500 years ago astronomers thought that the sun revolved around the Earth, woman thought that rubbing dog urine on their face was good for their skin, mapmakers thought that California was an island, and doctors believed that cutting their patients open and making them bleed would cure sickness.
How did such ridiculous beliefs propagate? One answer is that people simply didn’t have good access to information at the time. But I think that there is a deeper answer. I think that believing in bullshit is not just something we do occasionally, but an essential part of our human nature.
Consider the following experiment. You put someone in a room with some buttons to push, and you tell them that there is something they can do that will make a light flash on, which means that they’ve won a point. But you don’t tell them what that thing is, leaving them to figure it out for themselves. Then you tell them to try to rack up as many points as possible in a 30 minute period, and you leave the room.
When you do this experiment, people typically start out by just pushing the buttons in different combinations. Doing this usually gets them a point, so they try to recall which combination they pushed right before the light flashed on. When they try to repeat this combination, however, it usually doesn’t give them a point, which makes them think that maybe the reason that they got a point was because of the way they were standing, or because of which fingers they used to press the buttons. So they experiment with different ways of standing, different fingers, and other variations. And this usually does eventually get them another point. Which makes them try even harder to pinpoint the exact specifics of what they were doing before the light flashed on. Soon, people start doing ridiculous things, like weird eye movement patterns.
But here’s the catch: the points are random. There is no “thing” that they have to do to win a point. Instead, the light just flashes randomly every once in a while.
And yet when people come out of this experiment, almost all of them think that they’ve figured out the game. They figure that since the light kept going off, they were doing it right. And they even believe that their ridiculous antics were not just appropriate, but downright brilliant. They say things like “it took me a lot of brainpower to figure out the pattern, but I finally did it.” Which is pretty hilarious, considering the fact that they’re obviously bullshitting us.
The human brain is a meaning making machine, and it’s a bit overqualified for its job. Which means that it will often find patterns even where there are none. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, because, when it comes to a pattern that might be a predator in a bush, it’s better to be safe than sorry. But in the modern world, it leads to issues, not the least of which is us falling for ideologies that are patently absurd.
And if there was ever an example of a patently absurd ideology, it would be that of white supremacy, the driving belief system behind the KKK. In an age where we are gearing up to send people to Mars, members of the KKK still believe that a large portion of a human being’s value is determined by the amount of melanin in their skin. The pattern of black people being inferior is not a real pattern, but some people’s brains, being the overqualified meaning making machines that they are, see it regardless.
And yet Daryl Davis is a black man who has spent a great deal of his life doing something many people consider baffling, enraging, and even impossible: making friends with members of the KKK.
In 1983, Daryl was playing country western music in a bar in Maryland when a man came up to him. The man praised Daryl’s playing, and the two got a drink together. However, when Daryl discussed the influence of black blues and boogie-woogie music on Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the man’s musical heroes, the man didn’t seem to believe him.
In the words of Daryl himself:
I explained to this guy that Jerry Lee Lewis was influenced by the same black boogie-woogie and blues piano players as I was. He didn’t believe me. Then I told him that Jerry Lewis is a good friend of mine and well, he didn’t believe that either, but he was fascinated. So he asks me to join him for a drink. Then he said, “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black person.”…So I asked him why. He didn’t answer at first but eventually admitted that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
At first, Daryl took the man’s statement as a joke. “I just burst out laughing because I really did not believe him,” he says. “[Then he] produced his Klan card and handed it to me. Immediately, I stopped laughing.”
But Daryl kept talking to the man. “The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted,” he recalled.
After that night, Daryl Davis began what The Guardian called “the world’s strangest side hustle.” When he wasn’t playing music, he would meet with KKK members, saying that he wanted to interview them. Because it seemed impossible for a black man to want to interview the KKK, he was assumed to be white, and his interview requests were accepted. When he arrived, however, and they saw that he was black, he was so respectful and civilized that they would had no choice but to speak to him regardless. He even attended some of the Klan’s rallies, and some of the members became close friends with him. As of today, over 200 people have left the Klan due to Daryl’s influence.
So, how did Daryl manage to persuade so many people? After all, persuasion is hard. Everyone has a resistance to change, and particularly a resistance to changing their beliefs.
The key to Daryl’s persuasion is his understanding of human psychology. Particularly, his understanding of the motivations behind why people will and won’t change their minds. People want to feel autonomous, and they want to feel that they alone are the determiners of their own beliefs. So when someone else challenges their beliefs, they are unlikely to simply roll over and change their minds, because that would challenge their sense of autonomy.
When talking to Klan members, Daryl uses people’s motivation for autonomy to his advantage. As he explains:
One’s perception is one’s reality. You cannot change anybody’s reality. If you try to change their reality, you’re going to get pushback, because they only know what they know. Whether it’s real or not, it’s their reality. So what you want to do is you want to offer them a better alternative perception. And if they resonate with your perception, then they will change their own reality.
The genius of Daryl’s method is that it softens people’s resistance to change. When you challenge someone’s reality they immediately get defensive, because their reality is everything to them, and because someone else tampering with their reality challenges their sense of autonomy. When you offer them new perceptions, however, you offer them the opportunity to challenge their own reality. This time, rather than being called into question, their sense of autonomy is heightened. Having changed their minds all on their own, they feel like the master of their own reality, even though you now have more influence over it.
Yes, human beings are perennially vulnerable to bullshit. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be forever victim to it. By softening each other’s resistance to chance, we can engage in genuine dialogues, in which we can discard our bullshit and move closer to truth. This doesn’t mean that we will all become completely free of delusion, of course. But it’s at least a start.