The Psychology of Flat Earthers

flat-earthers (1)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 rampant 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 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 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.

1_O5mXneFq5X2EDUIz6INRPw.jpegImage 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.

The Bewitching Trickery of Language

antonio-grosz-327775-unsplashPhoto by Antonio Grosz on Unsplash

Language is a wonderful thing. It allows us to categorise, simplify and describe our complex and confusing universe, applying words to objects and actions that might otherwise remain as unusual blobs of shifting shape and colour, forever unlabelled and elusive. Language brings order, creating a beautiful, intricate structure that we use to create common understanding within our species, paving the way for mastery of our environment.

Language is magnificent, but there’s a downside to this wonderful ability. Language is so deeply embedded in our nature, and used so liberally, that we often forget that its primary function is to describe our world. We confuse the descriptive word that comes out of our mouth with the thing itself, as though the word is more real than the thing we’re describing. A cow isn’t the word cow; it’s the burly, black and white thing with the nipple-clad, pink undercarriage standing in front of you. The word cow is just a label that we use to identify something, not the thing itself.

The confusion between expression and reality was illustrated wonderfully by French artist Rene Magritte, who painted a pipe with the words “this is not a pipe,” cleverly reminding the viewer that the image of the pipe is not an actual pipe, just as the word cow isn’t an actual cow, but simply a useful noise that you’ve made with your mouth.

the-treachery-of-images-rene-magritteRene Magritte — The Treachery of Images

Another great example is from semantics scholar Alfred Korzybski, who remarked that “the map is not the territory,” highlighting the common confusion between models of reality (the map) with reality itself (the territory). The map is purely a representation of the landscape, just as the word cow is a representation of an enormous, methane-oozing animal that likes nothing more than to spend its day grazing and mooing.

Confusing the label/representation with the actual thing that is being described can have the regrettable consequence of diminishing our appreciation of it, by reducing it down to nothing but a mere abstraction. The sound that we make when we say cow can never be as wonderfully intricate as the actual thing that we’re identifying, and while language is effective at categorising our world, it can have the unfortunate side-effect of removing all sense of depth and curiosity from our observed object. In reality, a cow is a natural marvel that can weigh over 1300kg, has 360-degree panoramic vision, and can smell something from over 6 miles away. The word cow is just a useful abstraction—great for simplification, but with the downside of blinding us to the marvellous minutia of the actual animal itself. As we simplify, so we depreciate.

“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”—Virginia Woolf

One might say that the glass that I’m currently drinking out of is just a glass, but in reality it’s an invention with an almost 4000-year history, originating in the heat of India, advancing towards Europe to the mighty Roman Empire, and eventuating as a handy drinking receptacle used by billions of people worldwide. It’s much more than just a glass. By reducing something down to a single word, and then confusing the word with the actual thing itself, we’re compelled to forget its rich history and delightful features, and so take it for granted.

Language is not reality. When we realise this, we’re brought closer to reality, being forced to recognise that the sounds that we utter are a mere abstraction, with the real world right before our eyes. Words create an impressive and convincing illusion, in which we come to identify everything in the real world as nothing but a selection of muttered letters—short, compartmentalised, and boring.

“To see the truth you need to step out of the word jungle”—Bharath Gollapudi, Quora

Sam Mendes’ masterpiece American Beauty reminds us of our world’s dazzling intricacy by encouraging us to look closer—an invitation to expand on an all-too-brief, short assessment of a thing, to better understand its hidden beauty.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”—Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

There’s an entire life behind things—endless, fascinating detail, which we have better access to if we remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. Even something as seemingly banal as a plastic bag, dancing in the wind, can be heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We just have to look closer.

A similar theme can be found in Alejandro Iñárritu’s impressive film Birdman. During one scene, the protagonist actor Thomson Riggan rages at villainous critic Tabitha Dickinson, accusing her of mistaking words and labels for the reality that they represent:

“Let’s read your fuckin’ review. ‘Callow.’ Callow is a label. It’s just… ‘Lackluster.’ That’s just a label. Margin… marginalia. Are you kidding me? Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. That’s a label too. These are all just labels. You just label everything. That’s so fuckin’ lazy… You just… You’re a lazy fucker. You’re a lazy… [picks up a flower] You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don’t, You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge.”—Riggan Thomson, Birdman

For Riggan, the critic who promises to “kill his play” is a fraud, failing to look past her abrupt descriptions to a deeper truth that she is too lazy and complacent to see. As a writer, Dickinson is so immersed in the world of language that she’s unable to separate words from reality, choosing to pigeonhole Riggan and his play before she’s even witnessed it. This is just one small, subtle element of a major theme of the movie—the confusion of fantasy and reality. Though Riggan frequently delves into fantasy himself, undergoing impossible feats such as moving objects with his mind, he’s aware of the beguiling potential of words, even keeping a sign at his dressing room desk that says “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”.

If we want to increase our world’s worth before our eyes, we must remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. This is not to say that we should spend our days wandering from object to object, mouth agape at everything we encounter. We need semantic brevity in order to get shit done. But if we pause from time to time and examine our world a little more closely, our blessed sense of appreciation will be heightened, and we’ll slowly become more grateful for this spectacular, fascinating world that we’re living in.

 

How to defeat shame and embarrassment

3048648-poster-p-3-how-i-get-it-done-wallow-in-your-failureBrene Brown, photo by fastcompany

“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” – Leonard Cohen

Humans, while quite lovely at times, can be a spiteful bunch. The merciless critic within us, that character who always makes us feel better about ourselves, lets loose his disapproving expression or wicked tongue, the recipient of which is cast into a filthy pit of shame.

Shame is a result of undue, unfair, or badly-delivered criticism and judgment, adding to an anesthetized feeling of unworthiness. When we’re experiencing shame, we want to withdraw from the world; to run away from the thing that’s causing us damage. Experience enough of it over time, and we’ll make ourselves so small that we may as well not exist.

Brene Brown is a research professor from Houston who has spent much of her career studying shame. In her extraordinary book Daring Greatly, she explores the devastating impact of shame on our lives, and offers a powerful antidote: vulnerability.

Many of us might think of vulnerability as weakness. To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to damage, and we live in a perilous world with physical and mental danger around every corner. Surely it’s better to protect ourselves? As it turns out, being constantly guarded is tantamount to being invisible – we must risk vulnerability in order to achieve anything worthwhile.

“Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And yes, we’re taking huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.” – Brene Brown

Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it’s strength. It’s a prerequisite for progress – you simply cannot hope to achieve anything unless you’re willing to take risks. Every compromising gamble could end up in success, or failure, but you’ll never find out which unless you have the guts to throw the dice.

Shame cloaks us in fear, preventing us from being vulnerable. Every disparaging look that lighted upon us and every small failure that befell us has helped to assemble an impenetrable suit of shame armour that we wear to protect ourselves. Brown is wonderfully candid throughout the book, describing her own farcical attempts at self-preservation:

“All of my stages were different suits of armour that kept me from becoming too engaged and too vulnerable. Each strategy was built on the same premise: keep everyone at a safe distance and always have an exit strategy.” – Brene Brown

If shame is the excavator of quick, cowardly exits, vulnerability is how you board them up. Slowly, with enough practice, you’ll become comfortable with the uncomfortableness of being vulnerable, and though there’ll be times when you’ll want to shamefully escape using the swiftest of exits, you’ll usually possess the strength to stand true, and with a bit of luck, achieve great things.

“As I look back on what I’ve learned about shame, gender, and worthiness, the greatest lesson is this: If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light.” – Brene Brown

The hazards of life are thrust upon us daily, and every time that happens we’re faced with a simple choice – cowardly withdrawal, or knightly, engaging vulnerability; to camouflage ourselves and fade comfortably into the background, or put a tentative foot forward, place ourselves in all kinds of jeopardy, and maybe accomplish something that makes us feel like worthy human beings.

“Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.” – Brene Brown

Though we’re horrified at the prospect of being vulnerable, it evokes unadulterated admiration when we witness it in other people. It’s a trait for which we hold a heartfelt appreciation – this person has the courage to step reluctantly into the abyss, and the audacity to push their chips forward, cross their fingers, and throw the dice. They’re risking embarrassment, loss and failure, but at least they’re brave enough to play.

“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.” – Brene Brown

“We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us. We’re afraid that our truth isn’t enough – that what we have to offer isn’t enough without the bells and whistles, without editing and impressing.” – Brene Brown

Brown places great emphasis on the idea of wholeheartedness, which is living your life from a place of worthiness; a place where you realise that you are undeniably valuable, deserving of happiness, with the courage to be vulnerable. This is a position from which you’ll experience and affirm everything in your life – fear, pain, doubt, depression, amusement, bliss, joy – everything. By answering life with a resounding yes, you’re fully participating in your own existence.

“Much of the beauty of light owes its existence to the dark. The most powerful moments of our lives happen when we string together the small flickers of light created by courage, compassion, and connection and see them shine in the darkness of our struggles.” – Brene Brown

“We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” – Brene Brown

“The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything—from their professional success, to their marriages, to their proudest parenting moments—to their ability to be vulnerable.” – Brene Brown

It’s a choice between shying away from vulnerability and remaining on the sidelines of your life, or taking a deep breath, strapping on your boots, and running onto the field, brimming with fear but truly alive.

“Our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story. We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness.” – Brene Brown

“It’s easier to live disappointed that it is to feel disappointed. It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment than to just set up camp there. You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain.” – Brene Brown

While we’ll never be able to fully silence shame-inducing critique (whether from ourselves or others), we can combat the crippling feeling of shame by practicing gutsy and relentless vulnerability, stepping into the world as opposed to withdrawing from it. We adore vulnerability in others, and yet, when it’s time for us to enter the fray unprotected, running away becomes a tempting option. When we do muster up the courage to take the plunge, we’re transformed into objects of admiration, and during those moments, we’re living wholeheartedly.

“I remember a very tender moment from that year, when Steve and I were lying on the floor watching Ellen do a series of crazy, arm-flinging, and knee-slapping dances and tumbles. I looked at Steve and said, ‘Isn’t it funny how I just love her that much more for being so vulnerable and uninhibited and goofy. I could never do that. Can you imagine knowing that you’re loved like that?’ Steve looked at me and said, ‘I love you exactly like that.’ Honestly, as someone who rarely risked vulnerability and always steered clear of silly or goofy, it never dawned on me that adults could love each other like that; that I could be loved for my vulnerabilities, not despite them.” – Brene Brown

The importance of good ideas

1_QBg4nJeGIW2yDjgyWMrMVAPhoto by Vale Zmeykov on Unsplash

Death – that fiercly dark, inescapable lurker – eventually reveals his position to every one of us, and sweeps us away. If you’re lucky, it could be while you’re softly snoring in your bed, as a blood clot torpedos its way towards your unsuspecting heart. If you’re unlucky, you’ll contract a horrible, drawn out disease with no cure, and stink up your hospital room in the process. The end result is just the same – this life as you know it comes to a close, and you return to the same state as before you were born, a state impossible for anyone to describe.

While we may not be able to persist for eternity (as if that would be a good thing), there’s something that we can create which does continue into the future: our ideas. We can concoct wonderful concepts in our brains, and magically transplant them into the brains of other people, some of which can be passed on and thrive within human culture for millenia. Controversial scientist Richard Dawkins expands on this idea in his book The Selfish Gene, in which he proposes the idea of the meme, which like its biological counterpart the gene, has the ability to self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. This was the definition of memes before the internet took over and turned it into something trivial. Dawkins’ meme is a truly perceptive concept which imbues our ideas with a life of their own; an existence that can adapt, thrive, or die, much like ourselves. The ideas that we send out into the world can be devastingly prolific, or fade away with a depressing whimper. They can live in the minds of entire continents, influencing the behaviour of their hosts in unforeseen ways. This is why it’s so important to ensure that our ideas are good and beneficial to the human race, to the extent that we judge them so. Bad ideas are like a cancer, which can infect multitudes of people and end up annihilating us. Climate change deniers are an example of this – the asburd idea that they hold in their heads might literally end up killing us all. This might be considered more murderous than any cancer that can develop in our bodies, and its effectiveness is strengthened dramatically by the rise of the internet, a network that serves as a superhighway for bad ideas.

Truth is the necessary antidote to such evils. We all have a moral responsibility to send good, true ideas out into the world, which nourish the human race. Worthy ideas are like sustenance for the soul, as though you’re consuming the most nutritious, perfectly balanced meal available to you. Bad ideas are tantamount to visiting McDonalds every day – eventually, they might kill you. The information that you share with your fellow chimps is much more important than you might realise, and so some moments of consideration are required in order to prevent the spread of cancerous concepts. This is why good journalism and writing is such a crucial part of society – we need excellent journalists to counteract the stream of incessent bullshit that is fired at us from every imaginable angle. The truth is often difficult to uncover; certainly not as easy as clicking on the first few Google search results and then re-writing what you’ve discovered. Anything worthwhile takes time, and anyone committed to the truth should realise this, lest they get drawn into the dark world of damaging falsities. Fake news is a genuine problem in today’s world, the validity of which is being undermined every time that Trump incorrectly labels something as fake news, in order to cover up a glaring truth about himself. It’s a part of Trump’s ongoing war with the media, in which he’s going so far as expressing his approval of assaulting journalists, because of their responsibility and gratifying effectiveness at illuminating his obscenities. Earlier this year at one of Trump’s rallies, his supporters were filmed mercilessly abusing the media – a direct result of the president’s words.

The bigger the audience, the more construction or destruction the person can inflict upon the world. The concept can be extended to celebrities, who whether by talent or sheer luck, have amassed monumental audiences in which they can effectively spread an endless amount of awful ideas. Take the Kardashians or any one of their ilk, who whether realising it or not, are spreading the destructive notion that you have to look and dress a certain way in order to be considered beautiful. Their absurd fame is genuinely bad for the human race, notably for young impressionable girls whose self-esteem would be better nourished if they followed the pursuits of people who were actually worthwhile. Sadly, Marie Curie or Rosa Parks don’t have quite the same entertainment value as an over-inflated celebrity with a head full of air.

Our society can only flourish if we help to foster good ideas, and root out bad ones. A solid foundation requires strength and durability, which can only be found in valuable truth. Anything built on deceit will crumble when put to the test, which could happen to our species unless we make a concerted effect to propogate lasting, effective ideas, while at the same time rallying against duplicitious nonsense. Like Karl Pilkington’s Bullshit Man, if you witness somebody in the act of spouting inaccurate drivel, call them out on it, preferably in a similarly dramatic fashion.

We’re all destined for the grave, but our ideas don’t have to be. A small part of us can continue into the future, and if you choose to live with integrity, you might just improve the human race in the process.

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