Irrational Idol
Kennon-Green & Co. Global Asset Management, Wealth Management, Investment Advisory, and Value Investing

Have you ever met someone, or seen someone on television, who has insane, completely irrational beliefs?  These beliefs could be scientific.  They could be religious.  They could be political.  They could be racial.  They could be philosophical.  The particular manifestation doesn’t matter.  

An example would be the stoning to death of a woman accused of adultery a couple of days ago on the other side of the world.  How could this happen?  How could people behave in such immoral and non-ethical ways?  How do men and women who are otherwise sane, and even good, come to believe in ideas that should be laughable?  

To answer that question, you need to understand something.  You need to understand that:

  • The people who fought against slaves being freed actually thought they were right.  
  • The people who threw ancient Christians to the lions to be eaten alive in front of crowds actually thought they were right.
  • The people who opposed allowing women to own property and vote actually thought they were right.
  • The people who fight against marriage equality for gay couples actually think they are right.  
  • The people who decided it was best to throw all Japanese Americans in internment camps actually thought they were doing the right thing.  
  • The ancient Israelis, slaughtering innocent unborn children in their mothers’ wombs actually thought they were right.  
  • Modern-day Islamic suicide bombers who destroy lives and murder by-standers actually think they are right.  
  • The people in Africa who castrate their daughters upon birth actually think they are right.  
  • The Luddite movement, smashing machines that held the promise of the technological advancements we enjoy today actually thought they were right.

Very few people set out to do evil.  Instead, they destroy their cognition due to bad programming.  There are a few basic ingredients.  If you see a person begin to exhibit these displays, it is only a matter of time before you can have them do nearly anything, no matter how horrific.  It is a series of defense mechanisms that reinforce each other in a feedback loop.  There are several other contributing mental models, but today, we are going to focus on the big five.

Reason #1 People Believe Crazy Things: Confirmation Bias

People who are irrational will seek out evidence that supports their pre-existing ideas, looking to confirm what they think to be true rather than actually examine whether something is true.   In other words, to avoid thinking, which requires metabolic expenditure, the brain makes up its mind and, especially for those of lower intelligence as a conservation technique, will become obstinate, refusing to consider counter-evidence.  

You should strive to do the opposite.  You should try to “disprove your own best ideas”.  It may take years to train yourself to always do this but it was this willingness to admit error, and to put knowledge before pride, that led humanity to discover the mistakes of its past; to give up the ridiculous ideas that the world was flat, that the Earth was the center of the universe, that the planet was only six thousand years old, that having leeches drain blood from humans would solve all ills, that sacrificing your first born child to a bronze idol would bring a good harvest.  

Whether it is folks on the right watching only Fox news or folks on the left watching only MSNBC, whether it is Christians who refuse to read any positive stories of Muslims because it is “a plot from the liberal media” or apologists who will overlook the most barbaric behavior in primal tribes in order to continue in the belief that all cultures are worthy of respect, confirmation bias is seductive because it is easy.  

Reason #2 People Believe Crazy Things: Sanctification Bias

The word sanctification means to “set apart”.  If you are making a pastry and you separate the egg yolks from the egg, you have sanctified them.  It sounds like a fancy, meaningful term but it really has to do with proximity.  Something that has been sanctified has been put into a different pile.  With sanctification bias, members of a particular group, be it political, economic, philosophical, or religious, believe (without supporting, demonstrable evidence that can be statistically confirmed) that their group is somehow favored; that they know “the truth”, that others are ignorant and want to attack that truth, and that any disagreement is because the “others”, the outside world, is inherently flawed, or evil, or misguided.  Once again, throughout all of history, the people committing the worst, most horrific acts have almost always believed they were somehow sanctified, providing mental protection as to the consequences of their behavior on humanity.

[mainbodyad]It is the presence of sanctification bias that allows a person to feel justified in shielding his or her family from outside influences, much like a household-level equivalent to Kim Jong-Il’s policy of cutting off his people from knowledge of the world outside of North Korea.  

In extreme cases where someone is especially mentally weak, the adaptive behavior is to avoid entirely others who are different.  Back in the 1960’s, this would have taken the form of not allowing black people in your home if you were white.  Today, it might be a Southern Baptist not watching “Glee” because of the gay characters.  It could be a socialist in Eastern European not engaging in conversations with a capitalist.  It could be an atheist who refuses to grab coffee with a devout Jewish co-worker.

Reason #3 People Believe Crazy Things: The Presence of Fear and Anxiety

There absolutely must be a constant, underlying fear as well as the promise of judgment for non-believers.  Whether it is a fear of a supernatural entity, illegal immigrants, members of another religion, economic collapse, or differing political beliefs, fear must be present and the group’s primary focus or belief must provide protection or solutions to the source of fear.  Thousands of years ago, people would wear charms with symbols of their particular belief system to protect themselves and reduce fear of evil spirits.  Certain groups would chant specific prayers with phrases they believed offered them powers and authority from the gods.  The pattern equation is almost always, “If you do X, then Y won’t happen.”  Often, it is a behavior code: Don’t wear skirts, don’t put on makeup, don’t work on a certain day of the week, don’t question authority, etc.

Irrational Idol

Irrationality of belief normally requires at least five ingredients, including confirmation bias, the belief in the sanctification of the practitioner, a threat that causes fear or anxiety (either a draught or the possibility of punishment in the future) with an off-setting behavior that can reduce the bad outcome (e.g., a rain dance or a behavior code such as wearing certain types of clothes), the meme of the false prophet calling for punishment or execution to anyone who questions the beliefs of an institution be it secular or religious, and denial.

In the United States, historically, this has manifested itself in a way that is directly correlated with the economy and national security.  Whenever unemployment increases or there is the threat of a significant military action, you see an enormous increase in so-called “end time” preaching and belief among members of the lower classes who are financially insecure and the most likely to get drafted to the front lines.  It is as sure as the seasons.  It was true in ancient pagan cultures, too, because man hasn’t changed.  By casting focus on the unknowable future, the subconscious anxiety over the present situation is greatly relieved.  

It is a type of coping mechanism.  (There are books going back centuries about how we are living in “the end times” with the imminent destruction of the world drawing neigh.  The ones written thirty years ago discussing the role of Soviet Union, which no longer exists, are particularly interesting.  Since then, dozens of generations of people have been born, grown old, and died as the world continued spinning despite the sincere, though wrong and misguided, conviction of the followers.)  You don’t see this belief nearly as often in the upper classes because they are not subject to the same stresses, and thus don’t need the same coping mechanisms, as the lower classes.

Reason #4 People Believe Crazy Things: The Meme of the False Prophet

When someone adheres to a rigid dogma and doesn’t think rationally, one of the ways the brain protects itself from the unpleasant emotional side effects of cognitive dissonance is to shut out all opposing evidence by labeling any counter-evidence as malevolent.  This step is vital.  This is true whether you are talking about a scientist who is absolutely convinced in the rightness of a particular position or a religious extremist who is convicted that he or she is following the will of the particular deity to which they swear fealty .  In ancient Israel and European Christendom, as well as modern day Arab countries, this has been taken to extremes; anyone who questioned established cultural beliefs found themselves summarily executed.  We even invented a word for it: Heresy.  

[mainbodyad]You see, the meme of the false prophet manifest whenever people are terrified of change in the economy, culture, or family ties.  The most common evidence it is happening is the use of things such as “false teacher”, “false prophet”, “wolf in sheepskin”, et cetera.  To draw from a familiar historical figure: Witness the accusations against Jesus Christ when a branch of early civilization transitioned from Judaism and Greco-Roman religious beliefs to Christianity; He was called all of these things by the established leaders of his day, who were living under occupied rule from a foreign force.  You would also see it in a scientific discipline that has witnessed an extraordinary shift in underlying theory and the old guard finds itself threatened by the implications of having been wrong throughout most of their career.  All great shifts in ideas start out as heresy.  

Reason #5 People Believe Crazy Things: Denial

Then we arrive at the mother of all mental defenses: Denial.  It is too big, and too powerful, to discuss comprehensively but denial is a cornerstone of any irrational belief.  Denial is rooted in the need to preserve your own self-identity and sense of the world to avoid the panic that would come from realizing things are not as you believed.

Witness the arena of teen pregnancy and abortion in the United States.  There are groups of people who actually believe that America has become more immoral.  Yet, both teen pregnancy and abortion have been plummeting off a cliff for years.  A child born today is far less likely than her parents, grandparents, or great grandparents to get pregnant as a teenager or have an abortion.  Despite this, you still hear ignorant extremists in denial about the state of the youth talk about how there is a culture of immorality when, using those standards, this generation is the most conservative in modern history!  It is a fascinating disconnect.

Teen Pregnancy Test

A good example of denial in the United States is the pointless debate between abstinence only education proponents and those who favor a comprehensive health curriculum.  There is no question that abstinence only results in more teen pregnancy, more abortions, and more STDs, yet people who say they are against those things just keep repeating the same mistakes, leading another cycle of teen pregnancies, STDs, and abortions.  The data doesn’t conform with their world view so they ignore it to the detriment of the kids they are trying to protect.

You see it in early child health education.  Schools that have no-holds-barred, age-appropriate discussions on reproduction and sexuality have far lower rates of STDs and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.  Schools that teach abstinence only education have much higher rates of STDs and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.  If your goal is to reduce STDs and out-of-wedlock pregnancies, there is no question that the former approach works miracles, the latter approach guarantees failure.  Yet, people will demand, revolt, and run for office to preserve abstinence only education even though it is a failure on every conceivable metric that counts.  

Bluntly, abstinence only education leads to more STDs, higher teen pregnancy, and more abortions.  It is right there, black and white, irrefutably true.  People don’t want to believe it so they continue to behave in foolish ways that result in the very things they are trying to prevent!  

Any belief system that is irrational must rely on a healthy dose of denial; the ability to look at evidence directly in the face and disregard it with wanton abandon.  This is the truth behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “The sign of an educated man is one who can hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time and continue to function.”  Irrational people can’t.  They don’t have the mental equipment to do it so a perfectly understandable natural adaptation arose, kind of like a computer task manager program killing activities that put too much strain on the processor.

What You Can Do To Protect Yourself from Believing Crazy Things

These behaviors developed in humanity because they had the rational result of conserving mental energy.  The brain is the biggest single demand on metabolic processes.  This would have meant higher survival thousands of years ago when food was scarce.  

How do you protect yourself?  Acknowledge the five seductions and ask yourself, objectively, if you are falling prey to them.  The best way to combat misinformation, irrationality, prejudice, and bigotry is to gain firsthand experience.  It’s easy to hate or fear what you don’t know.  Although he was discussing religion, the principal put forth by Thomas Jefferson still stands in other areas: “[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  You also have to recognize that some people suffer from severe mental health issues.  They might be otherwise good, but their particular disease manifests itself in the form of extremism, be it secular or political, religious or scientific. 


  • Always try to disprove your own ideas, arguing against them like a prosecutor.  Great, and true ideas, will stand up to this scrutiny.
  • Always consider that you might be wrong or misguided
  • Always remember that most people are just trying to do the right thing and live in peace
  • Always remember that some people are the exception and “just want to watch the world burn”
  • Think rationally.  If you can’t demonstrate a logical reason for a belief, acknowledge that instead of burying your head

In contrast, watch out for a misguided fool who:

  • Only reads or watches certain types of news channels, censoring what they see and consider
  • Believes they are somehow special and set apart, giving them license to behave in ways that are destructive to other men and women and still feel morally superior about it
  • Is scared for the future of the country / the children / the economy / the rulers / the church / the school or any other institution due to macroeconomic uncertainty, providing a sense of false righteous urgency to the actions they propose to take
  • Believes that any person trying to examine something logically or who holds a different belief is malevolent or influenced by a malevolent force in the background, removing the need to confront the possibility that they are the one who is incorrect
  • Can face mountains of evidence and still deny whatever the conclusions are because they do not confirm to their pre-existing beliefs.

It is men and women like that who have been the greatest enemy of humanity for thousands of years.  They have caused wars and famine, kept civilization in the dark, destroyed knowledge, and done so with the smug self satisfaction that they are somehow behaving rightly.  They have burned Christians at the stake, stoned women for personal conduct, hung fifteen-year-old gay teenagers for falling in love, beheaded aristocrats, enslaved those of a different race, treated wives as property, censored information and knowledge from the next generation, and treated human advancement as the embodiment of evil.  

Most disturbingly of all, they have done it believing that they were right.