Why do Smart People Believe in Bigfoot, UFO’s and Conspiracy Theories?

People—even smart ones—believe all sorts of odd things. Recent polls show:

  • 37% of Americans believe that global warming is a hoax
  • 21% believe that a UFO crashed in Roswell
  • 20% think that there is a relationship between vaccines and autism,
  • 15% believe that the big pharma create new diseases to sell the
  • 71% of Americans believe in miracles
  • 42% believe in ghosts,
  • 29% believe in astrology

These percentages are too high to write off as simply extremists or pathological, but have to be considered common beliefs among average individuals. So, what makes people believe these things that are not backed up by evidence?

First we need to know that one unfounded belief is a good predictor of other unfounded beliefs.  So if you believe in astrology you are more likely to believe in UFO’s. This is important because it means there is an underlying psychological process occurring that regardless of content leads people to particular beliefs.

To unravel this question many studies have examined analytic thinking (ability to break down complex problems into step-by-step manageable components) versus intuitive thinking (tendancy to rely on feelings or ‘gut’ intuition).

In newly released research, Tomas Ståhl seeks to expand on this dichotomy showing that “analytic reasoning skills alone are not sufficient to promote skepticism toward unfounded beliefs; one also needs to value forming personal beliefs based on logic and evidence.”

The study suggests that analytic reasoning are necessary but not sufficient to prevent irrational belief. In fact the authors determine that people need motivation to use reasoning skills in pursuit of truth—not simply to confirm what they want to believe. So to truly buffer against unfounded beliefs people need a sense of Epistemic rationality, or rationality which involves achieving accurate beliefs about the world. It involves updating on receiving new evidence, mitigating cognitive biases, and examining why you believe what you believe.

As the authors state, “We suggest that valuing epistemic rationality can serve as a buffer against various unfounded beliefs, by increasing the likelihood that one’s analytic thinking skills are recruited to objectively analyze the validity of ideas.” Analytic ability was positively associated as a buffer against irrational beliefs, but only among people who strongly valued epistemic rationality.

This study provides insight into why despite a better educated citizenry and improved cognitive abilities, people today are equally likely to believe in conspiracy theories and paranormal activity as people from 100 years ago. People must decide to use their cognitive ability “in pursuit of truth” if people are to be persuaded that UFO’s, Bigfoot, and conspiracy theories are (mostly) not real.

The study, Epistemic rationality: Skepticism toward unfounded beliefs requires sufficient cognitive ability and motivation to be rational, was co-authored by Jan-Willemvan Prooijen

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