Our Orientation Towards Belief

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In his TEDTalk on self-deception, Michael Shermer suggests that we are susceptible to false beliefs, because finding patterns helps us to survive. I think he has identified an important reason why humans are so quick to believe new things. I would like to add another key factor that drives our tendency to believe. To put that into perspective, though, I want you to think about deer.

My neighborhood in Austin, Texas is overrun with deer. Several years ago, a baby deer was born in my back yard. Soon after it was born, it was walking around and within a day it had skipped off with its mother. In some ways, this is amazing. My kids didn't start walking for months after they were born. They are teenagers and they are still in school working toward becoming productive members of society.

Of course, the deer in my neighborhood are not well-adapted to life in the modern world. Cars on the streets routinely have to slow down to avoid hitting them. The deer are not quite sure what to do as they wander through a suburban neighborhood. By the time my kids finish their schooling, though, they will be completely integrated into the modern world with expertise in all of the latest technology. They will be prepared to step into jobs at the leading edge of their fields.

When other people tell us things with great conviction, we are wired to believe what we hear. We cannot maintain a skeptical stance to every new thing we are told, because that would get in the way of our need to learn. Art Markman

Deer and humans reflect two radically different solutions to the problem of survival. Deer come highly programmed by evolution to survive in a particular environment. As long as enough elements of that environment are around, the deer do OK, even if they cannot adapt to new predators like automobiles. Humans, however, are highly programmable. Our extended childhood allows us to learn about the information landscape that we are born into. It takes years to develop this knowledge, but it allows us to adapt to the current world and to expand the complexity of our culture by developing new tools.

In his book, Why We Cooperate, the psychologist Michael Tomasello points out that the ability to learn from others is crucial for this learning process. We need to learn about the world as it is rather than being programmed to survive in a world as it was in the evolutionary past. We pick up the language spoken by the people around us. We learn the concepts that are important to the people we live with. Crucially, we also begin to construct explanations for why the world around us works the way it does. This process takes up a lot of the first two decades of our lives. Only then are we ready to contribute to our society.

A byproduct of this need to learn from other members of our culture is a tendency toward belief. We need to trust that the facts, concepts, and explanations that we get from the people around us are generally truthful. There is so much to learn, that when we are exposed to an idea our default is to believe that it is true. We actually have to mark a fact as false in order to learn and remember that it is not true.

Clearly, our orientation to believe has great benefits. Human beings are the only species on the planet that adapts to new information environments so readily. The cost of this orientation is deception. We are susceptible to maintaining beliefs that are simply not true. When other people tell us things with great conviction, we are wired to believe what we hear. We cannot maintain a skeptical stance to every new thing we are told, because that would get in the way of our need to learn. And so a certain amount of false information gets mixed in with the high quality knowledge that we pick up about the world around us.

And that is better than being a deer in the headlights.

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