Beyond belief: Fawl lecturer examines tendencies behind belief

Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things, asked the students packed into Olin Hall for the 2010 Fawl Psychology Lecture to imagine themselves as hominids living over 3 million years ago.

Click here to listen to Michael Shermer's October 28th NWU lecture.

“You’re walking along and you hear a rustle in the grass,” Shermer said. “What made the sound? Was it the wind? Or was it a predator?”

Either absolutely nothing or life itself rides on what that hominid believes. If she believes it’s a predator and runs away, the cost of being wrong is low. But if she believes it’s nothing but the wind, the price of being wrong grows much higher.

We are the descendants of the hominid who believed it was a tiger. (The one who thought it was the wind sadly has none.)

This ancient connection between natural selection and belief, Shermer said, has shaped humans into adept associative learners. We hear the rustle, associate it with the crouching tiger, and act on that association. Even if that association is wrong 19 times out of 20, we’ve still been well served by our sensitivity to pattern and our tendency to believe the worst.

Evolution has shaped our brains to be “belief engines,” Shermer said. What and how we believe are things Shermer explores. Everything from conspiracy theories to Ponzi schemes to baseball superstitions stems from human predilections for what Shermer called “patternicity” and “agenticity.” These are our tendencies to perceive (or misperceive) patterns and the agents of power that shape those patterns.

A shortstop may recognize a pattern of better hitting while wearing certain socks; he may then try to exploit his socks’ perceived agenticity into more doubles. Why, Shermer wondered, are baseball players so much more superstitious about batting than they are fielding? It likely has to do with the difficulty of each. The average ballplayer may field over .900, but bat around .200. In looking for hitting patterns, we open ourselves to confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek and believe information that confirms our desires—in this case, the desire for a secret to better hitting.

For those of us more worried about questions of truth than crouching tigers or lucky socks, Shermer counseled a wise balance.

We must be neither gullible to nonsense nor closed to wonder. We must be both open-minded and skeptical.