This is a sample chapter from my book Stop Chasing Carrots. Because of recent political developments, I wanted to make this chapter available to everyone for free.
“I like the scientific spirit – the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine – it always keeps the way beyond open – always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake – after a wrong guess.”
For more than 2,000 years, doctors believed that many illnesses are the result of excess blood in the body. As a treatment, these doctors cut open their patients’ veins and let the blood run out. The procedure was repeated for months. When a patient had so little blood left that it was no longer coming out on its own, the doctors put a tube with heated air over the wound. The air cooled, created a vacuum, and pulled out even more blood. Then they put leeches on the patient’s veins to suck out the last drops of blood left in the body. Unsurprisingly, bloodletting, as the procedure was called, didn’t improve the patients’ chances of healing. In fact, many patients died. Doctors, who often performed hundreds of bloodlettings, knew this. Yet they kept using the method until the 19th century. It wasn’t until we discovered new, better methods that we discarded this old, obviously wrong theory.
Did we learn from our mistake? No. In the 20th century, lobotomies became common practice. In an attempt to cure mental illnesses, psychiatrists destroyed a part of their patients’ brains with an ice pick. While the treatment left patients incapacitated for life or killed them, it wasn’t until the late 1950s when new treatments became available and the use of lobotomies started to decline. These examples show an ever recurring error of human thinking: we don’t discard an idea when it’s proven wrong, we only discard an idea when there’s a better alternative available.
Sometimes, we even believe in wrong ideas if there’s a better theory available. Many people still try to lose weight by avoiding fat, sugar, gluten, or salt, even though we know with absolute certainty that weight loss is a matter of burning more calories than we consume. We often believe in ideas that clearly don’t work, even though there are better alternatives available. These theories inevitably set us up for failure and shame and create false replacements. Masked as political ideologies, such ideas have killed millions of people.
If these lies have such negative consequences, then why do we believe in them so desperately? And how can we avoid this process? Now that we have eliminated the most notorious self-help myths, how can we avoid falling for similarly destructive ideas again?
Why do we believe in something?
To understand why we believe in lies so willingly, let’s go back to our first example of bloodletting. Imagine you’re sick. The doctor tells you that there’s nothing he can do for you. How do you feel? Powerless? Uncertain? Insignificant? Scared? However you would describe it, you would probably feel pretty bad. What if another doctor would offer you an unproven treatment that, as he claims, might help you? If you’re like most of us, this glimpse of hope would make you feel less powerless, less uncertain, and less bad. That’s why most of us would accept it. We don’t do what’s best for us, we do what helps us feel best. That’s a huge difference, and that’s why bloodletting and lobotomy were accepted treatments: they helped us satisfy our essential needs:
- Certainty („This will help“),
- Possibility („Things will be better soon“),
- Significance (“You made the right decision by choosing me”), and
- Love (“You’re so smart that you came to me”).
When doctors admit that they can’t help us, they don’t satisfy any of these needs.
That’s why we don’t only need a better theory available to discard a wrong theory, we need a better theory that’s able to satisfy our basic needs. Intuitively, we’d rather have a wrong answer than no answer at all or an answer that doesn’t feel as good – we use the wrong answer as a false replacement. This false replacement can get us into great danger. Many people reject proven medical treatments in favor of a well-sounding lie, which can potentially kill them.
Believing lies in our private lives
Knowingly believing in lies isn’t limited to medicine. Many of us are constantly searching for the one idea that can solve all their problems or can effortlessly create a perfect society. Since reality is always more complicated, our daily lives are filled with the same error of thought:
- How long do we stay in an unhappy relationship? Until we see a chance for a better relationship.
- How long do we believe that a god caused something? Until we find a scientific explanation.
- How long do we believe that the country we’re born in is the greatest and best country in the world? Until we see enough of the world to know better.
- How long do we believe that there is a simple quick fix to political issues? Until we tried the quick fix and know that it doesn’t work.
It would be better to know these facts in advance. It would help us make better decisions and lead better lives. When we are in an unhappy relationship, it would help to know that we’re better off ending the relationship right now. When we discuss the big bang, it would speed up human progress to leave supernatural powers out of it. Understanding the truth always helps us lead better lives. When we stop clinging to wrong ideas, we free ourselves to allow true and better things to come into our lives. That might feel a little scary at first, but in the long run it will pay off a thousand fold. Therefore, it is important to understand how our mind can be tricked into believing lies, how some people try to take advantage of our predisposition, and how we can control the accuracy of our own believes.
Self-help myth #35: When we believe in something we should pursue it without questioning why we believe it.
What can we do to avoid believing in lies?
Even when we understand why we believe in lies, it’s hard to avoid their effects every time. Still, there are a few things we can do to make sure we don’t hang on to wrong ideas:
- We can constantly question our beliefs. Do we believe something because there is solid evidence or because it makes us feel better? We must never believe anything simply because it makes us feel good.
- When the facts disprove our beliefs, we must discard the beliefs. We can admit we were wrong. Any belief that’s not supported by evidence is a lie and will make our lives worse.
- If we don’t have a replacement theory in place, we must learn to accept the fact that we don’t know everything. It’s better to have no answer than to believe in a wrong answer.
How to avoid destructive ideologies
In our modern world, it becomes increasingly important to constantly question everything we believe in. From 1950 to 2000, the number of scientists worldwide rose from 10 million to 100 million. This dramatic increase in scientific capacity has led to a similar dramatic increase in knowledge. As a result, the amount of things we truly understand is decreasing rapidly. My dad, who was born in 1954, was still able to understand and fix the hardware of the first computers he owned. Nowadays, hardly anybody knows how a smartphone works. Most electronic devices have become a black box we don’t understand. Similarly, most people fail to grasp the complexity of international conflicts, of financial and economic decisions, and of many other aspects of life. That’s dangerous. When we are surrounded by black boxes that we don’t understand, we have to believe what other people tell us about them. This increases the risk of somebody taking advantage of us and opens the door for propaganda and misinformation.
So what can we do? We can’t know everything, and we can’t simply believe what others tell us. We need a system to evaluate whether what someone is telling us makes sense or not, a system that works without having a lot of information about the topic in question.
We can do this by evaluating an argument’s style of reasoning. Liars, agitators, and other people who want to use our lack of information for their own benefit reveal themselves by arguing in a certain way. When we understand this way, we can eliminate most ways of thinking about the world from the start. Most people who spread lies, intentionally or unintentionally, argue by using three elements of faulty logic in their argumentation:
- Feeling-based truth,
- Argument from ignorance,
- Confirmation bias.
We already talked about the confirmation bias, but let’s take a closer look at the first two elements:
On September 11, 2001, I was on a school trip to Paris, France. We visited the Eiffel Tower and had a normal day. In the late afternoon, after we had returned to our hostel, we saw the World Trade Center collapse live on TV. We were shocked. Nobody could believe what they were seeing. Strangely enough, though, it didn’t take long for this disbelief to change into a strange sense of security. Within minutes, everybody had pieced together his own theory of what had happened. Now the arguing started. Even though none of us knew anything, we all felt completely sure of our theories. A few days later, when the first shock had passed, we were still arguing. With every new piece of information, we all believed that it proved our own theories.
In the months after the attack, I often wondered what drove us to act so ridiculously. None of us had a clue what we were talking about, but that didn’t stop us from passionately asserting our opinion. The logical approach would have been to agree that we were all clueless and wait for further developments. But somehow we couldn’t do that. In many ways, what happened with my school class after 9/11 resembles the challenges when dealing with complex problems.
Often, the truth is unsettling and seemingly random. Equipped with an emotional system that has been evolutionary trained to survive in small groups in the wild under relatively certain circumstances, we often have trouble grasping what is happening in our modern, more complex and less certain world. Therefore, we desperately need to come up with an explanation. Similar to what happened with bloodletting and lobotomies, our desire for an explanation is driven by our four basic needs. When we can’t explain what is happening, we can’t fulfill those needs:
- We don’t know what is happening – we lack certainty.
- We know that we can hardly make a good decision – we lack a sense of possibility.
- We realize that we are but a small piece in a big world which can be wiped out immediately – we lack significance.
- We feel that there are big forces at work that don’t care about us – we lack love/connection.
When we come up with a theory to explain the world despite a complete lack of information, we can satisfy all these needs.
- We know what’s happening – we feel certainty.
- We know what to do – we feel possibility.
- We think that we recognized the hidden truth – we feel significant.
- We feel smarter than everybody else – we feel love for ourselves.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this mechanism makes a lot of sense. It helped us make quick decisions in dangerous situations. When a predator was attacking, we needed to be decisive. Those humans who immediately started running into any direction had at least some chance to survive, even if they didn’t know what lay in this direction. Weighing all possible alternatives would have allowed the predator to come closer – a potentially deadly delay. Being absolutely convinced to have made the right decision increased the chances for survival. Most likely, decisiveness cost as many human lives as it saved, but those of our ancestors who ran into dead ends or into other predators never procreated either. We are the descendants of humans that survived because they made quick decisions based on limited information. Through thousands of generations, this mechanism was ingrained into our brain. Today, it still controls our behavior. We’re emotionally unable to accept that we have no knowledge of something. Our evolution-shaped instincts tell us that not having a theory on how to deal with an issue could be dangerous – in an evolutionary sense, any theory is better than no theory. Our ego wants to have a fixed set of rules by which it can interpret any situation and decide how to resolve the inherent conflict between the id and the super-ego. Without this set of rules, our ego is paralyzed.
In our modern times, we face far more complicated decisions then our ancestors. They often had only two options: to flee or to attack, to run left or right. Even if they had no information to base their decision on, they had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. Nowadays, we can regularly choose from thousands of alternatives, thereby dramatically reducing the odds of making a good decision based on limited information. Demagogues use this lack of certainty to present us with simple theories that we can understand and that can satisfy our needs. 9/11 truthers, socialists, racists, etc. all present a simple answer to a complex problem – they say, “It’s their fault, let’s eliminate them and everything will be fine.”
This reasoning works because it appeals to the shame in us. Accepting the premise that we can free ourselves from shame if we fight against the villain the destructive ideology proclaims can even make us cross the threshold to harm other people. Ideologies who have the potential to create violence validate the shame we feel and promise to be the relief for this shame, thereby positioning themselves as false replacements.
- Most Germans were ashamed of having accepted the repressive peace treaty of Versailles after World War I. Adolf Hitler promised them to revenge this shame, which brought large parts of the society on his side and was a main argument for the war against France, England, and Russia.
- Many of us feel shame for some things that we have done. By declaring us all inherently sinful and promising salvation, religions appeal to the shame in us and create faithful followers, which is why people are willing to go to war over religious matters.
- Subconsciously, many workers feel ashamed for being powerless before their employers. Socialism promises workers to turn the relationship on its head. The prospect of a relieve from shame can trick workers into supporting the dispossession of people, even though they would never allow themselves, their family, or the friends to be dispossessed.
- Racism and nationalism are so attractive to many because they imply that our values and beliefs are better than any other values and beliefs, thereby promising to relieve us from the shame we feel about not being a perfect person. These ideas imply that, we do not have to be ashamed of our actions because we will always be better than people of a different skin color – a promise that can even trick us into supporting violence.
By appealing to our feelings and the shame in us, destructive ideas can trick us into believing the worst kind of lies. In the process, we will hurt ourselves and others.
Argument from ignorance
After simplifying the problem and creating an easy villain, destructive ideologies constitute an argument from ignorance to explain their theory. Argument from ignorance means saying “I don’t know what that is, and therefore it must be X.” We all know arguments from ignorance from our daily lives:
- When some people see an object in the sky that they don’t understand, they conclude that it must be a spaceship from a different planet. Of course, this is the least likely of all possible explanations, but as long as it satisfies our needs, we believe it.
- When some people see an unbelievable tragedy such as the 9/11 attacks, they conclude that this must be the result of a government conspiracy with hundreds of thousands of people involved. This explanation is highly unlikely, but it satisfies our needs for certainty and significance more than accepting that two handful of terrorists successfully attacked the United States.
- When some people hear that millions of people touched a stone and three of them felt better, they conclude that they have witnessed a miracle. This explanation is much more unlikely than accepting that if millions of people touched anything, a few of them are bound to feel better, but believing in miracles of a higher power helps us satisfy our needs.
Destructive ideologies employ the same mechanism. Much like every flying object a UFO believer doesn’t understand automatically becomes an alien spacecraft, every problem in our society becomes the fault of the ideology’s proclaimed villain. Whatever the villain does, they only proof the ideology’s preconceived ideas – the ideology has become invincible. Over time, the conflict will be reinforced and strengthened, until it results in oppression, persecution, and violence.
- As studies have shown, man who violently attack gay people are more aroused by gay porn than the average male. Their anti-gay ideology is a false replacement to deal with the shame they feel for their own homosexual tendencies. For homosexuals it is hard to do anything against these prejudices. Whatever they do, their actions are seen as proof of the preconceived ideology.
- Some Christians fight against scientifically proven theories such as evolution and try to stop homosexuals from getting married. Neither of these ideas present any thread to them, but since these ideas question the ideology that they use as a false replacement to deal with their shame, these Christians invest much time and effort to stop progress and rule other people lives. They discard any reasonable explanation of scientific discoveries as propaganda and evoke a dangerous anti-intellectualism – their ideology has become invincible.
- When some people hear of a problem in our society but fail to grasp the complex socio-economic factors that caused it, they are quick to blame it on their ideologies standard villain. “Unemployment has gone up? Must be the fault of the capitalists, the Jews, the foreign workers, the media, the infidels, the Muslims, etc.”
None of these ideologies present any helpful solutions to the actual problem. They are a way of trying to make ourselves feel better while intensifying the problem, inventing new problems, and making ourselves feel worse – they are destructive. To be happy, we must learn to recognize destructive ideologies and avoid them.
Why we are all susceptible to destructive ideologies
While it’s easy to recognize false replacements in others, we must avoid to fall for a self-serving bias and to overestimate the purity of our own motives. To be susceptible to dangerous ideas, we must fulfill two criteria:
- We must feel shame.
- We must lack information.
While it is easy to see that we are all ashamed of some things we did or some things about ourselves, most people underestimate how little information they have in almost all aspects of their lives, thereby overestimating the quality of their beliefs.
In one analogy, psychologists compared our decision-making process to the life of a farm animal. Based on all the information a farm animal has, it must conclude that humans are kind – they provide it with food and shelter, they take care of it when it’s sick. There’s not a single reason to discard this belief – until the animal is slaughtered and eaten. With the limited information it has, the animal can’t possibly see this coming – but it would greatly benefit if it could. Every day that the animal decides to stay on the farm, it is making a bad decision. Tragically, it can’t possibly know this until it’s too late. The only way for any animal to find out whether it’s a good idea to live with humans is to wait until it dies. If it dies from a natural cause, it was a pet. If it gets slaughtered, it was a farm animal.
In many ways, our decision-making process with limited information resembles the life of a farm animal. Often, years pass between the day we make a decision and the day we find out whether it was right or wrong. During the entire time, we face a dilemma. We still have time to correct our decision, but we don’t know if we should. Equipped with a mind that’s evolutionarily trained to make short term decisions with quick feedback, we lack a good tool to make decisions over decades. Every day smokers decide to keep smoking, they are very likely making a decision that will kill them eventually – but they don’t know that until it happens. There is a chance that they’ll die from a different cause and that smoking will not shorten their lives after all. This way of thinking might sound absurd, but it gives most smokers a much-needed excuse.
Similarly, when we believe that our religion will save us from eternal damnation, that our fight against a certain group of people is necessary to save society, or that harming someone will create a better world, we can only realize that we were wrong by completing our mission. Until then, we might doubt the path that we’re on, but we can never be sure. There is always a chance that it might be the right path. Much like a smoker, this possibility keeps us going:
- Even if we despise violence, we might accept hurting others, because we are not sure that it is wrong “in this rare case.”
- We might support the restriction of basic human rights, either for all of us or for a group of people. We’ll say that we don’t like the idea, but that we are not sure that it isn’t justified “in this extreme situation.”
- Even if we know that we don’t have the necessary skills to succeed, we hope that our positivity will create a miracle “this one time”.
Step by step, this process can cause us to surrender our morals, our freedom, and the values that are dearest to us. After World War II, many Germans told American troops that they didn’t support Hitler’s general hatred, but that he was justified to prosecute the Jews “in this rare case”. A perfect example for the process we laid out above.
In our modern world, our brain faces a dilemma. Without any quality information, our ego can’t make up its mind. The id, on the other hand, wants its needs satisfied immediately. Overwhelmed by the id and with the super-ego undecided, the ego has to go for the only sure indication it has. The immediate, concrete reward has triumphed over the abstract, distant reward. Luckily, there’s one big difference between farm animals and humans – we have the power to anticipate future events. We can understand complex mechanisms and transfer what happened to other members of our species to ourselves. If we were in the position of a farm animal, seeing other animals disappear and be replaced by the day, we could easily conclude that we, too, will someday disappear, and that it may be better not to wait for that day. Due to the lack of certain information, however, our ego doesn’t make this decision, thereby neglecting the mental advantage we have over animals to make good decisions.
We can fight this disadvantage by supporting our ego’s ability to create certain predictions about the future – by educating ourselves. Fittingly, education is the most effective way to avoid an argument from ignorance. In terms of smoking, this is easy. There is plenty of information out there to counter the claims that smoking is a fun, adventurous sign of freedom and not at all dangerous – easily enough information to make a good decision once we eliminated our false replacements. In other situations, the necessary information isn’t as easily obtainable, or events occur only rarely and with intervals of years in between. These situations are trickier but often more important – politics, big life decisions, and whether we should believe in self-help books or not.
How to not become a Nazi
Believing in lies on a small scale can only hurt ourselves. While self-inflicted pain is tragic, it is even more tragic when our false replacements hurt others. Demagogues know how limited information makes us manipulable. They spread their ideas in a way that appeals to our needs. In all cases, the message is the same:
- You aren’t to blame for the problems in your life and in society.
By putting all blame on one group, either a minority or a group outside the country, destructive ideologies acquit all other people of any responsibility for problems in their lives and in society. Since we all face some level of self-doubt, this relieves us from our shame. We know that it’s not our fault and we have found certainty.
- When this one group is gone, everything will be better.
When destructive ideologies promise to free us from the people who allegedly harm us or society, they imply that our lives will be better when this one group is gone or disempowered. We imagine how good our lives will be when these people are finally gone – a message that appeals to many of us. Accepting the belief that someone else is to blame for what we are missing and having someone promise to get these people out of our way creates the feeling of possibility that we’ve been missing for so long.
- You are a member of a big group that will always stand together.
Hitler called it the “Volksgemeinschaft” (ethnic community), communists call it the proletariat, other ideologies call it believers vs. infidels, wolves vs. sheep, or go-getters vs. underachievers. All terms are meant to create a feeling of love and connection towards a fictional concept without any real-life implications. Being a member of a special group, even if it’s entirely made-up, gives us a feeling of love/connection. Many of us feel a lack of love/connection in their daily lives and can use the thought of having everyone around us support us to fill this void.
- You are something special
As we grow up, most of us have to realize that we aren’t special. Whatever we’re good at – there’s someone who’s better. When our dreams don’t come true, we feel a lack of significance. Believing that we’re something special because we belong to a certain group can fill this void.
How to avoid destructive lies
Any attempt to use a lack in our four essential needs to make us believe in a lie can be preempted by fulfilling our needs naturally. When we are fulfilled, happy, and pursuing intrinsic goals, we don’t need an ideology as a false replacement. Nonetheless, it can sometimes be hard to know what to believe. In those cases, there are four rules that can help us distinguish constructive ideas from destructive ideas – in politics, life, self-help and all other cases.
When faced with an idea or ideology that goes beyond our understanding, we first have to admit that we don’t know whether the idea or ideology is true. Then, we can use these four rules that any worthwhile theory must fulfill to find out whether the theory is destructive or not.
- We are all humans – any division into groups is wrong.
Regardless of whether an ideology wants to divide us by skin color, social status, religion, land of birth, sexual orientation, age, political belief or anything else – any division is wrong. We are all humans, and any worthwhile philosophy of life will point out our similarities, not our differences. As we can see in chapter 13 (“How to evaluate ourselves reasonably”), we tend to overvalue anything that is associated with us, including our values. As soon as we start dividing the world into us and them, we inevitably overvalue what is associated with us and devalue what is associated with them – psychologists call this the in-group/out-group bias. Since both groups go through a similar process, we have created two rival groups, each convinced of its superiority and full of resentment towards the other – we have sown the seed for conflict, war, and suffering. To avoid this dangerous process, we have to remain united as human beings.
- Nobody is more or less special than anybody else.
While we are all different, nobody is better than anybody else, nobody deserves preferential treatment, and nobody must be fought. Only those who hurt others, or damage or steal other people’s property must be stopped from repeating their infractions – nothing else. There is no chosen group, nobody has found the truth, and nobody has any secrets to unveil.
- We are individuals, not members of a predefined group.
There is no Volksgemeinschaft and no other form of predefined group that we inherently belong to. We are humans and outside of our families we equally belong to any human group in the world. We can only lead good, happy lives if we individually find our place in this world, our ideal group, and gain its acceptance by contributing to the group’s success.
Similarly, one person’s actions aren’t reflective of any group they associate with. Just because one person steals, not all of his colleagues are thieves, too. (Unless they were involved in the crime, of course.)
- There is no need to be ashamed for who we are
Some ideologies tell us that we are inherently bad or sinful and need this ideology to be saved. This is a trick. The ideology tries to create shame and the need for a false replacement in us and then positions itself as this false replacement – the perfect situation for any ideology to keep us in line and forever dependent on it. Sometimes, ideologies adapt this trick consciously, sometimes it’s the result of an accidental process that keeps the ideology alive for thousands of years. Nonetheless, this type of story is always a lie.
These four rules can help us distinguish worthwhile ideas from destructive lies. Any idea that doesn’t follow these rules is a false replacement. Someone else wants to use our lack of knowledge to their advantage or has fallen for a destructive ideology themselves. In any decision, if there is more than one idea left that abides by all these rules, we can find the best idea available by choosing the idea that has the most factual proof, that seeks out disconfirming evidence, and that doesn’t require us to accept anything on authority. Nonetheless, we should always be open for a better idea to come along.
Self-help violates all of these rules. Self-help divides the world into us, the go-getters who know how to live the right way, and them, the people with limiting beliefs, implying that we are better than them and more deserving of happiness, success, and all other good things. This reasoning inevitably creates a lack of compassion for those who are less fortunate than we are and suggests that the world would be a better place if everyone followed our way.
Why we profit most from avoiding lies
When we avoid false replacements packaged as ideologies, the potential victims of these ideologies aren’t the only people who profit – first and foremost, we profit ourselves. As soon as we subscribe to a false ideology, we start building our lives on a lie, thereby setting ourselves up for certain and repeated failure. Regardless of whether this false replacement comes packaged as an ideology, an idea, or a self-help book, it tricks us into pursuing what we can never achieve. Sooner or later, the inevitable disappointment generated by such a lie will cause shame in us and make us create more false replacements. This happens when we believe in the dominant self-help mentality, in conspiracy theories, or in political lies such as socialism, nationalism, or fascism – we pursue what we can never achieve, and when we fail, we create false replacements that make our lives worse.
- In our modern, complex world, there is little we know for certain.
- Uncertain information causes bad decisions. We can make better decisions by educating ourselves.
- We can distinguish worthwhile ideas, theories, and ideologies from lies packaged as false replacements by analyzing how an ideology tries to appeal to us. Ideologies that use an emotional approach, positioning themselves as potential false replacements, are destructive. In a worthwhile ideology, there is no division, no generalization, nobody is more special than anybody else, and we aren’t inherently bad.
Karl Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies.
Karl Popper’s answer to Nazism, communism, and totalitarian regimes in general, The Open Society and its Enemies is probably the best book ever written to clearly show why totalitarian ideas are dangerous and should be avoided. One of the most important books of our time.
Henri Tajfel: Experiments in intergroup discrimination, Scientific American 223, 96-102.
An article about experiments that show that we prefer members of our group over members of other groups, even if we know nothing about them.
Michael Shermer: The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.
American psychologist Michael Shermer shares 30 years of research on how we create our own beliefs and reinforce them as the truth, thereby creating the basis for discrimination, suppression, and hatred against people who disagree with us.
Sigmund Freud: Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.
Freud’s take on mass psychology agrees with the premise that any division into groups will inevitably lead to a devaluation of the other group.