Psychology and what Makes People Suggestible

People believe in absurdities. They are suggestible for many reasons. There is wishful thinking. There is a need to feel assured. There is human pride. There is trauma at thinking about a less desired alternative. There is a survival mechanism that works for short term survival often at the cost of long term sensibility. There is a great fear of being wrong. There is the structure of the brain that reinforces some concepts to make them con-fabulously real rather than accept a less preferable truth.

There are estimated to be about 63,000 religions that have been, or currently exist on Earth. This includes only those known about since the advent of any kind of record keeping. Since people have had relatively the same intelligence for the last 200,000 years, that means for most of that time there is no way to know what people believed in.

This is only an estimate of religions. People are of course, suggestible in other ways as well. There is superstition, political beliefs, ideology, ethnic and racial beliefs and much more. The point is that human beings are infinitely suggestible.

One must either concur that everything believed is either more true, or more false, and in the case of contradictory “knowledge” not everything known can be considered true. Even in the sciences, there are false beliefs and always have been. In natural philosophy, the fore-runner of modern science, it was once “true” that suns and planets orbited the Earth. Four humors of bodily fluids, black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm provided balance or imbalance of body and mind. Human beings could not go to the moon. Classes, races and sexes were superior or inferior.There are countless other examples.

Human beings have an innate need to believe in things. Why should this be so? It is likely (going out on a limb here and knowing it could be proved false in another 1,000 years) due to the human need to be decisive. To operate with some confidence and to be able to cope with an ever-changing and uncertain world, people seek answers, authority, patterns and confirmation. When one or more people find patterns to suggest belief in a concept; reinforcement, by way of another’s approval will finalize the belief. Humans evolved to make patterns, a tendency called patternicity.

Crazy ideas are only crazy in retrospect.

Some things that people once believed seem ludicrous now. Yet, even in the world today there are people who practice witchcraft, if not witch burning. There are people who think distant stars and planets influence their birth.There are people who believe in Noah’s flood, wine turning to blood, televangelists healing in exchange for cash and much, much more.

People are suggestible often due to simple wishful thinking. If you lose a loved one, it is much more acceptable to believe in an afterlife. Few children choose to stop belief in Santa Claus until after the presents are unwrapped.

Another reason humans have suggestibility  is social approval. All people are strongly social. They need to share belief systems to belong to an in-group. The idea of them versus us began in small tribes, but now that the tribe needs to contain the entire biosphere, it is a greater challenge. Undoing past hatreds, bias, racism, sexism, class-ism and more is a tall order, only necessary if humanity is to be preserved.

It is not just a survival mechanism that educated guesses can save one’s life. A false positive, thinking there is danger when there is not actually a predator or a foe, is a better survival mechanism than a false negative. A false negative is when one decides there is no threat and walks carelessly right into danger. As a general rule, it is best to be safe rather than to be sorry. Evolving to pass on more young, most ancestors adapted to believe (or at least consider wariness) rather than to be skeptical, foolhardy and delicious.

There is a huge problem, however, in the modern world. Change is inevitable. The world for the past half million years in which Homo sapiens evolved has changed. That is, the human species has altered the unlimited amount of resources there once was.They have out-grown the physical limits of abundant, affluent life for all. People cling to the myth of affluence for all, but that can only occur in a sustainable world. 

Belief systems change slowly. Once an idea, such as:“Man is meant to be the boss of the earth” emerges, it is almost impossible to stuff such an out-sized, monstrous idea back into Pandora’s box.Today the planet operates on a well-reinforced hierarchy based on the idea that there are exploiters, the controlling humans.Then there are exploit-tees, every other thing there is.

T-Rex is made in the Image of God.

The idea that we too, are animals, thus related and dependent upon our fellow creatures and organisms, feels threatening. This threat is largely unconscious. It is the reason people doubt the theory of evolution whereas they don’t doubt there were dinosaurs. In fact, the very reality that we are here, and dinosaurs are not, suggests to many that we are somehow superior to dinosaurs. But dinosaurs reigned on Earth much more than one million times longer than human beings have done. For that matter, sharks and crocodiles and even bacteria have endured longer, so perhaps these are even more genuine examples of beings who are made in the image of a creator.

Political ideologies are notoriously partisan. It is only when people enlarge their circle to embrace the others with whom inter-dependent life is necessarily shared that the whole can be supported. Until then, scapegoating, blame-making and genocide, not of just people, but of entire eco-systems will continue. When people see they can connect more meaningfully by caring for all manner of resources, both human and non, they will work hard to protect and revere the whole.

Take time to notice whether in-groups, or out-groups, blame the other groups. Do nations blame other nations, faiths blame other faiths? Do men blame women and do liberals blame conservatives and vice -versa? If blame is detected, there is a real chance of some non-objective false beliefs being involved.

The truth is that all need to cooperate with all. Continued belief in absurdities will create atrocities.