The Believing Brain

Michael Shermer is founder of The Skeptics Society and psychology researcher. The Believing Brain brings together much of his research over the past few decades.

Shermer’s take home message is to do with how we form beliefs. Namely, that we form our beliefs first, and then work out what evidence supports them. This is not the way we like to think we make decisions. We like to think that we gather the evidence, weigh it up, then make a decision. However, there is good evidence that we do not.

“The brain will almost always find ways to support what we want to believe, so we should be especially skeptical of things we want to believe.”

That is not actually an exact quote, but I think it is roughly it.

Evolution has given us pattern-detecting brain because false positives are far less harmful than false negatives. This leads us to see patterns that are not there.

This is true even of exaggerated patterns. For example birds will prefer to sit on eggs with even more pronounced patterns than they are supposed to have. Shermer suggests this is also true of dating. Wearing high heals extends the legs of women, so men’s brains are tricking into thinking they are more attractive. Similarly women like men with broad shoulders and who are tall, so platform heals and shoulder pads might help.

We are also predisposed to think there is an agency behind everything. These innate evolutionary traits of patternicity and agenticity explain why so many of us are susceptible to believing there is a creator, even though there is no evidence for this.

He goes on to discuss the idea of SETI as a religion. People believe in it, even though there is no evidence for it. To be fair to him, he does go on to explain in detail why SETI is different from a religion, however I still do not entirely agree with the comparison. SETI is at least consistent with a naturalist world view and is therefore a plausible theory that we are investigating, rather than believing in.

He spends a chapter making the case that conservatives are not that bad. But then he is one. However, he makes a good case of it being important. We need a system to regulate altruism and freeloaders and both conservative and liberal agendas can do this. He also points out a lot of evidence for egalitarianism and communism do not work, hence why we need such agendas.

The final few chapters of the book look at the development of the scientific method and how it can help to overcome the biases and failings of our believing brains. This includes a discussion of how the universe was created. It feels a bit out of place in what is essentially a psychology book, as it will probably become out-of-date independently of the rest of the book’s content. Most of it I knew, but it was an interesting re-cap none the less.

Overall, it is definitely worth a read, offering some powerful explanations for why people believe what they believe and its implications for how we live our lives and structure our society.




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This entry was posted on Sunday, August 17th, 2014 at 11:21 am and is filed under Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.