Does magical thinking define humans? Vitamin C and Trump’s zealots.

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” George Bernard Shaw

My incredulity of the absolute devotion of Trump’s supporters and my inability to understand it continues to haunt me. I’ve wondered if their unwavering allegiance is attributable to the differences in neurophysiology or maybe it’s Trump’s adroit ability to manipulate them by deploying costly signals. Whatever it is, I just don’t get it. [1] Even before the insurrection at the Capitol, it just seemed these people were, to use a technical term, nuts. However, I wonder if there’s something else going on that offers an even more foreboding view of the future.

What is it about the combination of Trump and his fervent, irrational supporters that causes them to abandon evidence and reality to embrace the unembraceable? Social media is a bane of our existence, but has it fundamentally changed who people are? Has Twitter somehow leveraged neuroplasticity to rewire the brains of Trump fanatics?

I’ve said before that I see Trump as a canary in the dark coal mine of authoritarian regimes. [2] Someday, Trump will be long gone, but the coal mine will still be there. The coal mine is people.

I think it’s entirely possible that Trump supporters are another, albeit extreme, manifestation of humans’ innate susceptibility to magical thinking. I’ve adopted the view that people are not born with a predilection to be critical thinkers, to default to logic, or to be skeptics. There’s a non-trivial part of us that is driven to believe and act on what we feel and not what we see or can logically deduce. [3] [4]

We’re surrounded by this phenomenon and see examples of it in everyday life. How many people still take vitamin C to ward off a cold even though science has shown that doesn’t work? What about all the homeopathic products on the shelf at major drug stores? Those products sell to the tune of over $5 billion per year [5] in spite of the science that shows they simply cannot work. [6] We spend over $123 billion on dietary supplements [7] with no evidence that a healthy person benefits from taking them. And then there’s acupuncture, a purported treatment that relies on stimulating specific points on the body for a specific malady. Study after study has shown the only thing there is a placebo effect. [8]

The forces that cause people to believe Oscillococcinum (ground and highly diluted duck hearts) claim that it’s “Nature’s #1 Flu Medicine,” [9]  also cause them to blindly adopt Trump’s fantasies. [10] In both cases, there is irrefutable evidence that both are insane. And yet, Oscillococcinum remains on the shelves of CVS and Walgreens and Trump’s mob invades the Capitol.

People find using facts to form opinions and inform their actions is unnecessarily difficult. Why put in the effort to evaluate evidence when you can be just as vocal in expressing an opinion based on whatever your gut tells you? But there is a difference. Taking vitamin C is not likely to harm you whereas blindly believing Trump’s insane worldview and his bizarre conspiracy theories can be damaging. One look at the insurrection at the Capitol shows just how damaging it can be.

As depressing as it sounds, I don’t think we’ll see people change anytime soon. Emotions, not reason and evidence, will continue to drive the actions of people. As long as that’s true, people will continue to buy ground duck hearts to treat their flu symptoms and the risk in the coal mine will continue to be very real.















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