The Need To Believe

When a man loves a woman, …. if she is bad, he can’t see it. She can do no wrong. Turn his back on his best friend, if he puts her down. (Lyrics to “When a Man Loves A Woman”)

Kristeva analyzes our “incredible need to believe”–the inexorable push toward faith that … lies at the heart of the psyche and the history of society. … Human beings are formed by their need to believe, beginning with our first attempts at speech and following through to our adolescent search for identity and meaning. (more)

This “to believe” … is that of Montaigne … when he writes, “For Christians, recounting something incredible is an occasion for belief”; or the “to believe” of Pascal: “The mind naturally believes and the will naturally loves; so that if lacking true objects, they must attach themselves to false ones.” (more)

We often shake our heads at the gullibility of others. We hear a preacher’s sermon, a politician’s speech, a salesperson’s pitch, or a flatter’s sweet talk, and we think:

Why do they fall for that? Can’t they see this advocate’s obvious vested interest, and transparent use of standard unfair rhetorical tricks? I must be be more perceptive, thoughtful, rational, and reality-based than they. Guess that justifies my disagreeing with them.

Problem is, like the classic man who loves a woman, we find hard to see flaws in what we love. That is, it is easier to see flaws when we aren’t attached. When we “buy” we more easily see the flaws in the products we reject, and when we “sell” we can often ignore criticisms by those who don’t buy.

Why? Because we have near and far reasons to like things. And while we might actually choose for near reasons, we want to believe that we choose for far reasons. We have a deep hunger to love some things, and to believe that we love them for the ideal reasons we most respect for loving things. This applies not only to other people, but to politicians, to writers, actors, ideas.

For the options we reject, however, we can see more easily the near reasons that might induce others to choose them. We can see pandering and flimsy excuses that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. We can see forced smiles, implausible flattery, slavishly following fashion, and unthinking confirmation bias. We can see politicians who hold ambiguous positions on purpose.

Because of all this, we are the most vulnerable to not seeing the construction of and the low motives behind the stuff we most love. This can be functional in that we can gain from seeming to honestly sincerely and deeply love some things. This can make others that we love or who love the same things feel more bonded to us. But it also means we mistake why we love things. For example, academics are usually less interesting or insightful when researching topics where they feel the strongest; they do better on topics of only moderate interest to them.

This also explains why sellers tend to ignore critiques of their products as not idealistic enough. They know that if they can just get good enough on base features, we’ll suddenly forget our idealism critiques. For example, a movie maker can ignore criticisms that her movie is trite, unrealistic, and without social commentary. She knows that if she can make the actors pretty enough, or the action engaging enough, we may love the movie enough to tell ourselves it is realistic, or has important social commentary. Similarly, most actors don’t really need to learn how to express deep or realistic emotions. They know that if they can make their skin smooth enough, or their figure tone enough, we may want to believe their smile is sincere and their feelings deep.

Same for us academics. We can ignore critiques of our research not having important implications. We know that if we can include impressive enough techniques, clever enough data, and describe it all with a pompous enough tone, our audiences may be impressed enough to tell themselves that our trivial extension of previous ideas are deep and original.

Beware your tendency to overlook flaws in things you love.

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