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The need to believe in phony wonders sometimes exceeds not only logic but, seemingly, even sanity. --The Rev. Canon William V. Rauscher
The true-believer syndrome merits study by science. What is it that compels a person, past all reason, to believe the unbelievable. How can an otherwise sane individual become so enamored of a fantasy, an imposture, that even after it's exposed in the bright light of day he still clings to it--indeed, clings to it all the harder? --M. Lamar Keene
True-believer syndrome is an expression coined by M. Lamar Keene to describe an apparent cognitive disorder characterized by believing in the reality of paranormal or supernatural events after one has been presented overwhelming evidence that the event was fraudulently staged. Keene is a reformed phony psychic who exposed religious racketeering—to little effect, apparently. Phony faith healers, psychics, channelers, televangelist miracle workers, etc., are as abundant as ever.
Keene believes that "the true-believer syndrome is the greatest thing phony mediums have going for them" because "no amount of logic can shatter a faith consciously based on a lie." That those suffering from true-believer syndrome are consciously lying to themselves hardly seems likely, however. Perhaps from the viewpoint of a fraud and hoaxer, the mark who is told the truth but who continues to have faith in you must seem to believe what he knows is a lie. Yet, this type of self-deception need not involve lying to oneself. To lie to oneself would require admission that one believes what one knows is false. This does not seem logically possible. One can't believe or disbelieve what one knows. (Belief is distinct from belief in, which is a matter of trust rather than belief.) Belief and disbelief entail the possibility of error; knowledge implies that error is beyond reasonable probability. I may have overwhelming evidence that a "psychic" is a phony, yet still believe that paranormal events occur. I may be deceiving myself in such a case, but I don't think it is correct to say I am lying to myself.
It is possible that those suffering from true-believer syndrome simply do not believe that the weight of the evidence before them revealing fraud is sufficient to overpower the weight of all those many cases of supportive evidence from the past. The fact that the supportive evidence was largely supplied by the same person exposed as a fraud is suppressed. There is always the hope that no matter how many frauds are exposed, at least one of the experiences might have been genuine. No one can prove that all psychic "miracles" have been frauds; therefore, the true believer may well reason that he or she is justified in keeping hope alive. Such thinking is not completely illogical, though it may seem pathological to the one admitting the fraud.
It does not seem as easy to explain why the true believer continues to believe in, that is, trust the psychic once he has admitted his deception. Trusting someone who reveals he is a liar and a fraud seems irrational, and such a person must appear so to the hoaxer. Some true believers may well be mad, but some may be deceiving themselves by assuming that it is possible that a person can have psychic powers without knowing it. One could disbelieve in one's psychic ability, yet still actually possess paranormal powers. Just as there are people who think they have psychic powers but don't really have any such powers, there may be people who have psychic powers but think they don't.
A study done by psychologists Barry Singer and Victor Benassi at California State University at Long Beach illustrates the will to believe in psychic powers in the face of contrary evidence. They brought in a performing magician, Craig Reynolds, to do some tricks for four introductory psychology classes. Two of the classes were not told that he was a magician who would perform some amateur magic tricks. They were told that he was a graduate student who claimed to have psychic powers. In those classes, the psychology instructor explicitly stated that he didn't believe that the graduate student or anyone else has psychic abilities. In the other two classes the students were told that the magician was a magician. Singer and Benassi reported that about two-thirds of the students in both groups believed Craig was psychic. The researchers were surprised to find no significant difference between the "magic" and "psychic" classes. They then made the same presentation to two more classes who were explicitly told that Craig had no psychic abilities and that he was going to do some tricks for them whereby he pretends to read minds and demonstrate psychic powers. Nevertheless, more than half the students believed Craig was psychic after seeing his act.
Singer and Benassi then asked the students whether they thought magicians could do exactly what Craig did. Most of the students agreed that magicians could. Then they asked the students if they would like to change their estimate of Craig's psychic abilities in light of the negative data they themselves had provided. A few did, reducing the percentage of students believing in Craig's psychic powers to 55 percent. Then the students were asked to estimate how many so-called psychics were really fakes using magician's tricks. The consensus was that most "psychics" are frauds. The students were again asked if they wished to change their estimate of Craig's psychic powers. Again, a few did, but the percentage believing in Craig's psychic powers was still a hefty 52 percent. [Benassi and Singer; Hofstadter]
For many people, the will to believe at times overrides the ability to think critically about the evidence for and against a belief. The concept of the true-believer syndrome, however, does not help us understand why people believe in the psychic or supernatural abilities of admitted frauds. Since by definition those suffering from true-believer syndrome are irrationally committed to their beliefs, there is no point in arguing with them. Evidence and logical argument mean nothing to them. Such people are incapable of being persuaded by evidence and argument that their notions are in error.
kinds of true believers
In any case, there are at least three types of true believers, though they are clearly related. One is the kind Keene was referring to, namely, the type of person who believes in paranormal or supernatural things contrary to the evidence. Their faith is unshakable even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, e.g., those who refused to disbelieve in "Carlos" once the hoax was revealed, or those chiropractors who would rather give up randomized, double-blind controlled experiments than admit that applied kinesiology doesn't work. Keene's examples are mostly of people who are so desperate to communicate with the dead that no exposé of fraudulent mediums (or channelers) can shake their faith in spiritualism (or channeling).
Another type of true believer is the cult follower. Emily Harrison watched her mother, Debra Harrison, die as she and Consegrity® co-founder, Mary A. Lynch, practiced their "healing energy" medicine to no avail. As they tried to will away the "bad energy" that they believed was causing Debra's illness, Lynch, an M.D. who should know a diabetic when she lives with one, spoon-fed her partner orange juice. Debra Harrison had co-invented Consegrity with Lynch and did not seek medical attention, even though at the time of her death she showed all the signs of diabetes.
Debra's son, David Harrison, writes:
As a Medical School graduate ... Mary [Lynch] should have been able to recognize that things were seriously wrong with my mother's health condition during her final days. My mother was very hungry all of the time and ate several large meals per day, but did not gain weight. Dozens of friends and family stated that she was becoming fatigued and experienced exhaustion very quickly. She had dropped weight from a healthy 150 lbs at 5'4" to a mere 95 lbs. She was weak and began to look aged as her muscle mass dropped. All of these are the symptoms of a Type 2 diabetic.
The disease was onset and quickly depleted her fat reserves as her body could no longer absorb nutrients from the food she ate. Thus, the unexplained weight loss. As her body ran out of energy sources to burn she began to lose muscle mass and became weak. Because her body was no longer producing insulin, her blood sugar levels were at a dangerous vulnerability as the sugars could no longer be used as energy. For a diabetic of this type, without an insulin shot to utilize it, sugar becomes a deadly poison. Normal blood sugar levels are below 110mg/dl. My mother's blood sugar levels at the time of autopsy were recorded at 945 mg/dl—600 mg/dl over the fatal limit.
How did this happen? Upon entering my mother's empty bedroom 24 hours after her death, my siblings and I noticed 8 empty gallon-sized orange juice containers sitting on the dresser....Upon relating the final moments of my mother's life to my siblings and I, she stated that she had been spoon feeding orange juice to my mother on her death bed. (David Harrison, personal correspondence).
Despite the fact that diabetes is treatable and that a medical doctor should recognize obvious signs of the disease, Mary Lynch and Emily Harrison maintain that it was the "negative energy" of family members that killed Debra. What Lynch and Emily Harrison saw as negative energy, the family members who were trying to get Debra to go to a hospital for treatment saw as loving concern. Most rational people would see things the way the family members did. Nevertheless, Emily Harrison followed Dr. Lynch when she left town and set up shop peddling the same snake oil under a different name.
Lynch's irrational beliefs are undoubtedly tied to her personal investment in energy healing, but Emily Harrison's decision to reject her relatives and move on with Dr. Lynch is typical of cult followers whose devotion is to a person. They have faith in their guru that is unshakeable. With this kind of irrational thinking, it is pointless to produce evidence to try to persuade people of the error of their ways. Their belief is not based on evidence, but on devotion to a person. That devotion can be so great that even the most despicable behavior by one's guru can be rationalized.* There are many examples of people so devoted to another that they will rationalize or ignore extreme mental and physical abuse by their cult leader (or spouse or boyfriend).
One other type of true believer is described by Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer. This type of person is irrationally committed to a cause like terrorist attacks on civilians, murdering doctors who perform abortions, or following a guru like Jim Jones even to the point of murder or suicide.
One possible explanation for true-believer syndrome is that the belief satisfies an emotional need that is stronger than any other emotional need. Why some people have such a strong emotional need to believe in something that rational people recognize as false is perhaps unanswerable, but it is clear that the kind of beliefs we are discussing here are based on emotions and feelings, not reason and evidence.
Why some people are willing to kill or be killed for beliefs that wouldn't pass muster with most rational folks is even more puzzling. It may have to do with insecurity. Eric Hoffer seemed to think so. He wrote:
The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause....
A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business....
The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources -- out of his rejected self -- but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength.... He easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. And he is ready to sacrifice his life.
Hoffer also seemed to think that true believers want to give up all personal responsibility for their beliefs and actions. They want to be free of the burden of freedom.
See also ad hoc hypothesis, backfire effect, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, Consegrity/Consilience Energy Mirrors, hidden persuaders, motivated reasoning, selective thinking, self-deception, wishful thinking, and Why Do People Believe in the Palpably Untrue? and Defending Falsehoods.
books and articles
Benassi, Victor and Barry Singer. "Fooling Some of the People All of the Time," The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1980/81.
Hofstadter, Douglas. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, (New York: Basic Books, 1985), chapter 5, "World Views in Collision: The Skeptical Inquirer versus the National Enquirer." (Hofstadter reported on the Bennasi and Singer study in his monthly column for Scientific American in February 1982.)
The Battle for Your Mind by Dick Sutphen