The "True-Believer" syndrome
Notice: this article comes from Robert Todd Carroll's SKEPTIC'S DICTIONARY. Its reproduction is permitted by the author for non-commercial purpose, with the proper mention of the copyrights.
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 is irrational and such a person must appear crazy to the hoaxer. Some of them 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. Thus, 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 are people who have psychic powers but think they don't.
In any case, there are two 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 unshakeable even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, e.g., those who refused to disbelieve in "Carlos" once the hoax was revealed. 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). The other is the type described by Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer. This type of person is irrationally committed to a cause like murdering doctors who perform abortions or to a guru like Jim Jones.
True-believer syndrome may account for the popularity of Uri Geller, Sai Baba or James Van Praagh, but the term does not help us understand why people believe in the psychic or supernatural abilities of such characters, despite the overwhelming evidence that they are frauds and make their living by bilking people of great sums of cash. 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 by definition deluded in the psychiatric sense of the term: they believe what is false and are incapable of being persuaded by evidence and argument that their notions are in error.
Clearly, if there is any explanation for true-believer syndrome, it must be in terms of the satisfaction of emotional needs. But why some people have such a strong emotional need to believe in immortality, racial or moral superiority, or even that the latest fad in management must be pursued with evangelical zeal, is perhaps unanswerable. It may have to do with insecurity. Eric Hoffer seemed to think so. He said
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-believer syndrome has something to do with the desire to give up all personal responsibility for one's beliefs and actions: to be free of the burden of freedom. Perhaps Hoffer is right for many of the more severe cases, but many of the lesser ones may have to do with little more than wishful thinking.
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.©copyright 1998 Robert Todd Carroll
A brief info about the above mentioned "Carlos":
"Carlos" was the name for a 2000-year-old spirit allegedly channeled by José Alvarez when he toured Australia in 1988 with James Randi. The tour was a hoax intended to demonstrate how easy it is to fool people and how gullible and uncritical the mass media are when covering paranormal or supernatural topics.
Alvarez was trained by Randi to perform as a channeler, including teaching him how to stop his pulse in one arm by taping a ball to the skin and squeezing it in the armpit. "Carlos" developed a large following and was the darling of Australian television. His tour culminated with a performance in the Sydney opera house.
Even after the hoax was revealed, many continued to believe in "Carlos" and his uninspired messages.©copyright 1998 Robert Todd Carroll
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