Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
It takes almost no effort to make a child believe in Santa Claus. Step one? Put some presents under a Christmas tree every year. Step two? Tell the child that Santa Claus put them there. Result? You’ve got a Santa-believer on your hands, and you have evolution to thank for it.
Belief is the topic of science writer and historian Michael Shermer’s TEDTalk on the patterns and Darwinian instincts behind self-deception. Even as a noted skeptic — in fact, as editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine — Shermer asserts that belief is the natural human state, and that it is science and reason that seem unnatural to us. During his time on the stage, he pulls away the curtain that divides us from our understanding of why we are prone to believe ultimately illogical, at times fantastical, things.
Santa Claus and, as we’ll see, his mystical compatriots the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, are cultural as well as psychological phenomena that serve as apt examples of our propensity for self-deception. However, they aren’t the examples Shermer employs in his explanation. After all, their creation is too recent to represent the development of belief. He must travel a long way back in time.
To describe why humans are evolutionarily programmed to believe unquestioningly in what he calls “active agents” even when we cannot see them, he asks us to imagine a distant human ancestor walking a plain in Africa. Perhaps she’s enjoying a blue sky and a sunny day, until she hears a suspicious noise in a bush but can’t see its source. Now, she must choose a course of action based on the question, is the noise just the passive wind, or is it a dangerous predator, an active agent with the intention to attack? What she chooses to believe might very well save her life, or end it.
This decision, Shermer says, and I think we can agree, is a crucial one. Should the ancestor believe it’s only the wind when really a lion is lurking nearby, the potential for disaster is high. However, if she believes it is a lion and proceeds more cautiously when in fact it is only the wind, the only cost to her well-being is, perhaps, a little self-deception — cautious self-deception that, when practiced, may actually save her life under similar circumstances in the future.
Of course, “self-deception” might seem like a fairly heavy-handed term to use in describing the average 5-year-old’s belief in Santa Claus. So let’s extend the metaphor, as Shermer does, back to our ancestors. As a little girl, the ancestor likely learns about the dangers of the savannah as her consciousness develops, as her brain makes connections that help to make logical sense of the world. She begins to understand that cause-and-effect, if-then thought processes, or lapses thereof, can lead to survival or extinction. Beliefs born of patterned thought take hold, and eventually leave a legacy in her 21st century progeny that states, “It is more prudent to believe wrongly than not to believe and be wrong.”
While children might come to believe in Santa Claus at an early age at which they believe what their parents tell them without question, many of them do mental gymnastics to keep the belief alive even once older siblings or too-cool classmates drop the bomb that it’s the parents at the center of the annual yuletide conspiracy. By the time they hear this, kids are often old enough to understand how it makes more scientific, logical sense that parents are the cause of the gifts, and not a preternaturally benevolent old man hailing from the North Pole. Yet, the belief impulse wants to prevail.
This kind of blind belief in the face of fact becomes even more aggressive when partnered with our brain’s desire to find patterns. With precedents such as Pavlov’s dog and Skinner’s mice on his side, Shermer explains how, in an attempt to make sense of our surroundings and situations in life, our brains are programmed to create patterns, even where there are none. According to Shermer, this mental process, which accounts for gaps in logic, is deeply related to our predisposition toward belief.
Even after the trauma and embarrassment of “finding out” that some of our childhood beliefs are unfounded in reality, it’s a rare adult indeed who doesn’t self-deceive — or, I think I’d rather say, doesn’t believe in something or other that isn’t logically airtight. Belief doesn’t always, or even usually, involve jolly old men, spirituality, or lions crouching in the brush. Most often, we believe out of intuition, or self-preservation: it’s physically safer than not to buckle our seatbelts; it’s psychologically safer to believe our sister will pull through her surgery than to not believe. Survival is nothing more than the self-deception it is nicer to call “belief.”