Why Do People Believe Crazy Things?

superb essay about the proliferation of online conspiracy theories was published at 3 Quarks Daily on .

As an undergraduate History major, I reluctantly dug up a halfway natural science class to fulfill my college’s general education requirement. It was called Psychology as a Natural Science. However, the massive textbook assigned to us turned out to be chock full of interesting tidbits ranging from optical illusions to odd tales. One of the oddest was the story of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde: three men who each fervently believed he was Jesus Christ. The three originally did not know each other, but a social psychologist named Milton Rokeach brought them together for two years in an Ypsilanti, Michigan mental hospital to experiment on them. He later wrote a book titled The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

Rokeach hypothesized that since Jesus exists by the same code that the Immortals in Highlander later stated as “There can only be one,” these three men might be cured of their delusions when confronted with others who insisted likewise. Of course, he was very wrong. Much like Highlander’s Immortals, they simply fell into conflict. When faced with the others’ unrelenting presence, each dug their heels in and doubled down on their delusions. Even Rokeach’s jaw-dropping manipulations, which included a string of outrageous lies and elaborate fabrications, could not dissuade them.

I’ve recently been pondering this infamous tale of poorly conceived psychological experimentation because in it I see reflections of problems currently plaguing America. Except instead of being thrown together in confinement, people with similar mental disorders are now finding each other on their own. And instead of a psychological professional at least trying (albeit in a highly flawed manner) to cure them, the medium of connection is the largely unregulated and even more manipulative internet. And, finally, instead of insisting there can only be one, mentally ill people are now reinforcing and reduplicating each other’s delusions.

Of course you don’t have to be mentally ill to believe most of the world wide web’s whack-a-doo conspiracy theories. One need merely be stupid or gullible, or in most cases perhaps, just a bit desperate. Take for example the entirely discredited “theory” that childhood vaccines cause autism. It is very understandable that the trauma of conceiving and parenting a severely autistic child would break someone just a little bit, to the point that they demand an explanation that satisfies them more than what we currently know about autism’s causes, which is very little. For some, “very little” just won’t do. Furthermore, the little we do know, including that genetics might be a factor, may contribute to a sense of misplaced guilt that some simply cannot shoulder, leading them to grasp at whatever else is out there. And what’s out there is an internet-fueled story about vaccines.

Funnel it through the internet, and suddenly it’s the conspiracy theory that’s infectious, spreading from the desperate to the naive. By 2011, 18% of Americans believed this incredibly dangerous hooey.  That’s roughly 50 million people.

Likewise, you don’t have to be mentally ill to sincerely believe that the Earth is flat, that the Holocaust is a hoax, that the moon landing was faked, that Princess Diana was murdered, that 9-11 was an inside job, or that JFK was killed by the CIA or the Mafia or the Cubans. You might very well be mentally ill. But you don’t have to be.

However, as we move up the ladder to more and more ludicrous internet conspiracy theories, it begins to seem as if some sort of mental illness is a prerequisite for full faith. That is not a professional assertion. Psychology as a Natural Science was a fun course, but not life changing. I stuck with my major and became a Historian, not a mental health professional, and I respect professional boundaries. But just as any reasonable person can make lay interpretations about the past, any reasonable person can conclude that your brain must not be working properly if you sincerely believe that the world’s leading politicians, business leaders, and artists are actually blood-sucking Lizard People from outer space responsible for the Holocaust and 9-11, and hell bent on ruling the world and enslaving humanity.

The appropriate lay word here would be “crazy.” That’s what I said to my partner about a new friend who began sending her Lizard People conspiracy theory emails. Not as a joke, which is what my partner first assumed. But as educational material. As in, this is real. “Your new friend is crazy,” I told her. “Stop hanging out with her.” She did. Yet the emails about Lizard People and other lunacy continued. So she blocked her.

But of course it’s not so simple. At least not for us as a society. This isn’t about just three avatars of Christ locked up in an Ypsilanti hospital, with any other people clinging to the same delusion scattered and isolated across the country. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions who believe either in Lizard People or other outrageous conspiracies. And they are not scattered. They are not isolated. They are finding each through the internet, where they reinforce and expand their delusions and recruit new believers, just as this woman attempted to recruit my partner. They are voting. They are running for office. They are serving in Congress. They were among those who stormed the Capitol at the president’s urging, and attempted to violently overturn a national election.

It wasn’t always this way, even when it was.

Here in the United States, Boomers and Gen Xers remember the “newspapers” one used to find for sale at the supermarket checkout aisle. Classic impulse buys, they were pure frivolity that no right-thinking person would put into their basket while hunting for food to sustain yourself and your family. Rather, you might buy it on a lark now that the brunt of the chore is done, as you unload your items onto the conveyor belt and begin to realize you’re actually under your budget. Why not buy something silly like watermelon flavored diet breath mints? Or a cheap, little toy your kid is wound up about? Or a some celebrity gossip rag? Or better yet, some absolutely ridiculous piece of trash like the Sun or Weekly World News, with their mix of weird-but-true stories, and completely fabricated yarns.

Inside their pages you would find the reliable, stock folk tales, such as Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster. Then there was the in-house taradiddle, such as explorers finding The Garden of Eden; or Bat Boy, the half-bat, half-human child living in a West Virginia Cave; or various space aliens, including one named P’lod who was having an affair with Hilary Clinton. Who would actually believe such fatuousness?

Just about everyone knew these were jokes, and those who were gullible enough to believe them generally kept quiet about it. After all, when everyone around you says this is a joke, you might just give up on it. Or at least keep it to yourself rather than face the inevitable mockery.

Hannity Is Convinced Former Editor For Defunct Tabloid Weekly World News Worked As "Fixer" For Clinton | Media Matters for AmericaHowever, one of these tongue-in-cheek absurdities struck a chord. When the WWN ran a story claiming that the dearly departed, gone-far-too-young Elvis Presley was still alive, it resonated with readers. It must have been something about Elvis; similar stories about JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Hank Williams Sr., and Adolph Hitler still being alive didn’t generate anywhere near the same buzz. But the Elvis story took off. People laughed. Soon it was a running joke for Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and other comedians. A pre-web meme had been born.

For most people, the notion of a gray-haired Elvis sneaking in and out of movie theaters was so preposterous that it became something funny to spoof. Yet some people insisted it was true. When the story first came out, WWN offices, much to their surprise and delight, fielded dozens of phone calls from people wanting to know more. Some were willing to believe that Elvis wasn’t really dead after all.

Given that the entire Christian religion, with its two and a half billion believers, is predicated on more or less the same thing, I guess it’s understandable.

No, I did not just say that every theistic religious adherent is mentally ill. The actual nature of “mental illness” as a socially constructed category is for another time. Rather, the point is that back in the late 20th century, while some people could still fall for a brand new shenanigan such as Elvis is alive!, the popular purveyors of poppycock were not powerful enough to spread genuine conspiratorialism very far. Yes, there were some who believed Elvis was still alive, but their numbers were contained. Straight faced rags like the Weekly World News and the Sun could turnout only so many true believers because anyone seriously subscribing to their silliness still lived in a society that indulged these tales only to lampoon them. Either you were mocking or being mocked; and having nearly everyone mock you is a serious inhibitor.

But the internet is not just a few small publications available only at grocery checkout aisles. It is, for practical purposes, infinite, and nearly as omnipresent as one wants it to be. Worse yet perhaps, it is algorithmic. More and more of it is intentionally designed to find you, grip you, and draw you together with both, like minded people and manipulative bots coded to feed your frenzy. There are now fellow Christs from Ypsilanti everywhere, and countless Dr. Rokeaches, none of them manipulating you in pursuit of a cure but only to reinforce your misbeliefs so as to profit from them politically and/or economically.

The tide has turned. Instead of 99% of America mocking your outlandish beliefs, and perhaps no one you personally know agreeing with them, the internet connects believers and reinforces and spreads beliefs. Many people you know online, and even in person, now agree with you completely. Under these circumstances, the conspiracies become infectious, spreading from those who are susceptible because of mental illness to those who get caught up in the craze, much like the roughly 50 million Americans who eventually believed, casually or deeply, in the autism vaccine conspiracy. At least that one had an air of faux science about it. Now we’re nearly overrun by far fetched lunacy.

The exact numbers are impossible to discern, but whatever the tally, it is far too high. People joining together around their belief in Lizard People from space enslaving us. Or that Hilary Clinton (she does seem a popular target for this claptrap) and other top Democrats ran a child sex trafficking ring from the basement of a Washington D.C. pizzeria located in a building that literally has no basement. Or that the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High were faked, and that student survivors and parents of murdered grade schoolers are actually paid “crisis actors.”

No matter how crazy they are, there’s a special place in Hell for people who harass the parents of murdered seven year olds.

But it’s probably somewhere between Lizard People and the faux science of vaccine autism where the real danger lies. Despite mountains of evidence against the conspiracy and none for it, 32% of Americans, including 53% of Republicans believe Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election only because of massive voter fraud. Say otherwise and face their wrath. It doesn’t matter who you are. Even a Trump-loving, war veteran, sitting Republican Congressman who denies the conspiracy becomes a target of public scorn.

Now you’re the one being mocked.

Akim Reinhardt’s website, which collects no data, does not track you, makes no effort  to join you with the likeminded, and pedals only the bestest conspiracies, is ThePublicProfessor.com

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15 thoughts on “Why Do People Believe Crazy Things?

  1. We were in Sicily last year, met a German cyclist, and he started lamenting that he can’t talk to his brother anymore. The guy is just “out there.” Anti-vaxx, pro-Putin, you name it. Then this guy paused and said something I’ll never forget. “I think about 30 percent of the German people now are completely nuts.”

    30 percent. Keep that number in mind. Percent who back Trump all the way — 30%. Percent who don’t believe this or that. Close to 30%. Anti-vaxxers in the Netherlands. In New Zealand. Everywhere? About 30%. I’ve come to believe that this anti-fact, anti-science, pro-conspiracy mentality is simply hard-wired into 30% of us. Only consolation — it probably used to be higher. Much higher.

  2. There are all sorts of anomaly residing in the ocean of human experience. For all sorts of reasons. People need not be either deranged or delusional. They may have undergone profound or puzzling experiences. Or they may not. When I was no more than five years old, our family lived in southern Ohio. As far south as one could get without standing in the Ohio River. Appalachia. Hill folks. Dumb…well, you get the idea. There was a deep ravine below our house. A natural playground for country kids. One summer evening in or about 1954 or 55, my brother, a cousin and me were playing in that ravine. At twilight, they came. Dozens of luminous somethings floating overhead. They would seemingly dive towards us, evading our attempts to touch them. Directed intelligence? We never knew. Certainly not behaviorally random. We talked about the experience several times but our parents had not, as far as we knew, witnessed this phenomenon. Would not talk about it anyway. So, what did we believe?

    Only that we saw something we could not explain. There were other anomalies we heard about. Folks did not talk much about them. People did not want to be regarded as dumb…well, you know.

  3. Good research by Watson. Thirty percent is probably about right. I read a book several years ago: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Julian Jaynes. Professor Jaynes talks about how early humans could not decide what to do and therefore consulted Oracle’s, seers and ‘the gods’. He had other notions as well and is still revered by a loyal society of followers. The bicameral mind is still among us, I think.
    Always will be, because of vestiges of the reptilian brain in homo sapiens. So, for a myriad of reasons, people believe crazy things. And crazy people happily take advantage of those beliefs, IMHO.

  4. Doc,

    It’s not much of a reach considering mysticism and fear thrive in numbers and the truth is often, well, boring. It’s about the story…take it from a writer who fails—a lot. Ah, the power of persuasive writing. We have to understand that in 250k years we haven’t evolved that much. Granted, we have developed a few shades of outer covering and some random hair loss, but I can’t say that we have the faculties to digest information more quickly than our ancestors. The same people who saw a flaking tool in a common rock are now tasked with weighing truths from conflicting sources at every level and asked to decide which are relatively true or not. It’s maddening!

    I don’t believe people have the time, patience, nor desire to discriminate what they consider understanding, period. Without the above elements, I see no end to the self-inflicted silliness, ugliness, or pain. I too am guilty more often than I would care to admit. But, I just read that an AI received a C+ on the bar exam, so maybe Harris is correct and perhaps AI can fix Abraham’s mistakes! So it goes.

    Your friendly neighborhood lizard person

  5. Delusion is part of the human condition. We need it to survive. I believe that conspiracy thinking is a subset of delusion and that it is also necessary to survival for many (I guess 30%?). Otherwise you have to think about even more unpleasant stuff like death and meaninglessness. Conspiracy theory makes many people feel smart, and has the added benefit of being entertaining and in many cases outrageous. As for unexplained phenomena, yeah they exist and there’s the strong urge to make up a story or narrative about them. It’s human, so what? The big difference is distribution of these stories on the Internet. I guess what I don’t understand is how people can no longer dismiss crap like they used to with the supermarket tabloids? What happened to good judgment? Fantasy, delusion, a titillating story all come together on the internet. Just don’t rely on it for health info. I admit doctors aren’t much better, but at least they take a pledge to try to help or save you.

  6. We have all heard the refrain: “What the hell is wrong with us and why can’t we just get along?” We’re all the same species with an evolutionary endowed conscience that usually knows the difference between right and wrong– with some exceptions for social psychopaths and mental illness. I’ve always believed our conscience is the closet thing we have to a universal value system. However, it seems to be easily distorted or manipulated by culture and political beliefs. Why?

    Much research and studies have focused on the difference in brains between liberals and conservatives, especially social conservatives, and particularly on a deep area in the brain called the amygdala–the seat of primal fear and strong emotions. It’s bigger for the most part in conservatives and goes a long way in what FDR pointed out: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear of others; fear of change; indifference to inequality for those not in their group of family and friends fuels their minds. They prefer order, authority and simpler solutions, even their taste in music, art and poetry align with traditional tastes, eschewing, for the most part, abstract art, jazz, and as a wild guess-rap! When things get tough, conservatism increases and decreases in more peaceful times. The great conundrum, though, is that they cause chaos (anti-order) to achieve a promised order. Hence history has had more kings and autocrats than democracies. The only antidote to this difference I can see is establishing as quickly as we can a peaceful sense of security, while recognizing we’ll not change one-third of our population, most especially, the Lizard gang. We all must make sure this 30+ percent never reaches power over all. We’re already only some 18 seconds to midnight on the Doomsday Clock.

  7. We have constructed a society of increasing complexity, and now our civilization has reached such a high level of complexity that few people understand it. We do have plenty of specialists who clearly understand specific aspects of our civilization — but nobody who truly sees the big picture. Witness the struggles of the Fed trying to decide the future of the US economy. Who here can honestly claim to understand how vaccines work, why global trade is beneficial to humanity, the potential of artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, how serious a problem the federal debt is, the value of scientific research, modern weapons, and so on? The world has become too big and complicated for most people to grasp.

    Hence the need for simple explanations. Why do we have problems? It’s the Jews! No, it’s intellectuals, LGBT people, populists, Hillary, universities, Fox News… you can cook up any scapegoats you want.

    About 35 years ago there was a brilliant paper game called “Illuminati” that presented the world as a nest of conspiracies, and the player’s goal was to organize the dominant conspiracy by establishing control over a winning collection of small-time conspiracies, including such actors as the Girl Scouts (what’s REALLY in those cookies?), interior designers, the Gnomes of Zurich, and so on. The best part of the game was the card for Orbiting Mind Control Lasers.

  8. One final comment/advisory:
    Check out Michael Murphey’s book, Future of the Body, from a dozen or more years ago. Interesting anecdotal stuff. A reasonable question: how much of anecdote can possibly be true account? Answer: some, a little, a lot, or none. See, that is the thing. In a majority of cases, the teller of the story either believes it because he was there, or, believes it because he has no compelling reason (interest, preference or motive) to question the intention of the storyteller. When Murphey compiled the book he was keeping an open mind, donning the ‘fair witness’ cloak.

  9. Hello Dr. John, this is the first time I’ve commented for some time, the way groups divide on issues is of interest to me, and I have a personal theory that I think explains what is happening.

    Humans have two loci for evaluating reality, and the sources for the information that purports to describe that reality. The first and most recognized by educated, Rational People is consciousnesses, this is where language lives, and where we use language to dissect ideas and determine what is rational, or not. The other and older sense, came to earth with the first cell and is now called instinct, instinct has only one goal and that is to preserve the life it dwells in, instinct affects Humans physically, when their thoughts and actions are dissonant to the dictates of instinct they often feel a discomfort in their Solar Plexus region. (This is the true definition of Cognitive Dissonance)
    I understand that many people cannot accept the idea of instinct having any part to play in a Modern Educated persons life, and that their lives are solely guided by their conscious thoughts, thoughts that have been formed by their own thoughts and the thoughts of the people that have read and admire. While the instinctual person is sometimes guided by how he feels, is he always right? Surely not, but I believe he often feels better, if something doesn’t feel right he doesn’t want to do it, and from that basis can reject ideas that have a large following in the general herd.

    All the best to everyone in the New Year

  10. My Evolutionary Philosophy Circle just started running a discussion series on the topic of mental immunity. It’s based on Andy Norman’s book of the same title, and there is a compendium of essays being published at the moment on the This View of Life magazine. The first one from Norman introduces the topic.

    The Science of Mental Immunity Has Arrived

    We’re not all convinced that the metaphor is the right or best one, but this has been a topic of research since the 1960’s and there is a lot we have learned about how to improve people’s thinking systems. You’d be welcome to join in our meetings, of course, but I know you are busy and may just be interested in seeing the series of essays. David Sloan Wilson has the second essay and I have the 5th. More are in the pipeline and we’re excited to be discussing it as a group. As you note with this post, it’s an important topic!

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