Silly naive children
If Rex, the family dog, dies, parents might tell their children “I know it’s sad, but Rex is in doggy heaven right now.” This is a comforting lie, and parents know that children are naive enough to believe it.
Sticking with the pet theme, if parents’ decide to have the dog put to sleep, they might tell their kids that they took the dog to a farm where it can run around freely all day.
We all recognize that ‘put to sleep’ is a euphemism for death. As adults, we also know that ‘doggy heaven’ and ‘took the dog to a farm’ are also euphemisms for ‘Rex is in a permanent state of non-existence.’ Yet, we present the latter two euphemisms to children as if they are actual real things, just like we do with Santa Claus.
I picture parents talking to each other after the kids are in bed: “Can you believe they fell for that? I’m glad children are so trusting.” Those silly naive children will believe anything!
Yet, even though we are aware that we tell children comforting lies, we do not seem to recognize that we might have been told the same type of comforting lies about life and death. For example, religious folks might tell us that people do not really die, they just move on into a new state. They go to people heaven! Picture your local pastor as the parents telling kids about doggy heaven or the farm.
Folie à deux refers to a psychiatric condition where two people share a delusional belief. If the belief sounds crazy enough to the majority of people, then we recognize them as suffering from a psychiatric disorder. Mass delusion seems more difficult to recognize.
Consider the following groups:
1. Heaven’s Gate group: believed that a space craft was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp and needed to commit suicide so that their souls could board the craft.
2. 9/11 conspiracy theorists: believe that 9/11 was an inside job
3. Cult of Scientology: a financial pyramid scheme posing as a religion
4. Any popular religion
What are the differences between these groups? Each of these groups believe/believed some things that we cannot test, and other things that we have tested and disproved. Members of each group have their beliefs reinforced by other members of the group. Why are some groups higher status than others? I’ll take a stab at it, in order:
1. We don’t like groups that advocate suicide. Even people who believe we have a spirit that lives on cannot shake the strong desire to survive as a human (few phenotypes are more strongly correlated with genetic fitness than the desire to survive)
2. 9/11 happened recently. It’s pretty easy to make a strong evidence-based case that the Pentagon wasn’t hit by a missile or that the WTC wasn’t brought down by explosives.
3. Religions invented in the last century suffer from a lack of social tradition inheritance and mystery.
4. Most old, popular religions tell us things that we want to hear (we will live on, and there will be less suffering in the next world) and were created before the invention of image and voice recorders. It’s easier to imagine huge miracles in times before there were cameras.
Smile for the camera
In general I think we have strong desire to delude ourselves into thinking the world is a better place than it actually is.
- we have probably formed more euphemisms than dysphemisms: a euphemism is a way of making something not sound as bad as it is
- we like optimists better than pessimists: an optimist thinks things will work out better than they probably will
- we would rather see pictures of smiling people than frowning people: someone smiling for a photo probably appears happier than they actually are
This does not seem like a bad strategy — I’m happier if I think the world is better place than it actually is. Nevertheless, it’s interesting the line between perceptions about delusion and sanity, and how it relates to popularity and our needs.