People who believed this also bought…

I got sent yet another implausible urban myth by email recently. As usual, it had been forwarded several times by different people around the world before reaching me, a brief Google of a few key words from the text was enough to find a comprehensive debunking, and the sender was a Christian. The last point is a pattern I’ve only just noticed, but from a few discussions I’ve had, it seems that it may be a general trend, and it got me wondering why that should be. A cynical voice in my head immediately suggested that if you’re prepared to unquestioningly swallow huge chunks of religious doctrine, it probably indicates that your facility for critical thinking isn’t as developed as it might be. An amusing thought, possibly with some truth in it, but my kneejerk fair-minded sense of balance leads me to wonder whether it’s really the best explanation.

The first thing that occurred to me as a counter-argument was conspiracy theories. Again, going by my own experience and anecdote, Christians are relatively unlikely to believe in conspiracies. At least, they don’t generally seem to believe in the usual ones – JFK, moon landings, 9/11, Princess Diana and so on – which I’d expect if they were just believing anything they were told. There’s a complication here, because taking things on trust could possibly be considered consistent with either belief in conspiracy theories or rejection of them, but I think uncritical acceptance ought to result in a certain level of belief in conspiracy theories, depending on the dominant narrative among your friends and acquaintances. So there may be something else going on.

One possible explanation is that it depends on your exposure to the myths. The more friends you have who might receive an email, believe it and pass it on, the more opportunities there are for you to pass it on yourself. Christians tend to know lots of Christians, and these messages tend to have been forwarded many times, so if there’s even a small increase in the likelihood of an individual Christian passing it on, it might lead to a big difference in the number you eventually receive from Christians, although that still doesn’t explain why Christians might be more likely to believe these myths.

It also appears that a lot of emailed myths are specifically Christian in nature, usually being either modern parables related as fact or an attempt to raise awareness of a non-existent threat to Christianity or act of oppression. So it may be that they’re started and circulated by (or at least among) Christians, resulting in a disproportionate number of myths in circulation in those circles. That could explain the imbalance by itself, although it doesn’t address the question of why that should be true. I suspect that Christians are fertile ground for establishing myths, for various reasons, but I’m not so confident about who starts them. I may come back to this another time.

There’s also an interesting psychological aspect to this. It’s well-understood that people are prone to numerous cognitive biases, which make it hard to correctly evaluate new information. In particular, this may be an example of confirmation bias, or possibly in-group bias, manifesting in an overeager acceptance of “facts” which confirm existing beliefs, or an increased tendency to believe stories which appear to come from “your side”.

Of course, this is all predicated on my experience being typical and relevant. My circle of friends may not be typical, and it is a fairly small sample, so I’d be grateful for additional feedback. I’m also aware that we all have cognitive biases, and my perception may be coloured by my own, together with memories of the time many years ago when I was briefly (and very embarrassingly) taken in by the hoary old story about NASA and the sun stopping still.

I’m not ashamed of those biases – as we all have them, the worst thing we can do is pretend that they don’t exist, but I want to do what I can to keep my brain under control, and stay as objective as possible. So please let me know if your experience matches mine, and hopefully, I’ll end up with a more accurate picture than my own rather narrow experience.


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

2 responses to “People who believed this also bought…”

  1. Paul Sunstone says :

    “I’m not ashamed of those biases – as we all have them, the worst thing we can do is pretend that they don’t exist…”

    I’d say that made you a wise man. I suspect those of us who think we’re too smart or too well educated to fall victim to our biases fall victim to their biases at an alarming rate. Not that the rest of us fair much better.

    I had a math teacher once who was a very poor teacher in most ways. But he once said something that struck me as worth remembering: “No matter how good you get at math, you will never cease to make mistakes. But if you practice at it, then you might someday start correcting your mistakes as you make them, rather than need someone else to correct them for you.”

    I would correct him on one point. It seems to me we will always need help from others correcting our mistakes. The scientific disciplines are so successful in part because they employ methods of inquiry that encourage people to correct each other’s mistakes.

    Nice blog you’ve got here.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Thanks. Reading a little psychology is very scary and humbling, because the whole subject is just a mass of ways in which our brains lie to us. (Or what we like to think of as “us” – our conscious thoughts, at any rate.)

      I think you’re right that we always need others to correct us, but that doesn’t mean I’m always good at being corrected!

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