What I’m about to tell you has implications for brain washing, for advertising, and for fake news. It also has implications for the way we grow up, the way we dream, and the way we should present information to other people. And it is the difference between those who make their dreams come true and those who simply believe the stories they are told about who they are and what they can achieve.
I’m a skeptic, by nature. When I was young and my parents dutifully hauled me off to church on Sundays, I insisted on talking with the preacher.
“I’ve got a list of questions,” I said, with my thirteen-year-old confidence.
When I met with the preacher, my questions went something like this: “Where does God come from? Is God in the chair I am sitting on or is he floating somewhere above us? Why did God create us? How does anybody know the Bible or any other religious book is true since it happened so long ago and none of us were there?”
The preacher was an honest man and he admitted these were hard questions and that, in fact, the answers to them were strictly a matter of faith. If I needed evidence, I would have to construct it from my own experience, or take other people’s word for it. Those were my choices.
Honest people can change your life, as have many people of faith I’ve met and talked with over the years have changed mine. Because the fact of that matter is that even though I know I’m a skeptic, I’m a deep believer that beliefs are important. If we don’t nurture good and healthy beliefs, then we are subject to the whims of a much darker process.
The darker process is both a feature and a bug of our psychology. In a nutshell, it is this: before we can assess whether something is false, we first believe it as true.
For example, if I say “The elephant was not blue,” our minds must first consider what a blue elephant looks like and then mark the elephant in question as ‘not that.’
In real world terms, what this means is that if you see something on Twitter, your brain will first consider it as true and only then negate it. And it will only negate it if your brain thinks it is false and has time to do so.
Let me give you some examples.
One study by Gilbert et al. (1990) showed people faces and told them the expressions on the faces were either true expressions or false expressions. When people were interrupted by being forced to press a button when they were signaled to do so, they showed a strong tendency to later believe the expression was true, even when it was false, even if they were told that it was false before they even saw it! Rarely did they make the mistake of believing that something was false when it wasn’t. By distracting people, they simply started to believe everything was true.
Many studies have shown this in various ways. For example, if you are distracted or confused, you are often more gullible than if you simply receive a clear message. Take this study by Festinger and Maccoby (1964). They showed two films that were anti-fraternity to men in fraternities. One film was simply of a speaker making a speech. It was a nice clear message that fraternities were bad. The second film had an irrelevant and confusing visual presentation, and the same audio message. Which was more convincing? The more confusing film was.
It takes effort to not believe things.
This is why you should never try to teach people things by saying “Myth: Coffee is bad for you.” What people will remember is the myth, not its negation.
Professionals in the brainwashing industry put this knowledge to good use. Political or ideological prisoners are deprived of sleep, food, and warm clothing. This makes people susceptible to the brainwasher’s messages. Reeducation programs in Maoist thought-reform, as do modern cults, get people to repeat or listen to messages while cognitively depleted. And they wind up believing them, like little zombies. Late night infomercials tap into the same process.
Advertising, especially in our modern hyper-distractible Infoverse, uses the same approach again. Targeted ads bombard us with visual images of the same things over and over again, waiting for our moment of weakness.
Fake news simply preys on the fact that most of believe most of what we hear. Slogans written over provocative pictures are one view of the world, but many people repost them as if they are gospel. You may notice that some politicians simply spout lies and you wonder who could believe that crap. Well, all of us is the answer, because some people don’t listen to anything else and in the rest of us it simply sows doubt in what we already believe. Partly because it devalues information, but mostly because our minds are built to believe. By even considering the crap-fountains of some modern politicians we give them power.
Recent research has shown that much of the information you see on social media is tailored for you, by algorithms, or sent to you by bots, precisely because they know the click-bait you love most.
We don’t even need research to show that skepticism requires an adult mind and your full attention. Children are the quintessential soft-boiled pippins. Children will believe anything you tell them. Researchers have gone out of their way to show this, but they didn’t need to. Even if you give kids power and experience to know better, they will believe what others (even other children) tell them more readily than will adults. That’s because skepticism is an acquired trait.
You can witness your own inner child doing this first-hand. Just go to sleep. In your dreams you are the most gullible person alive. People can change their face in front of you, do things that would be impossible in reality, or act completely out of character, and you believe it all.
In fact, even when you are awake, you believe most of your own thoughts without even considering whether or not they are true. Practices like mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy are effective precisely because they can teach you to stop doing that.
You are not everything that comes into your mind.
Or, at least, you don’t have to be.
What this means is fairly humbling. It means that our minds are not particularly good at recognizing crappy information. It also means that we get more pathetically gullible the more distracted we are, which is pretty much the constant state of modern life.
We get distracted by all kinds of things. Humor (yes, that makes you more gullible), too much information (yes, see above), multi-tasking (see above), pop-ups, our social networks, juggling too many thoughts, and on and on.
Your brain is a little fish in a tank of information. Your mind thinks that information is food. But the more you try to eat, the less discriminating you become, and the easier it is to feed you poison.
This all sounds daunting, but you can reverse-engineer it. You can hack yourself. The answer is to take a step back. Take a deep breath. Form your own questions: the things you want to know the answer to. Make your own list of goals, the things in your heart you really want to achieve. Write them down were you will see them. Write them all over the place.
Distract yourself with your own dreams.
Make the click-bait in your life an overwhelming tidal wave of your own devotions.