If you’re outside a tribe that holds absurd beliefs, their absurdity is patently obvious. But from the inside, such beliefs are resistant to corrective information because they serve an important social-psychological function.
Across history, wartime enemies have taken American lives in high numbers. Over 117,000 were killed in and between the muddy trench battles of WWI. Through the dense forests of Ardennes, the Pacific archipelagos leading to Japan, and the amphibious landings on Normandy beach in World War II—418,500. On the frozen wastelands of Korea—54,000. In the tangled and suffocating jungles of Vietnam—nearly 60,000. And across the rugged mountain ranges of Afghanistan, and dusty streets of Iraq—7,400.
While these numbers are sobering, in 2019 an enemy slipped past America’s defenses to steal far more lives than all its fights since WWI combined, and this on her own soil. It did so by bursting through an access point in our evolved psychology. The great irony is that this access point is the very adaptation that impels us to close ranks with our tribemates in wars among human beings. However, the present enemy is an army not of men, but of simple, single strands of RNA encased in protein shells known as COVID-19. At this writing, the coronavirus has killed over one million Americans, pushing the US to lead the total COVID death count across Earth’s 195 nations.
With so much of our psychology shaped by violent competition with other humans, the emotional weight of human loss in warfare is uniquely poignant. And when enemies attack, our defensive instincts drive mobilizations that are swift, purposeful, and unifying. But in the face of COVID, America saw anti-mask, anti-vaccine, and anti-quarantine protests. Mobs of angry, maskless people yelling, bearing signs reading, “Stop medical tyranny!” or “I will never wear a face muzzle!”. Some of their leaders died from COVID-19, yet they continued gathering and infecting one another. Religious leaders cited bible passages as justification for rejecting vaccines, promising God will shield us from the virus. Some of those leaders too died, straining for shallow, fluid-filled last breaths in COVID-19 wards, along with protestors, their fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and even children. Still, many persisted, even with their loved ones on their deathbeds pleading for the rest of the populace to wake up. Fully 25% of the population of adults in the US remain unvaccinated, and one in six say they’ll never get it.
These defensive breaches in our war against COVID-19 have been fueled by mind-numbing conspiracy theories: that COVID is a hoax, that Bill Gates was implanting microchips in the vaccine to track and control us through 5G cellular networks, that vaccines cause COVID, that vaccines are made of fetal tissue. These false ideas have themselves gone viral, tearing through the minds of the population, crippling our immune response. Indeed, the Director General of the World Health Organization warned that the world is “not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
Fake news bears some blame. But why did a specific kind of fake news find fertile ground in a specific subset of American society?
The answer to this question has much to reveal not only about our COVID response, but also about who we are as social animals. Some scholars have suggested that in times of stress we revert to conspiracies in a desperate grasp for a sense of understanding and control. While this may be partly true, it misses something critical.
There was a time in our history when we were groping around in the dark. As a species, we had awakened to the world with minds ravenous for understanding, but through no fault of our own, knowledge was simply in short supply for the entire human population. Our ability to acquire accurate information about the world was painfully slow, and our discomfiting gaps of knowledge felt like hemorrhages that needed packing. So, our ancestors used whatever stories and constructs they could muster—myths, religions, gods. The late atheist philosopher Christopher Hitchens once observed, “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody…had the smallest idea what was going on.” It would take many millennia before humanity developed the scientific method, a tool that has aptly been described as, “What we know about how to not fool ourselves.”
Today we have no such excuse. America’s disastrous reaction to COVID-19 is not simply a matter of broad human ignorance. Since the unfortunate age during which we attributed disease to evil spirits or unbalanced humours that required bloodletting, human knowledge has been exponentiating, and our access to the world’s ever-expanding base of understanding has moved literally into the palms of our hands.
So it’s not that those who would deny the veracities of a worldwide pandemic are simply products of helpless ignorance; we are all bombarded with scientific information about the spread of disease, and even the tightest information bubble has its holes. It’s that accurate information gets deflected by the Teflon coating of our tribal psychology.
Why and how?
To understand, we must look somewhere most of us are unaccustomed to looking—our ancestral past. The commitment to cooperate has long been key to our survival. Because those who would fake cooperation only to take unfair advantage posed a threat to our survival, humans spend a great deal of effort establishing ingroup membership, defining rules of cooperation, and identifying cheaters through unique signals of commitment. Behavioral ecologist William Irons argued that “for such signals of commitment to be successful, they must be hard to fake. Other things being equal, the costlier the signal the less likely it is to be false”. Put differently, when the cost of faking the signal outweighs the benefit, cooperating is on a much safer footing.
Costly signals are perhaps most discernible, and most extreme, in violent competition with outside tribes. Combat requires the mutual commitment to push past pain, fatigue, fear, or risk to help a comrade fight others to the death. Failure or refusal to do so brings the ultimate price. Consider the cost of cheaters in warfare—a comrade who you risk your life to save, but who runs away when you’re under attack. Accordingly, militaries abound with difficult qualification hurdles, hazing, or grueling rites of passage that serve as commitment signals. Critically, however, the rival tribe wasn’t the only threat that drove our tribal signaling behaviors.
I often ask my audiences to imagine getting dropped off alone and loinclothed on the predator-swarming plains of Africa. Now imagine the same predicament, but at a time when no laws restrain rival tribesmen from spearing you to death where they find you. How long would you last? In the unlikely event that you survived a night of predators, you’d likely not survive a day of men. Being abandoned by the tribe disarmed us, made us helpless, and dead. This ancient death sentence implanted in us an enduring fear of doing something that gets us ejected from our group.
Adding to abandonment, another pressure driving this fear deserves deep contemplation. In his book The Goodness Paradox, Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham makes the case that our species self-domesticated over millennia by systematically killing overly-domineering, callous, or aggressive men of the tribe, selecting against reactive aggression—what has been called the execution hypothesis. Capital punishment, argues Wrangham, made us more agreeable, and able to live in larger groups. Thus, an important probability is that our psychological need to conform was not only shaped by the threat of expulsion, but also by getting killed for wrong behavior.
Critically, however, wrongness is not limited to morally obvious transgressions like violence; it is also subject to the fickle whims of social convention. Per the bible, practicing any non-Hebrew religion, working on the Sabbath, being a rebellious son, or using God’s name in vain, were social violations punishable by death in the Biblical Age. As Wrangham reminds us, selling beer in the age of Hammurabi, stealing the keys to your husbands’ wine cellar in the early Roman Republic, and masturbation or anal sex in 17th-century New England, were all infractions deemed dreadful enough to rob someone of their life. Even today, blasphemy, or merely deciding you don’t believe, can result in execution in many parts of the Islamic world. In short, social convention has long been a treacherous terrain that has resulted in our exquisite sensitivity to what other people think, and nervous, often unconscious adherence to group norms.
Even in situations in which rejection, shunning, ostracism, or even gossip have no real impact on survival, they can elicit powerful emotions. This power is a ghost from our evolutionary past when ingroup coalitions were far deadlier than now. Today a person can wave public opinion like a weapon, with an instinctive understanding of the fear it elicits in potential objects of group censure. Moreover, fear of being singled out prompts us to go with the flow, or even target others for ostracism to deflect potential attention away from ourselves. Social purity tests are kept stringent by such fears.
One type of signaling works by self-amplifying the cost of defection. Where I live in South Texas, you sometimes spot members of the notorious South American MS-13 gang. Men in this gang shave their heads, and tattoo their entire faces and scalps with gang insignia. Such striking appearances tightly constrict any routes of egress to life outside the gang, and make any attempt to join another gang a potential act of suicide. But purposely alienating yourself from outsiders with facial tattoos cements your loyalty to your tribemates.
Sometimes commitment signals are visual, such as tribal regalia, tattoos, or tribal scarring. But at others humans signal by publicly displaying agreement to an idea. Notably, the preposterousness of certain ideas can make them powerful shows of commitment, especially when verbalized in the face of outside derision.
Cambridge philosopher Daniel Williams calls this the strategic absurdity hypothesis, arguing that it is “precisely because such beliefs are viewed as absurd by outgroup members that their sincere and conspicuous endorsement credibly signals commitment to ingroup members.” The reputational damage incurred from espousing absurd beliefs, posits Williams, is what makes holding them a costly display. Think of the social bridges burnt during the Trump administration as families divided over political beliefs, some of which were objectively absurd—for example, that Donald Trump was battling Hillary Clinton’s satanic pedophile ring ran out of a Washington DC pizza parlor. For beliefs to be effective as signals they must be advertised publicly, whether in ganglands, on the streets of protest, or at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table.
Those claiming COVID-19 is a worldwide hoax, even in the face of dying relatives, those claiming vaccines contain tracking devices giving Bill Gates the joystick to our behaviors, then, are demonstrating to the tribe just how far they are willing to go. And when protestors see each other in their tribal regalia—like T-shirts reading “Fear God, not COVID” or even MAGA hats—when they chant in unison, they feel an ancient, emotionally intuitive sense of belonging.
Understanding the evolved purpose of absurd beliefs can help us intellectually separate them from their espousers—to see, in other words, that an absurd belief is not the same thing as an absurd (or immoral) human being. That our social instincts so often operate below the radar of our consciousness would seem to justify a modicum of grace to those swept up by them. In this way, understanding the origins of absurd beliefs has the potential to mend strained relationships, and perhaps even some of the fractures that divide nations. At the same time failing to identify absurd beliefs for what they are can result in senseless human loss. This is especially true when those beliefs become politicized.
Sadly, there was no shortage of GOP leaders who publicly forced COVID denialism as a badge of commitment. In response to outreach efforts targeting unvaccinated communities, GOP Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted, “People have a choice they don’t need your medical brown shirts showing up at their door ordering vaccines. You can’t force people to be part of the human experiment.”
The Brownshirts were a paramilitary group that helped Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Greene also declared on a podcast, “I’m not vaccinated and I’m not getting vaccinated because I’m an American.” GOP Congresswoman Laura Boebert called vaccine outreach workers “needle Nazis.” Michigan GOP lawmaker William Hartmann tweeted about vaccine incentives, “If the ouchie is so great, why do they have to offer bribes?” and compared vaccine passports to Nazi Germany.
Hartmann later died of COVID.
Texas GOP Official H. Scot Apley too jumped on the Nazi bandwagon, posting a meme showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel with the caption “Germany plans to force people who won’t quarantine into camps.”
Apley died of COVID as well.
The preponderance of rhetoric linking vaccine efforts to the Nazis, the most notorious political tribe of the 20th century, places the GOP’s preposterous anti-vax messages squarely in the domain of our tribalistic psychology.
It can be difficult to hear the flaws of one’s political tribe, an emotional labor we owe to the ancient social threats described above. However, when insulated from correction, fallacious tribal rhetoric can become tragically self-defeating. One study found that Americans in counties that voted mostly red were nearly three times as likely to die from COVID than those in counties that voted mostly blue.
Extremely irrational beliefs are not limited to those concerning COVID-19. Consider several that today are held by a far greater number than they should:
- Democrats and Hollywood elites are getting high off adrenochrome (oxidized adrenaline) harvested from tortured children.
- Planet Earth is a flat disk surrounded by a ring of ice.
- John F. Kennedy Jr (who died in a plane crash in 1999), will emerge from “hiding” to serve as Donald Trump’s vice president.
- The 2020 election was rigged.
- An omniscient being sent his son to be killed in order to save humanity from his own wrath, and eating that son’s flesh, transmogrified by the words of a special person into a cracker, gives everlasting life.
- If you obliterate yourself in a crowded marketplace, you will receive virgins in heaven.
If you’re outside the tribes that hold these beliefs, their absurdity is patently obvious. But not if you’re on the inside. Such beliefs tend to be particularly resistant to corrective information because they serve an important social-psychological function; insofar as correction can lead to desertion, rejecting science and reason can serve as signals of our loyalty. This makes reprieving reason from the sacrificial altar of group belonging exceptionally challenging.
Notably, signals of this kind are not limited to the political right. The left’s “cancel culture” is another example of the tyranny of tribes demanding absolute public agreement and generating high fear of nonconformity. Sometimes signaling in this culture takes the form of absurd ideas, and at other times sound ideas taken to absurd extremes—for example, the naturalistic fallacy that, because harming those for their gender identity is wrong (which it is), biological sex must be a social construct (it is not). Dissenters, or even those who utter misspoken words on these kinds of social issues, are often blacklisted, harassed online, fired from their jobs, and even assaulted. Indeed, even positing that cancel culture is a real social phenomenon, ironically, can get one canceled.
In all of this, self-deception poses another challenge. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers proposes that we evolved an ability to self-deceive in order to help us deceive others without detection. When we lie, we emit cues—fidgetiness, higher vocal pitch, facial expressions of guilt, and so on—and suppressing those cues takes a great deal of cognitive effort. When we lie to ourselves, these cues tend to disappear. As the old trope goes, the best liars lie to themselves. This is how absurd ideas can persist in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence, and how those who profess them can appear so genuinely clueless.
In short, our tribemates coerce us to profess absurd belief with the ancient threat of murder, and we hide the truth from ourselves to elude their scrutiny. Sometimes the threat is a mere emotional relic from our more violent past. Tragically, in some places, the threat of murder for beliefs remains credible.
There is an important argument to be made that religions make us more vulnerable to preposterous group ideas. Indeed, research finds that religiosity predicts conspiratorial thinking, and this has practical consequences. As one example, one Pew Research survey found that among belief systems in the US COVID-19 vaccination rates are highest among atheists (90%), and lowest among Evangelical Christians (57%).
It is difficult to say to what extent absurd ideas were used as costly signaling in the times of our distant ancestors when we knew so very little about the world; some beliefs become absurdities only when they endure long enough past popular knowledge of their falsity. What is clear is how destructive absurd ideas can be, and not only in the case of making us more vulnerable to deadly infectious diseases. Such beliefs have been the ignition sources for centuries of religious wars and inquisitions, and tears in the fabrics of society that in contemporary times have us fighting each other in the streets.
It’s fair to say that the forward march of science has done more than any other human enterprise to ameliorate human suffering. We cling to beliefs that reject scientific understanding at our own peril. Yet to this day, many Americans resist not only the science of vaccines, but also the science of evolution by natural selection, and put in its place the preposterous idea that all of humanity descended from Adam and Eve’s three male offspring. The cost of this tribal posture is profound. In rejecting evolution in order to belong, we reject the very mirror to our self-defeating beliefs and behaviors.