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It has long been known among those familiar with social cognitive science that people are more rationalizing than rational. For example, it has been argued that people initially believe their own subjective experiences as an accurate reflection of reality, and will only discount or question these beliefs through effortful cognitive processing.
The crux of Shermer’s argument rests on two different cognitive processes, patternicity and agenticity. He introduces the concept of patternicity with a thought experiment that is certainly familiar to most researchers of evolved human behavior – “Imagine you are a hominid walking along the savanna of an African valley three million years ago”. Shermer goes on to emphasize the adaptive importance of recognizing threats in one’s immediate environment; “You hear a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or is it a dangerous predator?”
As the actor in this hypothetical scenario, we are faced with two familiar choices: We can (a) assume the noise was just wind and go about our business, or (b) assume the disturbance was made by a dangerous predator and get out of dodge. If we assume that the noise was a predator but it turns out to simply be the wind, we have made a false positive (i.e., a Type I error) and have erred on the side of safety. If, however, we assume that the noise was the wind and it turns out to be a predator, we have made a false negative (i.e., a Type II error), and the cost could be our life.
This type of reasoning is known by many evolutionary psychologists as Error Management Theory, and it proposes that people will tend to err on the side of safety because it offers advantages for survival or reproductive opportunities.
Shermer argues that the ability for animals to recognize patterns in the environment is crucial for navigating and surviving in a dangerous world. He describes human brains as “evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns we think we see in nature”. Patternicity is therefore defined as the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless “noise”. Shermer believes that for the sake of survival human’s default position is to assume that all patterns are real.
Shermer says that people often “believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe non-weird things”. Humans’ weird beliefs include our proclivity to trust anecdotal evidence over statistical evidence – a problem that is often harmless but can result in dire effects, as in the case of thousands of parents who denied their children proper vaccination in the face of celebrity testimonies against its “dangers” – as well as the very common superstitious behaviors often practiced by sports fans and athletes (e.g., if I don’t wear my lucky socks on game day my team is going to lose).
Shermer also argues that people are born with the hardwired tendency to spot particular patterns that elicit functional emotional responses. For instance, thoughts of sexual relations with close others, especially those we have grown up with, elicit feelings of disgust – a case of patternicity that natural selection has endowed us with to help prevent the genetic maladies that can result from incest.
The other cognitive process that acts as a major player in the formation of beliefs is agenticity, the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. Shermer argues that our evolved theory of mind, or capacity to be aware of the mental states and desires of others, has led people to attribute intentionality to the (often false) patterns we perceive. What can result are beliefs in things such as souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, karma, fate, and a vast array of other intentional agents controlling aspects of our lives.
Amusing examples of agenticity include children’s tendencies to draw faces on things that do not have intentionality, such as the sun, and cross-cultural beliefs that genital shaped foods such as oysters or bananas increase sexual potency. Shermer argues that people naturally develop supernatural and superstitious beliefs due to our evolved tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. He uses this evolutionary hypothesis to help explain other supernatural beliefs such as communication with the dead and the sensed-presence (or guardian angel) effect.
In his biological analysis, Shermer additionally discusses neurological influences on belief systems. He uses scientific evidence to argue that what we often attribute as the “mind” is simply a byproduct of natural, evolved brain activity, thus dispelling the notion that the mind and brain are separate entities.
He also argues that theory of mind is likely to be the result of evolved neural networks that enabled people with abilities crucial to survival in a complex world, such as the ability to distinguish action and intention of others, and to plan goal-directed actions.
These natural neural processes, however, may also play a crucial role in common dualistic beliefs of the mind as separate from the brain and the soul as separate from the body – these dualistic beliefs are often a very important component of religious and spiritual beliefs.
Shermer argues that because people have the evolved tendencies to impart agency and intention to both animate and inanimate objects, because psychological processes lead many of us to believe in dualism of mind/brain and soul/body, and because our brains efficiently weave sensory input and thought into a cognitively cohesive and understandable story, it only comes natural that people believe in a number of supernatural phenomena, such as the after-life and an eternal soul, aliens and conspiracy theories.
Shermer encourages that humans challenge themselves to break from these evolved tendencies and embrace the information available through the tools of science. Through use of the scientific method, he claims that we can dispel unsound beliefs about the world and focus on addressing the problems that such irrational beliefs have helped create (e.g., religious and group-based intolerance, disbelief in evolution and global warming, holocaust denial, etc.)
In a 2009 Harris Poll cited by Shermer, 82% of Americans expressed belief in God, 60% in the devil, and 45% believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Shermer sums up the issues evolutionary psychologists face quite well; “The problem,” he notes, “is that superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old”.
Indeed, for evolutionary psychologists to encourage people to understand human behaviors as evolved behaviors, we must fight those same evolved processes that lead us to believe irrational things.
Luckily, there the ways in which we (both scientists and laypersons) can use the scientific process (e.g., the null hypothesis, convergence of evidence, comparative method, etc.) to help us come to reasoned conclusions in everyday life.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
As a 'belief engine', the brain is always seeking to find meaning in the information that pours into it. Once it has constructed a belief, it rationalizes it with explanations, almost always after the event. The brain thus becomes invested in the beliefs, and reinforces them by looking for supporting evidence while blinding itself to anything contrary. Michael Shermer describes this process as “belief-dependent realism” — what we believe determines our reality, not the other way around.
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