Flat Earthers have a tendency to evoke a great deal of condescension in people. Wry grins are accompanied by snorts and scoffs, all wrapped up in a feeling of unquestionable superiority. What kind of idiots could believe such a thing?
While it’s undeniably humourous to witness a group of adults disprove their own whacky belief using the scientific method, it’s important to put aside our smugness and try to understand how—in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence—a large group of people could believe such an outrageous idea.
The hardened beliefs of a Flat Earther are caused by a mixture of fascinating psychological processes, the enlightening of which can help to protect ourselves against such illogicality. Truth is critical for the survival of our species—a firm grip on reality essential for mastery over our environment. Consider some of the great achievers of history, infected with the absurdity of the Flat Earth belief—Francis Drake might have been too fearful to steer his galleon towards the dusky horizon, lest the ship find itself suspended in mid air, before toppling into the unforgivable abyss. Physicist Léon Foucault would have seen little point in attempting to demonstrate the earth’s rotation using his famous pendulum. The Wright Brothers might have been too fearful to carry out their sky-soaring antics, worried about eventually flying off the edge of the planet into a body-crushing black hole. For our species to be successful, we need solid, verifiable information. Without it we’re lost.
Here’s some of the psychological phenomenon that might be occurring in a typical Flat Earther.
This is a type of reasoning motivated towards reaching a conclusion that matches our pre-existing beliefs, resulting in feel-good positive emotions. When our beliefs are challenged, we experience an unpleasant, almost jarring sensation called cognitive dissonance—our confidence on the topic has been called into question, and we feel a strong urge to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling. There’s two ways to vanquish cognitive dissonance—replace our current idea with the new one being proposed, or blankly reject it. It’s obvious which one is easier—no cognitive effort is needed for rejection, but replacing the idea with something new requires us to search our memories for related information, and consider the logicality of it. The principle of least effort tells us that we’re probably going to reject the idea. Some Flat Earthers are so bold in their beliefs, with such an illusion of objectivity, that they probably never even arrive at cognitive dissonance, blankly rejecting the evidence before it has a chance to rear its head.
Motivated reasoning ensures that a Flat Earther experiences as little negative emotion as possible—an existence of blissful comfort in which they’re definitely right, without having to undergo the mental distress of getting to the actual truth. In the Flat Earth Netflix documentary Behind the Curve, cognitive dissonance is illustrated beautifully in the closing scenes, as Jaren Campanella tries to prove that the earth is flat by copying the Bedford Level experiment—an exercise carried out in the 19th century which proved the earth’s curvature. As the result of the experiment becomes clear, the mental anguish caused by Jaren’s cognitive dissonance is almost too painful to watch, as his mind wrestles with the terrifying notion that—despite having invested so much time, effort, and social credibility into his theory—he might be wrong after all. Motivated reasoning is a powerful force though—a peek at his Twitter account reveals his continued belief in the theory.
Motivated reasoning occurs when a person’s self-esteem, their future, or their understanding of the world are at stake. Disproving the theory that a Flat Earther spends their life promoting could destroy their self-esteem, put their future into question, and invalidate their understanding of how the world works. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that Mr Campanella’s brain subconsciously protects itself with the mental gymnastics of motivated reasoning.
This theory is supported by another psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias, which explains our tendency to actively seek out information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, and ignore information that contradicts with it.
Contrary evidence—equally as visible as everything else—conveniently fades into the background. Though we may enjoy the occasional flirtation with an opposing idea, we want to be right about our deeply-held beliefs, because it does wonders for our confidence and sense of surety.
As our Google results flash up, our eyes make a beeline for the link that matches our theory. As we talk with our friends, our ears bring up the volume for words that agree with ours, and hit the mute button for words that disagree. As we furrow our brows and try to recall something from our saturated brain, we remember the information that matches our beliefs, and ignore everything else.
When our convictions are presented to us from the real world, they’re glowing with a sparkling resonance, which we grab at like greedy children in order to boost our delicate egos. This is especially true if we have strong emotional ties to the belief, which would undoubtedly be the case for Flat Earthers, who must surely be on the receiving end of regular bouts of ridicule.
Tribalism and belonging
As our species evolved, fitting into our group was a matter of life and death, resulting in our yearning desire to belong. We desperately want everyone to accept us, because in the past, it gave us a much better chance of survival. We’re social animals to the core. The desire to belong is so universal that it’s found within every single culture on the planet. The alternative to belonging to a group is anxiety-fuelled loneliness — a harsh social pain that motivates us to seek out a tribe that we can call our own.
Perched on the fringes of society, with an intense hankering to be proven right, Flat Earthers must surely welcome new believers with open arms. This isn’t an exclusive club that everyone is dying to get into, but a motley crue of oddball characters, who’ll take anyone that they can get. Once immersed into the community, a new member might find themselves glowing with a sense of acceptance and belonging, feeling as though they’re finally part of a group who gets them, and will protect them from the emotional danger of a cruel, unforgiving world. Though it’s difficult to believe, their fellow Flat Earthers are the only people who can see through the biggest illusion in human history, and they’re lucky enough to be a part of this wonderful tribe, flushed with the idea of finally being connected with a common identity, and one of such obvious importance!
A fierce loyalty develops towards the group, which is to protected at all costs. Danger to the tribe is danger to the individual. The affiliation that is shared between a group of individuals is too precious to be left exposed—an invaluable bond that restores the self-esteem of each and every member. A tribe is worth its weight in gold.
Confidence is a wonderful feeling. It’s the universe telling us that we’re doing well, despite the repeated failures of our past. We feel energised and willing to tackle things heads on, fuelled by an expansive feeling of power.
Confidence goes hand-in-hand with being (or at least feeling) right. As a fresh Flat Earther indoctrinates themselves into the group—confidence strengthened with each new piece of “evidence”—a feeling of superiority emerges, and they cannot believe how everyone else can be so foolish. They’re suddenly oozing with a self-confidence that has been lacking their whole lives. Not only do their fellow believers want to talk to them, they actually agree with them! They become immersed in a serene and reverberant echo chamber, in which everyone repeatedly confirms each other’s absurd beliefs.
Electrified with a new-found optimism, a Flat Earther may feel the need to spread their truth to as many people as possible, filled with passionate and seemingly enduring confidence. Such a feeling is addictive to say the least—how good it feels to be right for a change; what a contrast to the apathetic disengagement that accompanied life before Flat Earth. Why would I ever want to go back to that?
A Flat Earther might finally feel that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, becoming impassioned with meaning and purpose—a newly christened acolyte to the cause. When we come across something that is personally meaningful to us, we’re drawn to it like wasps to a lollipop, invigorated with motivation.
Our personal sense of meaning and the beliefs that follow from it form a strong part of our identity. Imagine how lost an Islamic extremist might feel after suddenly and spectacularly losing their faith? The core part of their identity has vanished into mist, to be replaced with — what?
What could be more important than a sense of personal meaning? After the philosophical “death” of god, who for centuries was the sole source of meaning for most people, existentialists such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus spent their lives trying to understand how to replace such a formidable force. Without meaning, life can seem completely pointless. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the irrational belief in an omnipotent, beaming god, or the irrational belief in the earth being shaped like a pancake. The outcome is the same—a confident, fulfilling contentment, drawn from the idea that existence actually means something, and I’ve finally found out what that is, so good luck prying that from my white-knuckled grip.
Confounded disbelief is a common reaction to believers of the Flat Earth theory, until you examine the complex psychological processes at play. Credulity becomes forgivable in the face of such powerful forces. Our understanding of the inner workings of our minds—particularly their motivating biases, fallacies, and illogicalities—seems essential in order for us to create a more concrete reality, so that that we navigate our world with greater confidence. In a climate of increasingly alarming misinformation and fake news, this seems more important than ever.