Updated: May 17, 2020
Beliefs are About Feelings, Not Just Facts.
It's Bill Gates! A Chinese bioweapon! The Democrats! A hoax!
I've heard conspiracy theories not just from random connections on social media, but from intelligent and educated people I trust and respect.
Why is this happening???
Pretending to be an expert on epidemiology would be silly, but I do have some insights about human nature I can share regarding the compound effects of biases and mass panic.
I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with honesty and truth. It's a blessing and a curse. It affects me personally me when society starts jumping to conclusions, spreading lies and denying scientific evidence.
This is partly inherited from Dr. Dad who questions everything (eye roll) and is principled to a fault, as well as my training as a journalist and coach, professions which are fundamentally about challenging assumptions and finding facts.
Some Key Facts
There's plenty of data that have been independently corroborated by highly qualified sources. The world's top scientists, journalists and fact checkers are on the job. You don't land on the Covid-19 Manhattan Project or win a Pulitzer Prize by accident, so if you're getting your information from reputable, centrist news sources it is accurate and trustworthy. (That your mind is already searching for counter-arguments is part of my point, so please read on). Here's some of what the experts agree on:
COVID-19 is not man made or spread as a biological weapon. It's a zoonotic virus transmitted from animals to humans.
The virus mortality rate is much higher than the flu (2% vs .01%).
There is no powerful cabal infecting a segment of the population on purpose.
There are no miracle cures (herbal or synthetic), secret vaccines, or household concoctions that can stop the virus right now.
5G towers have no correlation to the virus.
Bill Gates is dedicated to eradicating, not proliferating, the virus.
Dr. Fauci isn't a secret agent.
COVID-19 is now one of the leading causes of death in the world, whereas it used to be non-existent. In some countries, the daily death rate is 50% higher than usual because of the virus. In NYC, the percentage above normal was 225% as of April 11th.
I'd like to add that it's crucial to get your information from reputable, unbiased sources. It's not about finding a source you agree with, it's about getting accurate information. If you're looking for accuracy from The Epoch Times, Fox News or MSNBC pundits, you're barking up the wrong tree. Keep reading for more about how people seek out info we agree with.
Your Mind Sees What It Wants To See
There's a well known psychological phenomena called confirmation bias, one of many cognitive biases we walk around with.
Basically, it means you prioritize evidence to support your beliefs and discount evidence against them.
Let's say you believe left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people. When you meet a creative left handed person, you'll check off the evidence box. But you might ignore the evidence when meeting a non-creative left handed person, or a highly creative right-handed person. And you might go out and search Google for evidence to support your belief.
The more rigid your belief, the more you find "proof" no matter how outlandish it is.
This phenomenon is so powerful that for thousands of years, humans have killed and died for their beliefs rather than admit they were wrong!
Fortunately, humanity came up with the scientific method, and we no longer need to be victims of confirmation bias. When there's a scientific consensus, it means something is predictable and repeatable no matter what arguments you throw at it.
Gravity is real and has an impact on you whether you believe in it or not. Same with evolution and climate change. COVID-19, and the facts surrounding it, is also real and will kill thousands of people whether you believe in it or not.
Are you thinking about all the supposed exceptions to the rule? Do you believe the exception IS the rule? How strong is your confirmation bias right now?
You Think You're Pretty Smart
Humans don't know what they don't know, but think they do. This is called meta-ignorance. The unknown unknowns.
We're terrible at self-evaluating, and at accepting that we're wrong.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias that convinces us we know more than we do, and are better at what we do than we really are.
The lower your competence, the more likely you are to overlook your mistakes and believe your superiority.
When it comes to the extremely complex science of virology and epidemiology, the vast majority of people don't know a damn thing.
It's far easier to believe a conspiracy theory that delivers a simple explanation about the origins of the virus than to get a PhD in infectious diseases.
Unfortunately, it's more likely for an uneducated person to believe they understand the virus than a highly trained scientist.
What might be some of your unknown unknowns?
Our Minds Crave Certainty and Order
A powerful driver of human behavior is the desire for safety. When we think we can predict the future, we feel safe. When things are chaotic, our brain tries to make sense of the world and cling to whatever order it can.
Right now society is freaking out, businesses are closing, the economy is tanking, and people are dying, so it's normal to feel anxious and look for answers.
The more panicky and uncertain you feel, the more desperately you will cling to unsubstantiated answers.
Also, when you're stressed, it's much more difficult to think critically, creatively, and rationally. When in a panic, the more advanced parts of the brain become hijacked by the more primitive parts, and otherwise smart individuals behave like frightened animals.
Can you think of a time you've found a simplistic explanation because you were freaking out?
You Think You Are Special and Not Special
When a person litters they think it's no big deal. It's just a piece of gum, right? But it's never just one person littering.
On one hand, everyone thinks they are special and important, and on the other, that their actions won't make a big impact. More cognitive distortions.
On a small scale, believing in a false concept seems like no big deal. But when lots of people believe that, say, 5G cell towers are causing the coronavirus, it leads to riots and mass destruction of infrastructure.
In what way do you believe you are special and an exception to the rule? And in what way do you believe your small actions are no big deal?
Negativity Is Our Default
We can thank negative thinking for our survival as a species for hundreds of thousands of years.
The brain quickly notices when something is awry, and tells the body to react immediately to the perceived threat.
When we're in that threat mode, we don't think calmly and creatively; we focus all of our attention on the scary thing and either fight, flee, or freeze to ensure survival.
This is great if you're being stalked by a sabertooth tiger. Not so helpful if the threat at hand is more abstract like it is now.
When a conspiracy theory shows up, the brain is instantly captivated. It's an unseen threat, one that implies a terrible fate if don't pay close attention! And imagine what will happen if you ignore it! Better click on that next video, or else!
To survive the coronavirus threat, we need to override our default tendencies. Losing our marbles is the exact opposite of what will get us through this in the long term. Instead, we need to be adaptive, poised, and come up with new solutions to a mysterious problem.
When was the last time your negativity bias distorted your view of reality?
It's Cool To Fit In
We are programmed to seek acceptance in a group. For thousands of years, humans lived in small communities, and without those communities people were unlikely to survive.
Being ostracized was a death sentence.
Despite all our amazing modern developments, our brains haven't changed and we still have the same programming. We want to be a part of a tribe, and will do whatever it takes to remain in its good graces.
If the tribe you identify with is a political party, it's likely you will accept their version of reality. Because of confirmation bias you will pay close attention to what leaders say when it serves your beliefs, and overlook when it doesn't.
To separate between your tribe and the "other"often means a wholesale rejection of opposing claims. It's easier to understand your identify if it is clearly different from another tribe's. It takes more creative, conscientious thinking to incorporate nuances into our sense of self.
Mistrust And Uncertainty Go Hand-In-Hand
During a time of uncertainty, nobody has the right answers by definition. If we had order, it wouldn't be chaotic. If we had the answers, it wouldn't be uncertain.
But the brain wants answers and it wants them now! So, we turn to whatever makes us feel safe.
Sometimes tribal leaders provide baseless answers and even purposely create more confusion and discord by blaming other tribes. Uncertain human brains are susceptible to simplistic explanations, scapegoating, and in a perfect position to start trouble.
If the belief that makes people feel safe includes a story about an evil 5G tower, a conniving billionaire or disloyal sub-group, then people will accept whatever consequences they need to in order to maintain that safety feeling.
Even if it means jeopardizing their own safety!
Populist politicians throughout history have taken full advantage of this to create a collective "us versus them" mentality and enlist millions of willing participants in violent causes.
When have you held an "us vs them" mentality? And how accurate is it, really?
The Internet Makes Things Worse
Social media algorithms are the ultimate expression of confirmation bias. Rather than challenging us to think differently and build bridges to opposing ideas, they exist to show us more of what we already believe and desire.
If you click on an advertisement for wedding photography, you start getting a ton of wedding-related advertisements.
If you click on one conspiracy theory video, you are exposed to many more, and to people who agree with them.
It's easy to end up in a self-serving bubble without even knowing it. The world around you just looks like you expect it to.
If the digital world you spend hours on every day confirms over and over that sars-CoV-2 is a Chinese weapon developed along with Verizon, The Jews, and Bill Gates, then you'll probably believe it.
What groups has the internet placed you in? And what beliefs have you developed as a result?
Trust Those Who Deserve It
There are experts of the highest caliber who can help us get out of this coronavirus crisis if we give them the power.
When we believe we know more than we actually do, and cling to false beliefs to pacify our erratic emotions, we jeopardize our future.
It sucks to feel anxious, worried, afraid, uncertain, and isolated. But it sucks worse when we lose our minds and work against our own interests.
What Actions Are You Taking To Think Creatively and Adaptively?