you're reading...
human nature, Religion, science

News Flash: Believers are Gullible

Whatever else you think about charismatic preachers, they have a dramatic power over their audience. While their followers believe them to have special powers, a new brain imaging study by Uffe Schjødt at Aarhus University in Denmark suggests that it’s all just a product of their imagination.

LINK TO FULL ARTICLE

LINK TO ABSTRACT

Did you read my article a couple of weeks ago about demons?  Here’s the synopsis.  When I was a believer, I had some very traumatic and very real experiences with demons.  Of course, I know now that demons don’t exist, but at the time, their presence was palpable, their powers real.  I could literally feel them probing my mind, looking for weaknesses.  It was very real, and very very scary.

Scientists are beginning to figure out how my mind bent so easily to such silliness.   In a fascinating experiment, it was discovered that pentecostal believers’ perceptions of reality changed significantly when they were told they were listening to a preacher known for his healing powers.

The thing is, it was not true.  In reality, they were listening to the same prayers being read by ordinary Christians with no super powers.   However, they were told that some of the readers had magic powers, some were ordinary Christians, and some were non-believers.

When asked, the pentecostalists rated the one they were told was a healer as the most charismatic, and the person they thought was non-religious as much less charismatic (see the graph). For the non-believers, there was a slight trend in the same direction, but it was small and insignificant. Basically, they weren’t taken in by the deception.

But the pentecostalists were. Just telling a pentecostalists that someone has healing powers makes them think that they are highly charismatic. What’s more, they didn’t feel God’s presence in the prayers read by the person they were told was a non-Christian.

Did you catch the significance of that?  A simple meme triggered a total change in the perception of reality! And why?  Simply put, the part of their brain responsible for ‘executive function’ — that is, rational thought — shut down.  This is powerful empirical evidence that the power of religion is not simply the power of group dynamics or cultural conformity.  It is also the power of specific memes to change the way followers think.

To be fair, I’m not just talking about religion here.  The same kind of thing happens to patients undergoing hypnosis, as well as stage hypnosis.  More disturbingly, it’s what happened during the Milgram experiments as well.  I say this to head off any criticism that I’m singling religion out as a unique causal bug-a-boo.  Clearly, that’s not the case.  But religious belief is the major driving force in the worldview of millions of Americans.  This experiment shows just how dangerous and powerful the memes themselves are.  When a group of people believes in magic, just telling them that Joe Schmoe can perform magic is enough to sway the group’s opinions to those of Joe Schmoe.  (It’s no mystery that people’s opinions are easily swayed by those they perceive as charismatic.  It’s been proven over and over.)

It is important that we atheists not get a big head about this, though.  Non-believers apparently have the same kind of susceptibility, as evidenced by hypnotherapy, experiments in authority, and the numerous non-Christians who happen to believe in things like homeopathy, alien abductions, and vast worldwide conspiracies.  However, I think it’s also worth noting that homeopathy, alien abduction, and conspiracy belief all put together don’t equal a tenth of the group credulity exhibited by the religious.  That’s not a small point.

People who are skeptical by nature are almost by definition not prone to trusting what they are told.  This is the nature of skepticism, and skepticism is the gateway to atheism.  It seems that since there is so much compelling (and now empirically verified) evidence that non-skepticism leads to greatly enhanced displays of group-think and herd mentality, we have almost a prima facie case for asserting that regardless of anything else, it’s better for everybody when everybody is skeptical.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that the atheists in the study were not swayed by the information they were given.  This is also powerful stuff.  This study demonstrated rather clearly that being a non-believer is proof against being taken in by religious propaganda.  We can extend that thinking easily and say that people who are committed to the scientific method — which is skeptical by nature — will tend to be relatively immune to any propaganda they are fed.  Not totally immune, of course.  We’re all gullible in some ways, and we all have our pet theories which appeal to us strongly.  However, this is damning evidence against the moral permissibility of peddling religion.  Giving 80% of the population a meme which can be used to collectively turn their brains off?

Seems like a bad thing to me.

Advertisements

Discussion

20 thoughts on “News Flash: Believers are Gullible

  1. It is important that we atheists not get a big head about this, though. Non-believers apparently have the same kind of susceptibility, as evidenced by hypnotherapy, experiments in authority, and the numerous non-Christians who happen to believe in things like homeopathy, alien abductions, and vast worldwide conspiracies. However, I think it’s also worth noting that homeopathy, alien abduction, and conspiracy belief all put together don’t equal a tenth of the group credulity exhibited by the religious. That’s not a small point.

    I think an even bigger point is this: No one promotes gullibility as a virtue, says gullibility is a good thing, believes gullibility is necessary for living a good life, and asks others to open their hearts to gullibility. Rather, the gullible deny that they are gullible. In fact, even the most gullible people in the world think gullibility is a vice, since they accuse those who disagree with them of being gullible: Anti-vaccine nutters and homeopathy fans are always telling people they’re gullible for buying into the lies of “Big Pharma,” Troofers accuse everyone but their fellow travelers of being gullible, etc. And this is no surprise: “The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to critical thinking in general as well as more specific areas of (in)competence. The less competent people are, the less competent they are to recognize their own incompetence.

    In contrast to gullibility, faith is not considered a bad thing. Rather, believers are absolutely convinced that faith is a virtue. Insert “faith” for “gullibility” in my second sentence, and the point inverts: It’s not “no one,” but millions upon millions of people who promote faith as a virtue, say faith is a good thing, believe faith is necessary for living a good life, and ask others to open their hearts to faith.

    But faith is and has always been nothing more than voluntary* gullibility. I didn’t need a brain imaging study to tell me that. Neither did you: As soon as you stopped being a sucker, you saw what a sucker you’d been. (In fact, the almost-insuperable psychological barrier of having to admit one has been such a huge sucker for so long is probably one of the strongest factors that reinforces belief systems grounded in faith/gullibility.)

    *I say “voluntary” only in the somewhat attenuated sense that faith behavior – choosing to embrace and affirm as true claims which are wildly implausible and entirely unsupported – is a deliberate act of will. But, of course, there is enormous sociocultural pressure for those raised in believing households to perform that act of will, and to see it as both a normal and good thing to do. Which is exactly the problem I’m talking about.

    Posted by G Felis | April 25, 2010, 5:04 pm
  2. Actually Hamby,you are giving a rather extreme misreading of this study and this is a perfect illustration as to why I think your approach is dead wrong and will actually harm more than help.

    First and foremost I want to knip this in the butt before it manifests by either you or Kevin:

    I AM NOT SAYING THAT WE SHOULDN’T ENCOURAGE CRITICAL THINKING AND SKEPTISIM, OR THAT BY DOING SO WILL HAVE NO EFFECT ON PEOPLE.

    Now that’s out of the way

    Let’s get to why I think you’re wrong and then how I think you’re doing more harm than good. I can even do this with minimal appeal to group dynamics.

    Due to your recent comment on the RRS thread, I re-vamped this and shortened it a little to take out the apparent misrepresentation of your view.

    From that post:

    We can extrapolate, then, that anyone who does not believe in magic is immune from a whole class of propaganda. Sure, they’re just as susceptible to other kinds of propaganda, but when you take the class {Religious Propaganda} out of the list of things people believe that are false, you’ve eliminated a LOT of bad things.

    You wonder why I emphasis that religion isn’t the only way to do bad things? Or that I emphasis that the bad things in religion could easily come from a secular ideology?

    This is why. Just because atheists and skeptics are immune to religious arguments doesn’t mean that they are less likely to do bad things seeing as I can easily form a political view with lots of nasty things in it.

    That’s the whole point isn’t it? It do LESS bad things?

    (It could be that skeptics really aren’t more skeptical about the world than non-skeptics, but I’ve not seen the proof of that.)

    So I’m not saying “Skeptics are less susceptible to the hypnotic effect of trust.” I’m saying skeptics are less likely to have a worldview which encourages blind trust, and will trust less easily. That much seems to be almost tautological.

    So what if I do an experiment with dyed in the wool skeptics, and try to manipulate them to hold a particularly wrong worldview that encourages trust? [There are several ways to do this BTW]

    Now I can hear you saying:

    “But Alison, if they fell for this like the faith based person, they weren’t really being skeptical now were they?”

    I would retort by the fact that is circular logic.

    The entire point of the hypothetical study above was to determine whether they are more or less likely to fall for it in the first place! [Oh and BTW I can dig up similar studies for you if you want.]

    If you say that they’re less likely to fall for it and you then use the findings that that they were as likely to fall for it to “prove” they weren’t really skeptics that wouldn’t work would it?

    In other words, you seem to set yourself to unfalsifiablity. That is if skeptics DO do things you associate with non-skeptics you will dismiss them as non-skeptics for the simple fact you don’t think skeptics would fall for it when in reality that is the very question!

    But there is one thing you’re right about in your critisism of me Hamby: You are absoultly right that their are more powerful mechanism out there than group dynamics.

    One of these are called “Rationalization”

    Have you ever argued with 9/11 conspiracy theorists? I have and guess what? They think I’M the idiot for not apply critical thinking to the “official story”

    YECs think I’M the idiot for not seeing the design of Jebus in human cells.

    They think THEY are the hardened skeptic that is evaluating evidence objectively while I’m a cutsey little Canadian brat that is ignoring evidence because I don’t want to admit the American government killed 3000 of it’s own people or that Jebus designed me to be 5’3.

    Now you may say “But they aren’t REALLY applying critical thinking!” You’d be right they aren’t. But see above.

    How many people go on and say

    “Hi, I’m a complete moron who will accept whatever woo you throw my way.”

    I mentioned I think your views will do more harm than good. This is why.

    Let’s say I am a representive from a pharmacetical company.

    I want the doctor to prescribe my company’s medication more than the competitions medication. Even if the patient doesn’t need it.

    Now I have some hurdles. Group dynamics won’t work, seeing as giving in to pharmacetical companies is looked down upon. [If I give the doctor a free trip to Hawaii it’s going to turn some heads and none of them will be favourable to me]

    I want to basically corrupt him. I want to make him dishonest. How do I do this?

    Simple.

    I make him think that I can’t corrupt them. That I can’t make him dishonest.

    Or at least make them think that they are hard to corrupt or hard to make dishonest.

    But studies have shown that this makes it easier.

    If the doctor thinks that they’re a hardened skeptic and less likely to be corrupt or dishonest than Joe the baker, they’re wrong and not only that, are more likely than Joe the baker to be dishonest.

    I would like to note that rationialization is a unconcious process. It happens all the time and we’re not aware of it.

    We go to Hooters for the chicken wings, not because of the 18 year old teens in short shorts.

    I bought that Lemon because it’s a fixer upper, not because the salesman was charasmatic and tricked me.

    ad infinitium

    In my other topic, you asked me what entry you would write to the atheist activists to make me happy. What you would have to write to get my approval and thinking that you’re doing more good than harm.

    Well, it’s the opposite of what you’re doing. That skeptics are as likely to fall for bad things as those that don’t if the manipulators know what they’re doing.

    Being a skeptic means knowing your limitations.

    The whole reason I constantly post here and on the RRS, it’s the reason I constantly read peer reviewed papers and books on psychology it’s because I know that I can fall for rationalisation even though I pride myself for my science degree and my knowledge of the scientific method.

    I know if I post here and on RRS, it won’t be long before people point out that I’m being an idiot[ though maybe not so much].

    Or if I read a book or paper that goes against my view with good arguments I’ll point out to myself I’m an idiot.

    You on the other hand, at least from my perspective don’t seem to acknowledge this VERY important distinction. You have part of the puzzle [that we should to skeptical] but are using that to say the puzzle is of the sky when it’s really a house with the sky above it.

    You would say “If a skeptic doesn’t apply his critical thinking to an idea they’re not really a skeptic now are they?”

    In other words I think your argument goes like this:

    “That person wouldn’t have held that irrational view if they didn’t hold that irrational view. That is if they held an irrational view it’s because they held an irrational view and wouldn’t have held an irrational view if they held a rational view.”

    This may or not be how you view your position [I highly doubt it is]

    I don’t think this answers anything and you’re just chasing your tail with this line of thinking.

    Posted by Cpt_pineapple | April 25, 2010, 6:46 pm
  3. Something that I left out of my response that just popped into my head.

    Google the average education of Terrorists.

    You’d be surprised to find out they’re more educated than the average population.

    I’m not talking about degrees in religious studies, or underwater basket weaving, I’m talking about engineering or Medical school.

    Posted by Cpt_pineapple | April 25, 2010, 6:54 pm
  4. Hola. Me interesa mucho este artículo y muchos otros hay en este blog, pero al traducir la página al español, no queda muy bien.
    Hay alguna forma de conseguir una traducción más fiel? Quiza alguien me pueda sugerir algo.
    Gracias!

    Posted by Melina | April 25, 2010, 6:55 pm
  5. Alison, do you think if you use more words, what you’re saying will make more sense or be more persuasive? I regret to inform you that this is not the case.

    Also, everything you tried to say in your post seems to boil down to acknowledging that the Dunning-Kruger effect (which I cited above) exists. Or at least, that’s what you seem to be saying as far as I can sort through your excess verbiage to figure out what you’re getting at. Nothing about the existence of Dunning-Kruger effect makes anything about Hambydammit’s interpretation of this study less true or relevant.

    The point – Hambydammit’s point and my own expansion on it – isn’t that religious people in specific are gullible, or that non-religious people are less gullible than religious people – an interpretation which Hambydammit takes pains to directly refute multiple times, but which you still seem to stubbornly attribute to him. The point is that religion is a sociocultural structure that directly encourages gullibility. It valorizes gullibility. It turns gullibility into a virtue. As I pointed out, while the gullible are by nature unaware of their gullibility, merely being gullible (which, if not precisely a universal part of the human condition, is certainly a very widespread human trait) is not as pernicious as willfully embracing and promoting gullibility by changing the label on it to read “faith.”

    Posted by G Felis | April 25, 2010, 7:20 pm
  6. G Felis, I’m not arguing with Hamby as to whether or not Religion promotes faith based thinking. I’m not arguing whether Religion takes advantage of and promotes gullibility.

    I know Hamby’s position and have repeated it repeatitly.

    For the record, I didn’t read your post before I posted mine.

    I’m starting to wonder if anybody even understands my points.

    I have no idea if it’s my writing style [which as you pointed out needs improvement] or something else.

    Seeing as Hamby seems to scurry away whenever I ask him what my argument is I might as well ask you:

    What do you think I was trying to say?

    Hint: The Dunning-Kruger effect was only part of it, not all of it.

    The reason I ask is because of the constant accusation of me not understanding Hamby’s point, I want to make sure that he [and since you jumped in, you] understands mine.

    Oh and BTW did you know that Wikipedia doesn’t have an encyclopedia article for gullibility ?

    Posted by Cpt_pineapple | April 25, 2010, 10:08 pm
  7. “Oh and BTW did you know that Wikipedia doesn’t have an encyclopedia article for gullibility ?”

    Cute! But I ain’t gonna be the one that checks…..

    Posted by LetUsRatiocinate | April 25, 2010, 10:59 pm
  8. I know Hamby’s position and have repeated it repeatitly.

    We could get really stupid here. Do you really know my position, or is it possible that you are suffering from incompetence and overly certain of your own position? Are you incapable of seeing your own cognitive disability?

    Or am I incompetent? Am I just sticking to my guns for no good reason, rationalizing my position to myself? Are you the lone voice of reason in the desert, pleading with all the incompetent people to please see the error of their ways?

    What about G Felis? Is his PhD dissertation on the evolution of morality worthless because he’s too incompetent to sort out basic fallacies and see that there’s no such thing as a “true skeptic”?

    I’m starting to wonder if anybody even understands my points.

    I’m being totally serious: I wonder if you understand your own points.

    What do you think I was trying to say?

    Hint: The Dunning-Kruger effect was only part of it, not all of it.

    I’m somewhat baffled, but the best I can make of it is something like this:

    Everyone, religious and atheist, is subject to cognitive bias, and there’s no such thing as a true skeptic because everyone rationalizes their own position as superior without noticing that everybody does bad shit regardless of their religious views.

    Or something like that.

    Posted by hambydammit | April 26, 2010, 10:27 am
  9. Alison, have you ever participated in a scientific study? That’s not an accusation. I’m guessing you’ve taken research methods, at least. I think it would be a worthwhile exercise for you to write an abstract of your hypothesis, adhering to strict publishing standards. In other words, state what existing data led you to your hypothesis, then state your hypothesis as a prediction of data you will examine, and if applicable, state how your data will be gathered.

    You’ve read enough to know you have to be brief and concise.

    Posted by hambydammit | April 26, 2010, 10:34 am
  10. We could get really stupid here. Do you really know my position, or is it possible that you are suffering from incompetence and overly certain of your own position? Are you incapable of seeing your own cognitive disability?

    Or am I incompetent? Am I just sticking to my guns for no good reason, rationalizing my position to myself? Are you the lone voice of reason in the desert, pleading with all the incompetent people to please see the error of their ways?

    What about G Felis? Is his PhD dissertation on the evolution of morality worthless because he’s too incompetent to sort out basic fallacies and see that there’s no such thing as a “true skeptic”?

    Are those serious questions or are you getting snarky?

    For one thing I never said there wasn’t a thing called a true skeptic. I never said that we can’t overcome our irrationality.

    In fact, I clearly put in my first post ways to actually improve. To get over our inherit irrationality. I purposly put it there to quell the strawman that we can’t over come our gullible nature. Apparently it didn’t work.

    Both you and GFelis seemed to have missed that.

    I’m not saying you purposely missed it, it’s just that I thought I made myself painstakingly clear, but apparently not.

    My point is that simply spread the meme to critically evaluate things is not enough.

    You have to get over hurdles and in order to do so you have to understand the hurdles.

    I mean case in point: William Lane Craig has a PhD in philosophy.

    William Dembski has a PhD in philosophy AND mathematics.

    Ken Miller has a PhD in cell biology, and if you’ve read his books he’s not an idiot and is clearly a brillant intelectual.

    So I don’t think you can point to there lack of critical thinking skills as a cause of their religious convictions.

    My point actually isn’t that people are stupid morons. It’s not that they are incompetent and will swallow any woo and nonsense chucked their way.

    Alison, have you ever participated in a scientific study? That’s not an accusation. I’m guessing you’ve taken research methods, at least. I think it would be a worthwhile exercise for you to write an abstract of your hypothesis, adhering to strict publishing standards. In other words, state what existing data led you to your hypothesis, then state your hypothesis as a prediction of data you will examine, and if applicable, state how your data will be gathered.

    You’ve read enough to know you have to be brief and concise.

    I’ll do it on RRS soon.

    But tell you what you do the same [either here or RRS] k?

    Posted by Cpt_pineapple | April 26, 2010, 2:20 pm
  11. I’ll do it on RRS soon.

    But tell you what you do the same [either here or RRS] k?

    Well… mine’s pretty damn simple.

    Humans’ worldviews are fundamental in shaping how they evaluate claims about the nature of reality. There are two dichotomous worldviews, Faith based, and reason based, which are defined thusly: Reason based (RB) people believe that anything that is true conforms to standards of logic, evidence, and empiricism. Faith based (FB) people believe that some things are real and true despite opposition to standards of logic, evidence, and empiricism. It is predicted that in empirical settings, RBs will be better than FBs at evaluating the objective qualities of reality as they apply to FB’s beliefs which are arrived at through faith based reasoning.

    Do you need a study to prove that people who believe delusions are not as good at evaluating the reality of their delusions than people who don’t believe delusions?

    Do you need a study to prove that decision making based on delusion is less reliable than decision making based on reality?

    Do you need a study to prove that people free from (X delusional belief) are better equipped and more likely to reach reliable conclusions which are contingent on properties of (X delusional belief)?

    Ok… so… time for the earth-shattering idea: Perhaps if we market RB effectively, some people will like the idea, and will become less delusional, and consequently make better decisions regarding their former delusional beliefs.

    Shocking, eh?

    Posted by hambydammit | April 26, 2010, 2:41 pm
  12. …And, once again, Alison vehemently rejects anything that might harm the sacred cow.

    Gee golly, am I ever surprised.

    >.<

    …Speaking of that symbol, did you hear abour Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone recently, Alison? Apparently the Muslim extremists now want them dead for daring to call a man in a bear suit 'Mohammed' in their cartoon. Isn't that special?

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | April 26, 2010, 6:38 pm
  13. Well… mine’s pretty damn simple.

    Humans’ worldviews are fundamental in shaping how they evaluate claims about the nature of reality. There are two dichotomous worldviews, Faith based, and reason based, which are defined thusly: Reason based (RB) people believe that anything that is true conforms to standards of logic, evidence, and empiricism. Faith based (FB) people believe that some things are real and true despite opposition to standards of logic, evidence, and empiricism. It is predicted that in empirical settings, RBs will be better than FBs at evaluating the objective qualities of reality as they apply to FB’s beliefs which are arrived at through faith based reasoning.

    Do you need a study to prove that people who believe delusions are not as good at evaluating the reality of their delusions than people who don’t believe delusions?

    Do you need a study to prove that decision making based on delusion is less reliable than decision making based on reality?

    Do you need a study to prove that people free from (X delusional belief) are better equipped and more likely to reach reliable conclusions which are contingent on properties of (X delusional belief)?

    Ok… so… time for the earth-shattering idea: Perhaps if we market RB effectively, some people will like the idea, and will become less delusional, and consequently make better decisions regarding their former delusional beliefs.

    Shocking, eh?

    Hamby, I’m currently compiling the required studies for my topic [I have to first remember where I found them, and as I look for them I am coming across new ones that I need to read]

    Plus I gotta look for more studies by Atran in order to adequately piss off Kevin.

    But anyway, I would just like say, as I have many times before, that I agree with you more than you think.

    I’m not saying, nor have I ever said, that faith based reasoning is better than reason based reasoning, or that it doesn’t have a negative effect.

    Posted by Cpt_pineapple | April 26, 2010, 6:51 pm
  14. I’m not saying, nor have I ever said, that faith based reasoning is better than reason based reasoning, or that it doesn’t have a negative effect.

    You do seem to be saying that advocating and marketing a reason based worldview is counterproductive to having a higher percentage of people who believe a reason based worldview. That seems… counter-intuitive.

    Posted by hambydammit | April 26, 2010, 7:06 pm
  15. You do seem to be saying that advocating and marketing a reason based worldview is counterproductive to having a higher percentage of people who believe a reason based worldview. That seems… counter-intuitive.

    No, my main point is to market it effectively.

    http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/20298

    Posted by Cpt_pineapple | April 28, 2010, 4:38 pm
  16. I read it. Couldn’t find a thesis statement. Do you know how to write a thesis statement? Again, I’m not being snarky. You may never have done this before, and that’s ok. I’m trying to help you explain what you are thinking, because it’s not coming through in your writing.

    All I could tell from that lengthy and convoluted mess was “I think you ought to market memes effectively, because if you don’t, it won’t work as well as if you do.”

    If that’s your whole thesis, then… um… don’t try to sell it to your dissertation advisor. That’s tautology, and hardly needs to be proven. If you’re trying to say that a particular meme is ineffective, then you need to do it like this:

    {X Meme} is being propagated through the atheist community(1). {X Meme} is believed to facilitate {X Change} in meme recipients(2). However, current evidence(3) suggests that it is ineffectual, or actually produces {Y Change} in meme recipients. Current research(4) suggests that {M Meme} would be more effective at producing {X Change}.

    Posted by hambydammit | April 28, 2010, 5:24 pm
  17. Hamby I put the memes I wanted to address in that format on the RRS thread.

    Posted by Cpt_pineapple | April 28, 2010, 10:11 pm
  18. Alison, please try to put what you mean into a coherent and concise statement. Answer these questions with single sentences, please:

    1. What is the meme you think I am propagating that is LEAST EFFECTIVE in accomplishing the goal of increasing overall RB thinking in the American population?

    2. What is the meme you think would be MOST or MORE EFFECTIVE in accomplishing the goal of increasing overall RB thinking in the American population?

    Posted by hambydammit | April 29, 2010, 11:57 am
  19. Loving the thread

    Posted by PaigeB | April 29, 2010, 6:56 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Denial « Life Without a Net - May 18, 2010

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Me On Twitter!

%d bloggers like this: