Why Do People Believe Stupid Stuff, Even When They're Confronted With the Truth?
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Sure, there have always been people who scam the government, but no one who fit Reagan’s description ever existed. The woman most historians believe Reagan’s anecdote was based on was a con artist with four aliases who moved from place to place wearing disguises, not some stay-at-home mom surrounded by mewling children.
Despite the debunking and the passage of time, the story is still alive. The imaginary lady who Scrooge McDives into a vault of foodstamps between naps while hardworking Americans struggle down the street still appears every day on the Internet. The memetic staying power of the narrative is impressive. Some version of it continues to turn up every week in stories and blog posts about entitlements even though the truth is a click away.
Psychologists call stories like these narrative scripts, stories that tell you what you want to hear, stories which confirm your beliefs and give you permission to continue feeling as you already do. If believing in welfare queens protects your ideology, you accept it and move on. You might find Reagan’s anecdote repugnant or risible, but you’ve accepted without question a similar anecdote about pharmaceutical companies blocking research, or unwarranted police searches, or the health benefits of chocolate. You’ve watched a documentary about the evils of…something you disliked, and you probably loved it. For every Michael Moore documentary passed around as the truth there is an anti-Michael Moore counter documentary with its own proponents trying to convince you their version of the truth is the better choice.
A great example of selective skepticism is the website literallyunbelievable.org. They collect Facebook comments of people who believe articles from the satire newspaper The Onion are real. Articles about Oprah offering a select few the chance to be buried with her in an ornate tomb, or the construction of a multi-billion dollar abortion supercenter, or NASCAR awarding money to drivers who make homophobic remarks are all commented on with the same sort of “yeah, that figures” outrage. As the psychologist Thomas Gilovich said, “”When examining evidence relevant to a given belief, people are inclined to see what they expect to see, and conclude what they expect to conclude…for desired conclusions, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe this?,’ but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, ‘Must I believe this?’”
This is why hardcore doubters who believe Barack Obama was not born in the United States will never be satisfied with any amount of evidence put forth suggesting otherwise. When the Obama administration released his long-form birth certificate in April of 2011, the reaction from birthers was as the backfire effect predicts. They scrutinized the timing, the appearance, the format – they gathered together online and mocked it. They became even more certain of their beliefs than before. The same has been and will forever be true for any conspiracy theory or fringe belief. Contradictory evidence strengthens the position of the believer. It is seen as part of the conspiracy, and missing evidence is dismissed as part of the coverup.
This helps explain how strange, ancient and kooky beliefs resist science, reason and reportage. It goes deeper though, because you don’t see yourself as a kook. You don’t think thunder is a deity going for a 7-10 split. You don’t need special underwear to shield your libido from the gaze of the moon. Your beliefs are rational, logical and fact-based, right?
Well…consider a topic like spanking. Is it right or wrong? Is it harmless or harmful? Is it lazy parenting or tough love? Science has an answer, but let’s get to that later. For now, savor your emotional reaction to the issue and realize you are willing to be swayed, willing to be edified on a great many things, but you keep a special set of topics separate.