Preventing the Spread of Infectious Beliefs

I have some beliefs about drivers in Dallas, Texas.

My wife and I moved to Dallas over 30 years ago from Los Angeles. I learned to drive in LA. People who live in Southern California spend a lot of time in their cars, it’s a significant part of their lives. In Dallas, you might arrive somewhere and mention the weather because quick, extreme changes in weather are not unusual. In LA, when you arrive somewhere the first question is often, “How did you get here?” The appropriate response includes a list of freeway numbers, “I took the 10 to the 405 to the 134, but going back I’m taking the 110.” Your response might prompt a respectful nod or incite an argument.

Drivers in LA do a lot of merging and lane changing, maybe that’s why they’re more disciplined about using their turn signals. Drivers in Dallas switch lanes without signaling and often don’t bother to indicate a turn. I shared this observation with a North Texas native once. He bragged, “signaling a lane change is a sign of weakness.”

From Turn Signals to Tooth Fairies

We’ll come back to my beliefs about Dallas drivers in a moment. First, I want to discuss the Tooth Fairy.

For years, our three daughters accepted as fact that a kindly, winged fairy visited in the night to exchange money for teeth, but only if the tooth was tucked under their pillow. Somewhere, I still have a note to the Tooth Fairy written by one of my daughters. She politely requested that the fairy leave the tooth and the money. I have it on good authority that the Tooth Fairy acceded to her wishes.

Richard Dawkins, the author, evolutionary biologist, and secularist famously compared belief in the Tooth Fairy to religious faith. In his 1991 essay Viruses of the Mind, Dawkins compared delusional beliefs to mental infections. Children, he argued are susceptible to misinformation in the same way that immune-deficient patients cannot protect themselves from viruses.

Mental Immunity

We are living in a time when comparisons to epidemiology and contagion are particularly, you’ll excuse the expression, germane. The philosopher Andy Norman has taken the idea-as-virus metaphor one step further. In his new book, Mental Immunity, Norman levels up the status of the metaphor arguing that ideologies are not like infections, they are infections – infections of the mind. If Norman gets his way, the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-6) will include something like infectious misinformation as a legitimate disease state. He has a point.

I can easily imagine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devoting resources to what Norman has dubbed, “Cognitive Immunology.” Even if they don’t, there’s little doubt that bad ideologies harm public health. Consider the societal “morbidities” associated with the following beliefs:

  • I will be rewarded in the afterlife if I blow myself up while murdering civilians in public
  • The 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump
  • The government is putting microchips in the Covid-19 vaccines

I’m persuaded by Norman’s argument. Whether he’s torturing a metaphor or opening a line of scientific inquiry may not matter. It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

Not all infections of the body are equally detrimental. Covid-19 might land you in the hospital, but the common cold won’t. Similarly, not all infectious beliefs threaten civil society. You could argue that children enthralled by the idea of a tooth fairy inspire us with their innocence. At worst, I get irritable trying to guess the motives of drivers speeding up or slowing down around me. My belief that my fellow North Texans won’t signal their intentions with their blinkers doesn’t seem particularly virulent.

A Symptom of Being Infected with a Belief

I’m aware of the bodily symptoms associated with the common cold. What symptoms are associated with being infected by a common misconception? I can think of one. Let’s look more closely at my belief that drivers in Dallas don’t use their turn signals.

Thanks to confirmation bias, when I drive around Dallas, I see countless examples of people changing lanes without signaling. Interestingly, when I drive with my wife or daughters, they’re fond of pointing out counterexamples. “Look,” a helpful, back-seat daughter once gleefully announced, “that green car is signaling.”

Here’s how I know that I’ve been infected with a bad belief. When someone points out contrary evidence, my first instinct is not to reconsider my belief. When my daughter points out a driver dutifully using their blinker, without missing a beat I’m likely to counter, “They’re not from Dallas.” I’d rather reinterpret the facts than let go of my questionable belief.

There are innumerable practices and prescriptions for strengthening the physical body’s immune system. Norman’s book offers cognitive fitness advice for boosting our mental immunity. One idea he offers is to treat your favorite beliefs like houseguests.

Once caught, an infectious belief, like a virus makes itself at home. Over time, it’s hard to distinguish your identity from your cherished beliefs. You know you’ve become infected by a belief when you become loyal to it. Instead of you having the belief, the belief has you. Treating beliefs like a houseguest is to recognize them as temporary, always at risk of overstaying their welcome.

Take the Evidence Test

Here’s an exercise to try. Pick a belief you hold that guides your priorities or connects you to a welcoming community. What would you accept as evidence that your belief is misguided or flat out wrong? If you can’t imagine any reasons or facts that would separate you from the belief, your mental immune system has been compromised. It’s no longer something you simply believe. The belief has altered your mind’s structure. The houseguest has taken up residence and redecorated the place.