK. Your brain should become very activated. Your temporal lobe is now activated.

HAGERTY: I am utterly relaxed.

RAZ: To put you at ease.

HAGERTY: I feel like I am dissolving into the chair.

RAZ: By making you feel less alone.

SHERMER: You know, you're alone, desperate, you need some kind of support because we're such a social primate species - we need other people. And if you're alone maybe you just concoct one in your head and maybe this is what gods and angels are - is this kind of a hidden companion, a sensed presence, you know, another person there - just in your head - but it feels real.

RAZ: I mean, Michael you are a real skeptic right, I mean, you've got this, like, well developed deception detection mechanism so, I mean, I guess does it mean that inevitably you have to be less open-minded?

SHERMER: Well, right. So that's a great question. The balances here is what we're looking for because you don't want to be so open-minded that you believe every wacky thing. But on the other hand you don't want to be, you know, rigidly dogmatically, close-minded because then you'll never create anything new, you'll never accept new ideas and you just sort of curmeudeongly (ph) old fellow just denying everything and that's not healthy either. So the question is well, where's the balance? And I think, you know, someone like a Richard Feynman, you know, some of these Nobel laureate geniuses that are a little eccentric, a little weird, that relationship between genius and madness, you know, could be that people that just find all these fantastic new patterns. Artists, poets, musicians and so on - maybe they also believe a lot of weird things because they just - they're just so open-minded, you know. So it depends how it's channeled whether it's healthy or not.

RAZ: Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine. He's given two TED Talks on skepticism and the supernatural you can find both of them at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.