Sunday’s Wisdom #431: Belief is Contagious

“I have discovered that if all those around you believe some particular thing, you will soon be tempted to share in that belief.”
– Ahmad ibn Fadlan, Eaters of the Dead
By Michael Crichton

Ahmad makes this observation as, according to the story, he finds himself among people with very different beliefs from his own, and a number of superstitions as well. He finds himself embarrassed by a moment wherein he behaved according to one such fancy of theirs, and readily admits that he got caught up in the beliefs of those around him. It was ridiculous, but there ya go. In fairness, it’s easier to buy into any fairy tale when one is facing the bogeyman, and, at the time, Ahmad was standing with these same people against exactly that, the monsters from their scary stories. But even in the most mundane of circumstance, it holds true: simply by the pressure of overwhelming numerical superiority, it is difficult to disagree with everyone around us.

Monkey see, monkey do, monkey believe.

Belief is contagious.

I’ve seen countless examples of this in action. A magician fooled several people into acting like monkeys from an old experiment, and there was only one who was skeptical, but he wasn’t able to figure out the trick because everyone else was pulling him along. Then there was a psychological experiment that put one unknowing woman among a knowing crowd who did something ridiculous, silently pressuring her to do the same alongside them, and later, even when there was no crowd, she found herself doing the same and spreading it to everyone else who came into her company, none of which knew what the heck they were doing. And let us never forget the infinite number of times where the crowd has flowed in exactly the wrong direction because that’s just how it was, and those who dared to buck against the trend were torn to pieces for it.

Just earlier, I came across an account of something which is happening right now, where a Vtuber – ie, a person who is just getting up to entertain folks on Twitch and YouTube for a living – has been vilified, bullied to the point of tears, and threatened with death by people who proclaim themselves “tolerant.” Why? Because she played the latest Harry Potter game, which has a threadbare connection anymore to JK Rowling, who these people believe that Rowling oppresses trans-people. Why do they believe it? Because the crowd they are in happens to believe it. It’s been told to them so many times, and for this they crucify someone who has done them no wrong.

That is the sad state of the world right now, a sadness that is only enhanced by the absurdity of it all.

Crowds are pitted against crowds, squashing individuals between and among them, and the individuals who make up these crowds are swallowed up in the beliefs of those around them, which they carry on no matter how sane or foolish they may be.

Belief is such an easy thing, isn’t it? Even for the most jaded and stubborn of us, it can be all but impossible to not believe something when that belief is all around us.

We are like the child who is told they are worthless over and over and over again by a parent, or a teacher, or a crowd, eventually coming to believe it themselves, not because it’s true – it isn’t – but because that is the world which has been presented to them, a’la The Truman Show.

To believe something is easy.

To have it be our own belief, gained from our own experience, our own search of questions and answers, and our own will, that is hard. And absolutely essential both for ourselves and for the future of mankind.

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