Mistruth Can Set You Free: The Power of (False) Belief

You may have noticed that a lot of people around you believe things that are patently untrue. In fact, you are almost definitely subject to your fair share of false beliefs as well (of course, far less so than your acquaintances). This has been true throughout history, but in the current information ecosystem of cat videos and conspiracy theories, it can seem especially evident. The question I’d like to explore is this: are false beliefs always bad to endorse? In other words—do false beliefs always lead to negative consequences or do they sometimes result in positive outcomes?

Now, it would be easy at this point for the discussion to descend into a mind-numbing philosophical treatise on the definition of truth. But I’d prefer to spare both of us this painful route. Instead, for the sake of this discussion (and maintaining our sanity), let’s assume that the truth is something that corresponds with facts in the world. So the statement sugar cures major depression is false because there is no evidence to back such a statement in the real world (as unfortunate as that is). Of course, if trials were conducted, and it were shown that sugar does exhibit such effects, the statement would be considered true. Assuming you’re on board with this definition of truth, we’re still left with the thorny question I introduced above: Is the incorrect belief (in this case, that sugar cures major depression) always damaging, or can it sometimes be beneficial?

Beliefs and psychology: It’s all in the head

The placebo effect is the most obvious example of a false belief that can be therapeutic. It is not uncommon to find that a sugar pill—under the guise of a real drug—delivers a 20-40% reduction in depression symptoms.1 Would it then be accurate to claim that sugar pills can be 20-40% effective at treating depression? No. But it would be true to say that the belief that sugar pills are real drugs can sometimes be startlingly effective. Now, of course, many drugs are effective beyond the placebo—in fact, they have to be, or else they wouldn’t be approved by the FDA. We wouldn’t want psychiatrists handing out placebos rather than Prozac in order to prove the power of belief. But that shouldn’t diminish the remarkable fact that false belief in a given treatment can sometimes make people feel better.

Beliefs also play a pivotal role in many psychotherapies. Cognitive therapy, for instance, is based on the idea that depressed people hold negative self-beliefs (also called negative self-schemas).2 Martin Seligman’s famous research into the learned helplessness model of depression purported to show that these negative self-beliefs cause depressed people to attribute failure to internal and unchangeable forces.3 So a depressed person who fails his driving test may ascribe his failure to his innate lack of intelligence and inability to perform under pressure (internal and unchangeable), whereas a non-depressed person may blame his lack of sleep the night before (external and changeable).

This theory of attributional (or explanatory) styles has made waves in the worlds of clinical and popular psychology. Surprisingly though, some have argued that depressed people’s attributions are actually more realistic than that of non-depressed people.4 In other words, non-depressed people are biased toward optimism, while depressed people see the world as it truly is. Now, while optimism biashas been well-documented (think dropping out of school to become an entrepreneur or refraining from drawing up a prenuptial agreement despite high rates of divorce), the idea of depressive realism—that depressed people see the world realistically rather than with undue pessimism—has not garnered much support.5,6 Still, it does raise an interesting question: are people happy, in part, because they operate on false notions of their own agency and talent?

The study of willpower has also been impacted by the unexpected implications of belief. In a series of fascinating studies involving emotional films, tempting chocolate, and repellent radishes, Roy Baumeister and colleagues showed that we have a limited reserve of willpower that can be exhausted.7 To put it another way—willpower is like a muscle that fatigues with heavy use. The more you regulate yourself and restrain your impulses, the harder it becomes to do so later on in the day (in the absence of some sort of restorative activity). 

While this research is fascinating in its own right, it gets even more intriguing. It turns out that if people believe that they have an infinite supply of willpower, they will not exhibit the same depletion effect (although severe chronic depletion still leads to long-term burnout).8 The belief in unlimited willpower seemingly allows people to access energy that would have otherwise been shut off from them.

Beliefs on a larger scale  

What about the role of belief in spheres like politics and religion? We are all familiar with one particularly controversial example. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans were told that masks were ineffective at limiting the spread of the virus.9 It could be argued that the belief in the futility of mask-wearing led Americans to refrain from buying masks en masse, which in turn improved the odds that frontline health workers could get their hands on the PPE they sorely needed. It is very possible that masks could have gone the way of toilet paper (irrationally hoarded) if it wasn’t for the false messaging around their efficacy.

In the case of religion, many would claim that the belief in heaven and hell go a long way in incentivizing good behavior. Similarly, the belief that everything happens for a reason, and that an omniscient and merciful force will always have your back, can provide comfort in times of tragedy and stress. Even if these beliefs are not literally true, a pretty decent case could be made that they have many positive effects: religious people are known to be more charitable and happier than secular people.10 In fact, much of positive psychology stresses the same concepts that religions have emphasized for centuries (gratitude, meditation, community), but in a secular rather than sacred context.11,12 Perhaps the conception of a personal God who dictates commandments and prohibitions encourages a continued emphasis on these adaptive practices, even if no such “man in the sky” exists.

Tallying the consequences of true and false beliefs

So far I’ve made the case that false beliefs can sometimes be beneficial. But the keyword there is sometimes. It is not difficult to anticipate the consequentialist counterargument: while false beliefs may have some positive consequences, they are, in many cases, outweighed by the negative consequences. As Sam Harris puts it when citing the international aid of Christian organizations: “[The problem is that] religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally, where good reasons are actually available.”13

Whether or not you agree with Harris’s opinion on religion, his point is a valid one: if the same positive outcomes can arise from both accurate and inaccurate beliefs, wouldn’t it be better for them to result from the accurate ones? Well, for one, this implicitly assumes that the same outcomes will result from truth and falsity. Harris would have to supply a compelling reason for why secular people, who are supposedly in possession of the truth, do not give as much to charity as religious people.

Interestingly, when it comes to the placebo effect, Harris’s intuition is flipped. It would actually be preferable for people to get better due to their misplaced faith in the placebo than to deal with the side effects, dependency, and withdrawal that go along with a real drug. Of course, the placebo is not a reliable enough treatment for this to be a valid option, but psychotherapy can be a pretty good substitute. As I mentioned earlier, cognitive therapy may, amongst other things, teach depressed people to share the optimism bias of their non-depressed neighbors, and in doing so, help them cope with life’s inevitable failures and setbacks. Of course, the line between false and true beliefs begins to blur here. The false belief will hopefully operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which case it will eventually transform into a self-reinforcing truth. Optimism ends up becoming realism because it motivates long-term perseverance.

I think Harris’s point is most obviously true in the case of the false messaging around masks. We may have avoided mass hoarding of masks, but the harm done to the public’s trust in public health advisors and scientific institutions was almost certainly enormous. Every conspiracy theorist was handed their opportunity to say “I told you so” after recommendations were retracted and amended. A much better option would have been to honestly communicate the importance of masks while leveraging concepts from behavioral economics surrounding norms and compliance, in order to nudge the public toward behavior that benefited the collective good. 

False negatives vs. false positives

All in all, the jury is still out on our original question. It seems likely that false beliefs can sometimes be beneficial, but it is next to impossible to account for all of the benefits and drawbacks of specific beliefs. Perhaps the best way to approach this riddle is by examining the potential effects of false negatives (which I’ll also be calling false optimism) versus false positives (which I’ll also be calling false pessimism).

For obvious reasons, in medicine, false negatives (when someone is incorrectly told they do not have a condition) are usually seen as far more serious than false positives (when someone is incorrectly diagnosed with a condition). Public policy follows the same logic as medicine. False pessimism may lead to wasted resources, but it doesn’t usually carry the doomsday potential of false optimism. We would rather dedicate an excess of resources to the fight against global warming than render the planet uninhabitable. Similarly, we would rather spend heavily on defense than get caught off guard in a war we aren’t prepared for.

The reverse seems to be true with regard to human psychology: false optimism seems—for the most part—to be beneficial, whereas false pessimism seems to be detrimental. This may have not always been the case. Martin Seligman argues that some of us are geared toward pessimism because our brains evolved in times when pessimism offered a clear survival advantage. Our ancestors were the ones who predicted the worst-case scenario—whether it be a war, a virus, or an avalanche—and managed to escape with their lives. However, in the 21st century, when a threat to our survival is no longer lurking around every corner, pessimism mostly leads to unnecessary misery.

Try employing this false optimism vs. false pessimism test when you examine your own psychological and political beliefs. In each instance, ask yourself whether a false negative or false positive would be more damaging. And next time you attempt to change someone’s mind, consider whether they are better off than you because of their beliefs.

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