One of the alleged big mysteries of our day is why so many folks—and not just those in the United States—readily believe in demonstrable falsehoods. No reasoning creature ought to believe in the nonsense put out by QAnon, or for that matter, by someone as transparently psychopathic as Donald Trump—but many, numbering in the millions, really do. Why?
Here are some of the explanations offered by those supposedly in the know:
Stupidity and Laziness: The traditional narrative says that the cause is stupidity combined with laziness. As one researcher describes it, “if you believe false things, then you must be stupid. It must be because you haven’t really made an effort to actually figure out what is going on.” This is a superficial assessment. Most people indeed are not critical thinkers who consciously seek to “actually figure out what is going on” in an independent fashion. Essentially, they do not possess enough free will to do so. On the social level, they figure things out according to cultural, community, or group dictates. This is not “stupid” of them, nor is it a function of laziness. It stems from being born and raised as part of a society. And, some societies, particularly smaller ones, families, villages, tribes, and can exert considerable social pressure.
“Motivated reasoning” aka confirmation bias: This argument drops the “stupid” appellation and doesn’t speak to the particular history or situation of the true believers, but rather tells us that there is a natural “tendency to find arguments in favor of conclusions we want to believe to be stronger than arguments for conclusions we do not want to believe.” And indeed, there is plenty of evidence for this. It is why con artists make a good living. They rob us by telling us, convincingly, what we want to hear. Too many politicians are con artists who have figured out what their constituencies want to hear and feed it back to them without much regard for objective truth. Some of them, such as Donald Trump and his minions, do this in a way that breeds anger and even hatred for the unbelievers.
The Functional Evolution theory: There is a recent study out that adds a third line of explanation. It concentrates on falsehood as a vehicle for (1) establishing and maintaining group solidarity and (2) getting the upper hand in any struggle by destroying the reputation of the adversary. In this way, blatant lying and total suspension of reasoned thought become “functional.” Here are the study’s points:
By telling lies you “are in a better situation to mobilize and coordinate the attention of your own group.” For instance, the authors of this study assert that one of the ways fanatics signal group membership and loyalty is by believing blatantly false notions. “The basic logic at work here is that anyone can believe the truth, but only loyal members of the group can believe something that is blatantly false.” This might seem a bit of a stretch, but the authors believe this tactic is used both by groups like QAnon and some successful religious movements.
Of course, it will not do to just believe crazy things about your group. You have to come to believe your adversary is evil. You must swallow the kind of beliefs—they are remarkably similar in every case—that have led to ethnic massacres and horrific episodes like the holocausts in Germany, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda.
Here the authors make a distinction between two types of belief: (a) “beliefs that we have as representations of reality,” that is, those that reflect the truth so we can successfully “navigate the world;” and (b) beliefs that allow us to rally the necessary emotions to fight an alleged enemy till they are essentially destroyed. These latter beliefs do not have to be tied to “representations of reality.” In fact, it is better if they do not: better if the Japanese become just “Japs,” the Germans, “Huns,” the Vietnamese, “gooks,” the Jews, “kykes,” the Arabs and Palestinians, “anti-Semites.”
In other words, there might be “functional reasons for spreading falsehoods”—lying as a selected evolutionary trait. The propensity for both self-deception and the false characterization of others can serve the end of your group’s survival.
The Social Power of Our Local Groups
A problem with the above explanations is they only address the consciousness of cult members or “true believers.” That is, they address the imbecility of someone running around the nation’s capital in a hat with buffalo horns claiming “QAnon sent me.” Such a person may well believe his group’s nonsense for the sake of signaling membership and loyalty. But such hypotheses, regardless of any vague evolutionary impulse, can’t explain why a broader out-group population, numbering in the millions, goes along with the falsehoods of Donald Trump and other con artist authoritarians—and have done so throughout history. Nor can we simply dismiss this vulnerability of millions with notions of stupidity and laziness.
Here are some additional considerations that may help fill in the gaps of our understanding:
—The social/geographical context can encourage a form of tribalism. Most of us are strongly shaped by our locality. This is the case despite world-ranging journalism and international travel. Most of us are, in fact, locally regimented to fit into the mindset of our families, our neighborhoods, our places of work, our schools, our religious centers, our class-based networks, and so forth. These are the environments in which we learn the power of group culture. And most of us learn to do what our group does, think what our community thinks.
—The United States (just like many other countries) are a collection of smaller regions cobbled together over the history of the nation. Regional differences which are set as insular subcultures can prevail despite shifting population trends. Thus, Republican cultism finds its warmest reception in those parts of the country where a stagnant form of traditional white culture prevails. The affected population may be relatively isolated and rural. It has inherited a frontier outlook of radical individualism. For such folks, the government is anathema on principle and is usually seen as the real source of false information. Communities unlike theirs, usually urban and allegedly associated with “liberals,” are also seen as threats to their local values.
On the other hand, one can find the Republican cultist mindset in the boardrooms of power where government is seen as a tool to shape society to one’s class benefit. Donald Trump himself is of this sub-culture.
—Collective thinking is what holds certain communities together, and if a strong and charismatic (secular or religious) leader comes along and shapes a message to echo aspects of a local social outlook (for instance gun “rights,” anti-abortion sentiments, racist or gender bias, etc.) while disparaging other orientations seen by the group as threateningly alien, he or she can win the support of whole regions.
It is community and group pressures that can set up millions to accept lies. Such pressure essentially binds the individual’s will to what may be a suborned collective. When this happens, reasoned discussion with the believer will be of no avail. The only thing that might break the bind is a catastrophe that undermines the collective message. And even then, breaking loose can be traumatic.
A good example of this—how scary it can be to break free of the power of one’s local environment even in dire circumstances—was given in a 31 July 2021 report in the Kansas City Star. According to Dr. Priscilla Frase, “a hospitalist and chief medical information officer” for Ozarks Healthcare, “People come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine. I don’t want my friends to know but I don’t want to get COVID.’. . . But they’re very concerned about how the people that they love, within their family and within their friendship circles and work circles are going to react if they found out they got the vaccine.”
One might say that those who believe in crazy ideas and claims are but a tiny minority. That only oddballs fall for improbable claims. However, this is historically inaccurate. A significant portion of the world’s population has always believed in the fantastical and improbable. Today’s examples of such beliefs range from faith in astrology, to the belief in aliens roaming our cities, to the existence of a real Sherlock Holmes. And, of course, most of the claims of religion, established or otherwise, are of a fantastic, untestable nature. Then there is the embarrassing case of Senator Susan Collins of Maine who, caught in the January 6 mass assault on the Capitol, said that her first thought was that the Iranians were attacking.
These random examples suggest that most folks do fine when all that is called for is getting through their usual daily routine. However, put anything new and unexpected in front of them and many become vulnerable to rumor mongering, propaganda, and the claims of con artists and charlatans.
Today’s style of mass media (where every group with a grievance and access to the airways can create their own propaganda machine) combined with the present
open-ended use of the First Amendment (free speech) makes this vulnerability worse. Keep in mind that free speech does not equate with truth and can be abused in the form of libel, inciting to riot—as occurred in Washington on January 6—or forms of propaganda that periodically turn democratic societies into barbaric dictatorships.
Humans are social animals. Most of us are adrift apart from our various communities. It is a mixed blessing, for while group membership can make us feel secure and wanted, it can also lead us astray into racism, misogyny, and all manner of religious bias. The stagnant form of traditional white culture in the United States has edged closer to such a degenerated state of mind due to the pressures exerted upon it by several radical rightwing groups and the mendacious scheming of Donald Trump. So, if you are white, if you are American, and particularly if you live in one of those “red states”—or for that matter, if you are tied into any group with a hard-and-fast bias, regardless of color—beware of the two-faced nature of community.