Beliefs that Make You Feel Good Make You Look Good Too—But You’re a Total Asshole if You Let That Influence You

Imagine you are among a group of around thirty people on an island and over the past few weeks you’ve learned of the presence of another group living on the same island, one which has been showing signs of hostility toward your own group. Because of your wisdom, your group has appointed you the task of convening a selective gathering to devise a strategy for dealing with the looming threat. Among your group there happen to be several people with military training as well as some with experience in diplomacy. There are also individuals claiming psychic powers and religious authority. You understand that the composition of the gathering will be among the most important factors determining the consensus strategy it will arrive at. Who do you invite to participate? Who do you exclude?

(Full disclosure: the first strategy that occurs to me is to find a way to get the rival group’s attention and then execute the psychics and religious authorities for them to witness, letting them know afterward this treatment is what they can expect from us should they decide to continue their hostility.)

Beliefs have consequences. A psychic in our hypothetical group may be convinced that he’s seen the future and in it the home group stands victorious, having suffered no casualties, over the rival group. This vision allows an otherwise outvoted military aggressor to persuade everyone else a violent raid is the best course of action. A religious leader may feel it incumbent on her to serve as a missionary to the savages. This may lead to an attempt at diplomacy which backfires by offending the rival group’s own religious sensibilities. The fate of the home group is at stake. Whose opinions do you seek?

This imaginary scenario is meant to illustrate the point that an individual’s beliefs inevitably contribute to the culture and ultimately influence the fate of societies. While it is true that the larger the society the smaller the impact of any one person’s ideas, it is likewise the case that through a mechanism called social proof the stated ideas of individuals have multiplier effects far beyond what any one person believes. Social norms are a major determiner of what people accept as true. And many people may not question pieces of conventional wisdom simply because it has never occurred to them to do so—at least not until they encounter someone who espouses wisdom of an unconventional strain.

This point may seem obvious enough, and yet it represents a major departure from the dominant approach to considering beliefs in American culture. When confronted with a new idea Americans automatically and unconsciously apply a rigid formula to assessing its merits: they ask, first, how would believing this idea make me feel, and, second, how would believing this idea make me look to others? The order of these questions may be reversed, but no other questions ever enter the equation. The foundation of our culture is an ethic of consumerism, and so people decide what to believe exactly the same way they decide what music they want to claim as their favorite, and the same way they decide what type of t-shirt they’ll wear to advertise their personal style.

Savvy marketers, public relations experts, and profiteering charlatan shitbags are well aware of the extent to which consumerism determines our beliefs and behaviors. There’s no shortage of people in this country who will have nothing to do with politics because the topic is just not sexy at all; they know politicians are considered dishonest, petty, and even corrupt. Who would want to associate themselves with that? This general distaste for government and its policy disputes derives much of its fuel from each party’s attempts to brand the other in as off-putting a way as possible. I haven’t seen a survey that establishes the link, but I’d wager where people fall on the political spectrum is largely determined by whether they'd find it less acceptable to be thought of as naïve and effete or to be thought of as callous and lacking in compassion.

I try, as much as possible, to adhere to the Enlightenment values of devotion to science and championing of universal human rights. When people of the consumerist mindset discuss their beliefs with me, they are often baffled as to why I would insist on scientific skepticism with regard to supernatural ideas and pop culture myths. Science is so dry and mechanical. So, when I tell people what I believe, I usually get one of three responses: the first is to assume that my knowledge about research on some issue must be completely independent of my beliefs, because beliefs are personal and science is not. “Okay, you’ve told me what you know about the results of some experiments. But what do you really believe?”

The second response, equally in keeping with the consumerist ethic, is to assume that anyone so devoted to science must be a dry and mechanical person, the type who is incapable of tapping into his intuition, who insists on cold hard facts and bloodless statistics. After all, the reasoning goes, this guy chose his beliefs based on how he wanted to represent himself, so if he’s spouting off stats and experimental results he must have a pretty limited and robotic personality. It should go without saying—but unfortunately it doesn’t—that this reasoning is based on a gross misunderstanding of science and statistics alike. But the other mistake implicit in this response is that people can only decide what to believe according to how they want to represent themselves to others.

And yet it’s the third response that’s the most troubling. When you listen to someone’s beliefs about, say, supply-side economics, or religion, or alternative medicine and then start going into detail about why those beliefs are almost certainly wrong, many people will immediately conclude that there’s an ulterior motive behind your scientific skepticism. Because you have such a strong tendency to reject other people’s beliefs, they reason, you must simply be the type of person who enjoys making other people feel and look stupid. It’s not enough to wear your own favorite brand of t-shirt; you have to ridicule other people’s fashion sense. People who respond this way—you know who you are—can be counted on to violently assert themselves when you challenge them. They take your arguments very personally.

The true reason I’m devoted to science, though, is that I take responsibility for the consequences of my beliefs. What you believe has a direct impact on the culture around you, and an indirect impact on the course of society at large. If you like the fit of supply-economics, if you explain to anyone who’ll listen how wealth at the top trickles down, and if you vote for conservative politicians, then you’re responsible for the results, positive or negative, of the implementation of those policies. In point of fact, the most reliable outcome of these policies is greater income inequality, which is associated with a host of societal ills from increased violent crime to higher infant mortality. I would argue that those signing on to the conservative agenda after these facts were established are complicit in the perpetuation of these social problems.

The position you take on any issue with broader social implications inevitably becomes more than a personal choice. And it’s more difficult than you may assume to come up with issues that don’t have broader social implications. Where, for instance, was your t-shirt made? What were the conditions the people who made it were working under? What effects did its manufacture have on the surrounding ecosystems? The plain fact is that any pure application of the consumerist ethic, whether to your choice of clothing or to what religion or political party you support, is profoundly irresponsible.

In my first novel, which I just recently completed, the characters address issues concerning recovered memories of child abuse. This is a topic I began researching as an undergrad studying psychology. It turns out the best research rules out the theory of repressed trauma with a high degree of certainty. Now, it shouldn’t require any great deal of trust on your part to believe I have no desire to associate myself in any way with the issue of child abuse, especially in any way that entails a risk of being perceived as wanting to defend or advocate it. But there are men in prison today convicted solely on the basis of evidence from recovered memories. If I simply towed the conventional line and neglected to thoroughly research the issue, or worse, if I ignored the products of that research, I would be complicit in the imprisonment of innocent men. This complicity extends to the seemingly innocent act of remaining silent when others around me are expressing views I know to be in error.

The tendency to rely on pure consumerism to assess ideas and to fail to take responsibility for their consequences is a trap all too easy to fall into. I can almost guarantee the shirt on your back right now was made in a third world country under conditions you’d literally kill to keep your own children safe from. But most Americans are blithely ignorant of this. And I can attest it is exceedingly difficult and prohibitively expensive to limit your purchases to products made under more humane conditions. Manufacturers depend on American consumers being ignorant and irresponsible. And yet, under some circumstances, people’s reasoning becomes eminently more practical. When your child gets sick, the sexiness of holistic medicine doesn’t lure you away from doctors trained in scientific medicine—though you may backslide if that first visit fails to cure them.

But how, you may ask, do you express your individuality if you are so committed to science? Alternatively, how can others assess your personality through your beliefs if they’re all based on some scientist’s research? Well, even if research were to prove somehow that it’s better to be extroverted than introverted, people have little control over such things. So it is with most personality traits. Science may also offer some hints about characteristics I ought to look for in a romantic partner, but ultimately which woman I pair up with will be determined by factors beyond the scope of any research project. Not every personal decision you make has wider societal consequences. Anyway, there’s plenty of room for individuality even for those of us thoroughly committed to taking responsibility for our actions and beliefs.