Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why We Believe Silly Things

            As you may have gathered by now, I try really hard to do two things; avoiding getting conned into believing silly or untrue things, and attempting to understand why I, or we, do the things we do from a rational, scientific perspective. Now, for most aspects of our behavior, that means looking at the evolutionary factors that may have brought about a certain behavior. There are many people unfamiliar with that perspective that recoil at that approach. There are several misunderstandings that underlie their apprehension, and I will address those in a later post, but for now I am just going to explain where I am coming from so we can move on, hopefully more or less in agreement that we are proceeding by the best means available.

            (Okay, on something completely unrelated- if you are unfamiliar with Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninov, it's worth the time to look up. It's such an exquisite piece, and one of his few where the violin outshines the piano. I would argue it is his second greatest work, behind my all-time favorite piece of music (not by The Frogs) Second Concerto for Two Pianos. Sorry for the digression, it just came up on Pandora, and it is always such a pleasant surprise, even if a touch melodramatic. That's the Ruskis for you.)

            As I have stated before, evolution put us here. Every cell in our body is in place because at some point along the way, it made our ancestors better able to survive and reproduce. This is true for our brains as well. Given our lack of almost any other natural advantage over predator and prey, it is clear that our species thrives because of one organ alone, our brain. Thus, attempts to explain human behavior which do not at least take into account the system that designed our decision-making organ are missing a vital piece. Fortunately, "blank slate" theories are mostly dead, but some of those misperceptions linger. Notice, I do not argue that culture does not have an impact, sometimes a tremendous one, on the way people act and believe, but that the aspects of culture our brains are primed to take up are more readily absorbed when they fit into certain ready-made evolutionary holes. Language is a classic example. The human brain is a language-learning freak, at least at early ages, but genetics in no way determines what languages you will learn. A Caucasian baby born in Africa can pick up Swahili just as easily as a baby of African descent. Neither culture nor genetics are the entire story.

            So the question of this post is; Okay, Rob, if all of these faith-based beliefs are so erroneous, why do they thrive? Why have we evolved in such a way that untruth is easier to accept than truth? What evolutionary purpose does that serve? Today I'm going to look at some of these reasons, and hopefully illuminate some of the ways even the most vigilant skeptic can find them self being duped by illusions that are hard-wired into our brain.

Pattern Recognition

            One thing humans do exceedingly well, far better than any other animal, is recognize patterns. This is the reason that one of the major components of an IQ test is pattern-recognition, because it is a vital distinction between us and other animals. Not that they are incapable of pattern-recognition, some are actually quite adept, such as crows and ravens (who are some of the smartest animals on the planet, by the way), but we are simply at the far end of the spectrum, with quite a gap in between. Human brains are, among other things, finely-tuned pattern-recognition machines. But more importantly, we are, like every other animal over-tuned; in other words, it became so vital to our survival to recognize patterns that we very often "recognize" patterns that aren't really there. To show how innate this is, let's consider our furry friends. Whose cat sprints up the stairs when the vacuum cleaner is turned on? Ours does. Why? It is no threat at all to the animal. But countless generations of her ancestors survived by recognizing the pattern, sometimes false, that loud noise = danger. Their contemporaries who failed to recognize that pattern, yeah, they didn't live very long, probably not long enough to reproduce. Better to be safe than sorry. There is far less harm in falsely identifying a pattern that doesn't exist, than there is in missing a pattern that does.

            Pattern-recognition is such an intrinsic measure of intelligence that one can imagine a Monty Python-esque skit (I feel they did one, but I can't recall... if anyone can remind me I would be forever grateful) where one person comes along, takes a bite of say, a poisoned pie, dies right there, someone else comes along, looks at the body with blueberry stain on his lips, looks at the pie, takes a bite, dies, someone else comes along... you get the idea. The humor here is that we consider this to be the pinnacle of stupidity. "How can they not recognize the pattern?" would be a fair question to ask.

            As we can see, recognizing patterns, X = danger, Y = safety, food, etc., is a built-in feature of most animal brains, especially in mammals and birds. But why are we so much better at it? Like most things that impacted our brain development, this is a result of the genetic and cultural arms-race that is part of living in a group. Humans are social animals, and like other social animals, dogs, primates, elephants, competition for social standing or resources (both increase reproductive chances) within the herd, was often far more important than success outside of the herd. Recognizing that all really big orange and black striped cats are dangerous, in fact, anything bigger than you is probably worth watching out for, is something that is generally within the grasp of the most simple creature. However, recognizing that that male in your pack, with that certain, only slightly distinct pattern of color markings has a habit of taking some of your food, but only when the alpha-male or female isn't around, is much, much more challenging. Over eons, as our social structure became more and more complex, pattern recognition fed into this like a feedback loop; to thrive  in your pack, and increase your chances of surviving and reproducing, you had to be really good at recognizing who could be trusted, who couldn't and who could, but only under certain conditions. In fact, it was often better to be safe than sorry. How many women out there would start dating a guy who they thought, even without proof, had already cheated on a friend of theirs, whom he had previously been with? Not many. Better to hedge your bets. It might not even be true, or she might have strayed first, unbeknownst to you. Doesn't really matter.

            We ultimately became quite adept, which is the reason my three-year old daughter could say to me the other day in the car, "Daddy, I see a hippopotamus!" "Where?" I asked. "In the clouds! He's eating a fishy!" Everyone of us has done this, recognized something that obviously wasn't there, though in examples like these, it is pleasant and fun to make those "mistakes." But this is how evolution's over-tuning of our brain towards pattern recognition makes us very susceptible to believing things that aren't true. This is why people will take a piece of toast that looks like the Virgin to be a sign from God (from Earth-ending floods to making toast... he's getting quite lazy with his miracles these days).

            And this is why people believe that their prayers have been answered when something that has a perfectly natural explanation happens to coincide with what they have been praying for. For example, when I was a child, going into first grade, we moved to the house my parents still live in. The first few weeks were pretty rough, since everyone else in my class had gone to kindergarten together. One day, I was playing in the backyard with my brother and a kid strolled around the side of the house on his way home from school. He said, "Hey, my name is Seth and you're in my class. I saw you playing football. Can I play?" From that point on, we were inseparable until Seth moved away in 5th grade. Awhile after that first encounter, my father pulled me aside and said that he had been praying for me to find a friend since we moved in, and then Seth came along. Even at that age, the questions arose in my head, "Well, why didn't god just send him on the first day, if that's when you started praying? Why did he wait three miserable weeks?" At that age though, you take your parents at their word, and if my father said god sent Seth to me, that is what must have happened. I mentioned it to Seth, and his response was, "Well, no, I walk home that way everyday because my house is past yours, and I love football." From the mouths of babes. The fact is, dozens of kids walked past our house everyday and I simply wasn't going to spend all of elementary school friendless, despite being kind of a dweeb. I am not presuming to say that god definitely did not send Seth into our backyard that day, but when your prayer is for something that is very likely to happen, and then it does, it is easy for our brains to recognize a pattern where one really need not exist.

            This is the same reason why when someone has a statistically anomalous recovery from a severe illness, and they have been prayed for, people jump up and say, "I prayed for my wife to recover and she did! It's a miracle!" Well, no, not necessarily. Your wife just happened to be one of the 2% that sometimes recover. Since about 75% of (American) people profess to some kind of religious belief, let's assume, in desperate times like the severe illness of a loved one, everyone who is only marginally religious is praying. Minus the 25% of us who wouldn't, and the 2% who recover (1.5% who are being prayed for and .5% who are not, statistically) there are still 73.5% of the people affected are being prayed for and still die. The success rate of prayer in this case is about 55 to 1, against. For every 1 prayer-recipient who recovers, 55 die. (Your odds are slightly better if you are not being prayed for, about 49 to 1). But what invariably happens in this case? The family of the 1 person in 55 says, "It was god who brought her back to us," and the other 55 families say, "It must have been her time to be with god." One group sees a pattern that clearly does not exist, a correlation between their mumbling words and silent thoughts, and the fortunate, but statistically possible recovery of their loved one. Their testimonials will influence friends and family, maybe be on the local news, or if they really push it, Oprah. But no one will really stop and think about the other 55 people being put in wooden boxes, for whom god just couldn't be bothered. Why is that? The behavior of the other group is a little more complicated, and we will need to look at other patterns of human behavior to understand it.

            (I made the above numbers up, but they are all within reason. The largest study ever conducted on intercessory prayer though, showed that there was no statistical benefit to being prayed for, exactly as I articulated above. In fact, it turns out that being prayed for results in more complications during recovery, probably because someone who knows they are being prayed for but not recovering at a miraculous rate feel like they are letting the people praying for them down, which can lead towards an anxious, depressed mental state which has been shown time and time again to slow recovery.)

Being Really Bad at Statistics 

             Who hated statistics in college? Most people. In fact, as a mathematical discipline, statistics is relatively young, only a few hundred years old along with calculus, versus arithmetic, algebra and geometry, which are all aged in the thousands of years. This is partially because much of statistics is counter-intuitive, and our brains really just aren't very good at it. The only two words I need to prove this point: The Lottery. However, a great example, with small numbers, is the classic Monty Hall problem, proposed in a letter by Steve Selvin to the journal American Statistician in 1975. 

            The short version is this: You are on the Monty Hall show. There are three doors. Behind the doors, with equal probability, are two goats and a new car. Everyone (besides my friend Brian) would want the car. You pick a door, say door A. After the pick, Monty will show you a goat behind one of the other two doors. He will then ask you if you would like to switch doors to the other remaining door. Most people, an overwhelming majority, say they would stay with their original pick, assuming that with two doors left, they now have a 50/50 chance of winning. Incorrect. Switching actually gives you a 2/3 chance of winning, and staying put gives you a 1/3 chance of winning. I know, weird, huh? It took me a while to really understand this, so if you are still confused, check out the explanation here, after you have given up.

           This is relevant to us because it shows that while human brains are very finely tuned pattern-recognition machines, they are very poorly tuned statistic-recognition machines, which would be the natural counter balance to our over-tuning in the area of pattern-recognition. In fact, it is because we are so good at recognizing patterns that we are so poor at statistics. For example, consider the classic statistical example, being struck by lightning. This is used in our common parlance on a regular basis precisely because everyone recognizes how slim the chances of it actually happening are. However, at the Y I am about to go to for a swim as soon as I hit "publish," there is a sign that says, "If there is lightning storm, the pool must be emptied." This is an indoor pool. Statistically, the odds of anything happening are almost nil. However, the consequences would be so devastating that people play the extremely long odds, just to be safe. 

            Let's go back to the previous examples. In the example of the guy who cheated on his girlfriend, if the guy had been with a dozen women before, and never cheated, but had cheated on this last one, would that fact make it any easier for him to get future potential girlfriends to trust him? Not really. Even though the statistical anomaly of his transgression makes it even more likely he had a reason for it, it doesn't prevent him from being labeled a cad. The same with the prayer example. Although the odds are overwhelmingly against the suggestion that prayer does anything at all, the event that sticks in our mind is the one where the person recovers, not the 55 who don't. Our brains leap at the opportunity to identify patterns, at the expense of ignoring the actual reality that the careful statistical analysis no one has the time or ability for would reveal.

Confirmation Bias

             The last piece of this puzzle (for today) is also a factor in the above examples, confirmation bias. This is the habit that all of our brains have of seeing things in the world in a way that confirms what we already believe. This obviously has an impact in the prayer example given above. For the faithful, when someone who has prayed for the recovery of a loved one sees that person get well, it confirms what they already believed. When their prayers fail, they have a ready-made answer for that too, "God works in mysterious ways" or "It was time for him to take her." Either way, their beliefs are not threatened. In the Monty Hall Problem, it is part of the reason people will generally stick with their original pick, because they have already attached them self to it in a small way, and what would be more frustrating than switching and then finding out your original guess was right?

            Let's take a look at a similar event occurring in different times in different places; ancient China, ancient Greece and the contemporary American south. Let's say there is a flood. During the flood, a family is trapped on their roof surrounded by ever-rising waters. Just before they are swept away, a loose boat passes within reach and they are all saved. What might they say? In China, it might be, "The ancestors saved us." In Greece, "Zeus saved us." In Alabama, "God saved us." There is nothing inherent in a boat passing by that gives any indication that it was sent by any of these entities, but for these people, it confirms what they already believed, given their historical and cultural context.

           What This Means

            When considered together, along with something I mentioned in the previous post, i.e. the tendency of people to believe what people around them believe, even if it doesn't make sense, these factors are some of the reasons that people will cling so tenaciously to beliefs and practices that have been demonstrably shown to be false. It is the reason people will spend good money on bogus "alternative medicines" because their "friend tried it and she got better in a few days," from something she was bound to recover from anyway, even when a study involving thousands of people showed it had absolutely no discernible effect. Because we are so bad at statistics, because it is safer to agree with people around us, because we already have an emotional attachment to the idea of "holistic healing," and because our brain leaps at patterns that aren't there, we throw good money away on prettily packaged garbage. But since it is relatively harmless, we have no good incentive not to believe. And of course, the placebo effect is in full-force here, even if there is no real medical effect.

             I read a sad testimonial from a couple who were both scientists and who had a son born with autism. Despite all of their scientific training, despite their intellectual understanding that there is no easy cure for autism, as study after study has shown, they essentially bankrupted themselves by throwing away tens of thousands of dollars on bogus cures, because they had "seemed" to help one kid out of 1,500. They even knew they were being foolish, but their overwhelming desire to believe that their son could get better caused them to throw away time and money that could better have been put towards the excruciatingly slow process of actually helping him get better.

            Evolution did not make us finely-tuned truth-discovering machines. It made us very finely-tuned surviving and reproducing machines, because that is what it does. That is all it does. Discovering truth is hard, hard work. It is a life's work. And I can't promise you what religions have promised for millenia; here is Truth in a neat little package, read it, I'll see you on Sunday (Friday, Saturday, whatever). Because it isn't that easy. We aren't designed for it to be easy. Seeking out truth, the little bits we are actually capable of putting our fingers on, actually goes against most of what we were designed to do.

            But that doesn't mean it is impossible. We just have to make up our minds to actually do it, and never falter in our vigilance of recognizing when we are being deceived by our very own brains.


  1. I agree with you and enjoyed another fine blog entry, and would like to add a few comments:

    I think hope plays a major role in our decisions. Our paths are based on desired outcomes, and "hope" has greater weight than statistical probability and truth combined.

    I would think that hope became important sometime during the rise of comlex societies. I can only imagine what our ancestors went through, the oppression they were under(not that it isn't going on today) We see what happens when people become hopeless: depression, suicide, murdering sprees. If you had hope, you had reason to live, and a higher probability that you would reproduce.

    I understand we have instinctive behavior that drive us to do things. We have physical traits today because of the evolutionary benefits. And I believe religion has evolved to take advantage of this hope that we possess. If religion was still just used as an explanation of the universe, we would of abandoned it long ago, at least at the discovery of science.

    That is what I came up when I asked myself WTF is hope. And why have hope at all. Shouldn't our lives be driven by facts, statistics, and simple reasoning? We evolved into emotional humans for some reason, we ain't Vulcans.

    I guess I got off topic, but this is what I thought of when I read your blog. I know trying to explain the evolution of the way are brain works is a complex issue. Thanks!


  2. No, you're right. Hope is a powerful thing, but our relation with it is complex. I think we are evolutionarily programmed to have hope, but not programmed to really act on what it would take to have what we hope for.

    A perfect example is the way American's vote on economic issues. We allow the top 1% to get away with economic murder, and for many people it is partially based on the hope that they will someday be in that elite, even though the reality is, they never will.