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The Social Roots of Irrationality

17 October 2022

Many animals navigate their environments with the use of internal models. It is tempting to think of human beliefs as just a highly complex example of this strategy. On this view, our beliefs are – to quote the philosopher Frank Ramsey – the “maps by which we steer.” Like maps, they function to provide us with accurate information that we can use in navigating the world, and they are specialised for this role. Because their function is to track how things are, for example, they are highly responsive to evidence concerning how things are.

Many beliefs are difficult to reconcile with this perspective. Most obviously, if beliefs are the maps by which we steer, why are so many people’s maps so radically misaligned with reality? People often believe in strange supernatural entities and forces, in cartoonish battles between Good and Evil, in bizarre conspiracies, in unfounded hierarchies of race, caste, and gender, and more.

Of course, in some cases inaccurate beliefs are simply mistakes. People are deceived, they have limited information, and they succumb to various thinking errors. Many unfounded beliefs are difficult to understand as mistakes, however. People are often attached to such beliefs. They cling dogmatically to them, scramble around for rationalisations of them, and process any evidence that bears on them in extremely biased ways.

In trying to understand such tendencies, a long tradition in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and psychology looks inward to the believer’s mind. According to this tradition, self-deception has psychological and emotional functions – for example, in protecting the ego or self-image, in reducing cognitive dissonance, or in producing reassuring feelings of certainty and control.

In my work, I’ve argued that this perspective is largely mistaken. Drawing on and integrating the research of many others (e.g., 1, 2, 3, and 4), I’ve argued that the true origins of many bad beliefs lie not inside the minds of their believers but in the incentives of social life.

Humans are ultra-social animals, utterly dependent for our success and even survival on the impression that we make on others. The beliefs that we hold influence that impression. That is, beliefs are not just maps by which we steer; they are maps that are objects of intense social scrutiny and evaluation. The beliefs that perform well under such observation are sometimes different from – sometimes radically different from – the beliefs that are best supported by evidence. When people respond to these incentives, the result is socially adaptive beliefs – and some of the most consequential and damaging forms of human irrationality.

There are two basic categories of socially adaptive beliefs.

First, we are biased towards beliefs that we benefit from propagating to others. At the individual level, this explains strong tendencies towards self-serving and self-enhancing beliefs. We inflate our positive qualities, downplay our negative ones, frame our futures in optimistic ways, and interpret our actions and attitudes in a socially attractive light. Once we identify with groups, such tendencies often generalise to group-serving and group-aggrandising beliefs, including – especially under conditions of intergroup conflict – beliefs that demonise outgroups and justify their maltreatment. In this way tendencies to believe our own propaganda are central to everything from everyday self-deception to prejudice, conspiracy theories, and system-justifying ideologies.

Second, we are biased towards beliefs that signal our traits and loyalties. Humans are obsessive impression managers. We shape almost every aspect of our behaviour in the service of displaying – and often exaggerating – our socially attractive qualities and allegiances to different communities. These signalling motivations don’t stop at outward behaviour, however. They mould our beliefs and worldviews. For example, we often believe not to get at the truth but to signal our group identities and loyalties and to display our willingness to conform to local norms. The signalling functions of beliefs are thus relevant to understanding everything from political beliefs to modern culture wars, from conspiracy theories to the emergence of monotheistic religions.

Of course, it never feels that one’s beliefs are influenced by social incentives. Everyone upholds a comforting illusion of objectivity, bolstered by strategic cognitive biases and post hoc rationalisations. Moreover, when socially adaptive beliefs align in communities of co-believers, this illusion is often amplified and protected through subtle forms of social cooperation and coordination. We reward those who do the hard work required to justify our preferred beliefs, for example, and we shun and ostracise those who challenge them.

Why does this social perspective on irrational beliefs matter?

First, if we think of self-deception as a defensive response to a painful or distressing reality, eliminating self-deception is best left to individuals, and we should not be very hopeful they will succeed. In contrast, if how people think and reason is highly sensitive to social incentives, we can try to re-design our social worlds so that they reward more rational forms of thought. Reality will never cease to be painful or distressing, but the social norms with which we evaluate, condemn, and reward beliefs and reasoning can change and improve.

Second, once we understand that many unfounded beliefs are responses to social incentives, this should reconfigure our understanding of those who hold such beliefs. There is and always has been a strong temptation to understand bad beliefs as produced by a combination of propaganda and popular credulity. This perspective is misguided. People are neither stupid nor gullible; they are rational and vigilant. Given people’s social goals, however, many unfounded beliefs are rational responses to social incentives. To address such cases, we will make more progress attending to the social conditions that make certain beliefs attractive than by focusing on the more familiar bogeymen of misinformation and gullibility.


Picture: Charles De Luvio on Unsplash


  1. Kevin

    Let’s be logical. Our socialization is organized through our exploded (in evolutionary terms) frontal cortex. Which rules over one of our key formats of thought: mythological AKA narrative. As externalized, our irrational biases thrive in this format, openly in fictional narrative and hidden in so-called non fictional forms (history and news). Know the formats they stand between the brain and reality.

  2. Mike

    Your comments relating to reputation management, signalling and group incentives/disincentives are probably correct though are in competition with personality factors and internalised norms in some cases. What I find weak is your implicit view that there is a ‘reality’ out there to be discovered by ‘rational’ processes and that failure to adhere to such processes is readily apparent by beliefs such as ‘monotheistic religions’, ‘bizarre conspiracies’, ‘unfounded hierarchies of race, caste, and gender’ … and more! Wow. Do I detect a whiff of ‘signalling’ in this series of litmus tests, or just a touch of ‘irrationality’, or perhaps a slight deficit of ‘epistemic humility’. Life is very complicated….

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