The Psychology of Flat Earthers, and Why They Refuse to See The Truth

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Image from NY Post

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.

Motivated reasoning

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 dissonanceour 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 disprove the Flat Earth theory 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.

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Image from Chainsawsuit.com

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

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?

Meaning

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.

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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.

Why you should distrust your beliefs

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“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” — H. L. Mencken

The evidence is overwhelming: Trump is an imbecile, and a dangerous one. The frequency of his lies are astonishing. For a (supposedly) sane person like me, the fact that he was ever voted into office, and continues to serve as the head of state, beggars belief. How can his supporters continue to stand by his side in the face of the lies, scandals, and clear evidence of Trump’s hilarious incompetency? How can they be so stupid?

Social psychology has the answer, and its implications are frightening. The phenomenon is known as motivated reasoning, and it causes us to blankly reject solid evidence that challenges our beliefs. Clearly, this can be a dangerous cognitive failing at certain times, such as voting for a president. There’s a few reasons why this phenomenon occurs:

Cognitive dissonance
This is the mental discomfort that you experience when your beliefs are challenged. Few people like discomfort, so we’ll do whatever we can to reduce it. The quickest way to neutralise cognitive dissonance is to simply reject the challenging idea; no effort needs to be expended to figure out whether the challenge is accurate. We can simply reject, regain our comfort, and move on. Default notions are much easier.

The alternative way to dispel discomfort is rationalisation, which we consider to be logical and accurate, but is actually just another way for us to reinforce our own idea. Reasoning is permeated with emotion – our feelings about an idea surface much faster than conscious, logical thought, so our first reaction to them is emotional, and therefore less likely to be based in reality.

“Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” —Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber

Our delicate egos
Much of our confidence is hinged on being right. Challenging a strongly-held belief is like taking a large stick and bashing somebody’s self-esteem with it. We want to protect ourselves at all cost, and the way that we do that is by rejecting conflicting evidence and holding onto our beliefs ever more tightly. In a sense, our beliefs are our identity, and threatening our identity is a dangerous attack which we’ll defend against using the strongest means possible: outright rejection of the belief, or rationalisation.

“The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth.” — Jonathan Haidt

Our tribe protects us
Our primitive times instilled a sense of tribal loyalty, which ensured our survival. If we were foolish enough to have coveted our neighbour’s delectable chimp wife, and upon discovery were cast out of the tribe, that probably would have meant death. To this day, our tribal instincts are incredibly strong. Republicans stick with Republicans, Democrats with Democrats. If you challenge a core belief of my political party, I’m very likely to outrightly reject it.

We’ve confirmed our beliefs extensively
“I don’t care whether you’re presenting overwhelming, contrary evidence to me, I’ve spent hours reading about this topic myself.”

What has actually happened is that the hours were spent reading every piece of content that agreed with my opinion, and completely ignoring that which disagreed. This is known as confirmation bias. 

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We’re far from logical
Though we might like to consider ourselves as straightforward, logical people, the reality is that much of our decision making involves a good deal of emotion. We wouldn’t even be able to make a decision if we were 100% logical, as discovered by an unfortunate gentleman with a brain tumour. Clearly, the ludicrous man that is Donald Trump isn’t a logical choice for president, but emotionally, his supporters think that he is.

As an intelligent human, you might assume that you’ll be able to outsmart the devlish process of motivated reasoning. You’d be totally wrong – smart people are even more susceptible, because their increased levels of knowledge just make it harder for them to let go of their belief.

We have a stake in the belief
Maybe we just purchased a gleaming, curvaceous diesel Jaguar XE, and desperately want to believe that climate change is nonsense, so that we don’t feel bad about pumping diesel fumes into the atmosphere. Climate change is invisible and intangible, but our sense of moral worthiness is close to hand. The scientists must be wrong.

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Motivated reasoning is one of the culprits behind absurdities such as flat-earth theory, anti-vaxxing, and climate-change denial. The first is mildly humourous, the second will kill innocent children, and the third might end up killing a quarter of a million people a year. Obviously, what we choose to believe can have a devastating impact on our species, so being aware of motivated reasoning, and knowing how you might be able to combat it, is of urgent importance.

Here’s some ways in which you might battle your own destructive biases:

Be skeptical about your own beliefs
In light of the fact that our identity is pinged on our beliefs, this can be immensely demanding. We want to believe that we’re smart, reasonable human beings with a good idea of what’s going on around us. Being skeptical about our own beliefs might be a form of self-flagellation, in which we inflict bloody pain to cast out sinful, factually incorrect demons. Casting intentional doubt on our beliefs will cause us mental suffering, but the reward is more accurate reflection of reality, which could be the difference between life and death.

Check the credibility of your information
Tabloid newspapers aren’t credible. The ten facts about immigration that your redneck cousin posted on Facebook probably isn’t credible. The mysterious bleatings of an evangelical Christian on TV isn’t credible. It’s your responsibility to figure out whether your information is coming from an unbiased source, and so much of what we receive every day is biased. Everyone has desires that they’re motivated to achieve, and they won’t think twice about bending the truth in order to achieve them. Even if the person you’re speaking to isn’t trying to achieve a conscious desire, they’re still unconsciously trying to affirm their beliefs in order to protect their own egos.

Watch out for cognitive dissonance
When your beliefs are challenged, feeling uncomfortable is a cue to be cautious – you’ll want to seek out affirming evidence to remove the uncomfortableness. At this point you might try to deliberately soften your attitude, and consider whether the opposing belief may be correct. The more value that you place on your belief, the stronger the cognitive dissonance, and the harder it’ll be to persuade you otherwise. Keep a close eye on this, and have the courage to change your mind if you’re faced with strong opposing evidence.

Consider how your belief might be benefiting you
What do you gain by holding onto your belief? Maybe your entire family are republicans, and by switching sides, you’d no longer have their loyalty or respect? Maybe it’s just peace of mind? For climate-change deniers, the idea that we’re destroying our own planet has distressing consequences for us, and we’d rather not believe it to be true.

Work on your self-esteem
Research has shown that the better your self-esteem, the more willing you’ll be to accept threatening information, because you won’t need to be so protective of your beliefs. A much easier way of doing this is to consider something good about yourself; some personal value that you’ve achieved. This improves your confidence and makes you more accepting of challenging arguments.

Get off social media
Social media apps are motivated reasoning on crack – your friends probably hold the same beliefs as you, spread the same beliefs as you, and reinforce the same beliefs as you, regardless of whether they’re true. The Russians knew this, and used it effectively to help Trump win the election.

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It’s easy to poke fun at Trump supporters, until you realise that we’re subject to the exact same cognitive biases as them. In another life, you could have been a Trump supporter, or a pitiable flat-earther. Fighting the phenomenon of motivated reasoning is difficult, but a worthy pursuit. Without this laborious undertaking, we might find ourselves harnessing a belief that will literally help to destroy our own planet. It’s urgently important for us to reject bad ideas and promote good ones. The truth is out there, and much of it doesn’t yet reside in your head. Have the courage to pursue the truth, and in the process you might just help to save our species.