Why do people believe strange things - even if they are harmful?

Humans have always invested in delusions despite the obvious dangers to life and limb

Probably the strangest TV film I ever made was about a group of churches in the mountains of the eastern United States where church members handle poisonous snakes as part of their religious worship. Near Newport, Tennessee I met church members who arrived with a Bible in one hand and a box of venomous copperheads or rattle snakes in the other. They prayed, they sang, they took the poisonous snakes from the boxes and handled them. The pastor – Pastor Alfred – patiently explained that “taking up serpents” showed faith in God.

I’m not afraid of snakes, but while the church members were friendly and welcoming, I did not see how “taking up serpents” would make me a better person in God’s eyes or anyone else’s. And I did not want to be bitten. Since that encounter I have often wondered why some people believe things that, to be blunt, seem to be at best eccentric and possibly dangerous to themselves and harmful to others.

My fellow Scots have occasionally been in the so-called delusion business. In the late 1690s, stories about gold and silver in the Americas led otherwise rational Scots to invest a vast amount of money in a scheme to create a Scottish colony in what is now Panama.

The "Darien scheme" involved sober-minded Scottish Presbyterians from a cold climate in Northern Europe somehow believing they could prosper in a hot, sticky, malarial area of the tropics, trading Scottish trinkets with the native inhabitants in exchange for food. Some 2,500 settlers went to Darien. Only one in 10 lived to tell the tale. Some 20 per cent of the money in circulation in Scotland was wasted.

When gold, miraculous health cures or ideas of religious salvation are involved, reason often flies out the window. The Scottish writer Charles Mackay delighted Victorian readers with his wonderful compilation of such stories. The title is Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a compendium of belief in preposterous ideas. These include money-making schemes such as the South Sea Bubble and Tulipmania in which tulip flowers suddenly became the 19th-century equivalent of Bitcoin to the point where greed overcame all reason.

What is striking about Mackay’s “delusions” is that beliefs, however odd, frequently triumph over reason. The outcome is generally disastrous for all concerned. In modern times it is difficult to understand why anyone could think that tulip bulbs would be Europe’s best investment, or that sending Scots dressed in tweeds to exploit the riches of Panama’s tropical jungle would end well. But recognising the human capacity to believe in things that make little sense brings us back to our supposedly rational world of 2021.

How will future generations view our beliefs today?

Anti-vaccination protesters stand outside of the New Jersey State House as the Assembly passes a bill to limit vaccine religious exemptions on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Trenton.Immigrant Drivers License

In Germany, a nurse is being investigated for injecting more than 8,000 patients with saline solution instead of a coronavirus vaccine. The nurse is said to have expressed sceptical views about the vaccination programme. If that nurse believed the programme was wrong or unsafe then it should be possible for any medical professional conscientiously to object personally to give that treatment. But if, as is being suggested, a medical professional deliberately did not give patients an agreed medical treatment or procedure, then that person is clearly unfit to practice medicine. Whatever be the nurse's motives – her lawyers insist it was a "one-time incident" that occurred due to panic and not led by her convictions – she has been dismissed from her position.

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Examples of our ability to engage in 'popular delusions' teach us about the human condition

Meanwhile in London, a group of anti-vaccination protesters arranged to storm BBC headquarters, believing they needed to counter supposed BBC “lies” about the UK's vaccination programme. Unfortunately, the building they stormed was the old BBC Television Centre where I worked until 2012, when the BBC sold it. For years it has been converted into apartments with a few studios that are used mostly by independent production companies generally making light-hearted TV shows. The anti-vaccination movement in Britain has been notoriously unable to understand how science works but trying to storm a building not owned by the BBC for the past nine years suggests they are also not among the most rational, sensible or well-informed people on the planet.

All these examples of our ability to believe in things that make little sense and engage in “popular delusions” and “the madness of crowds” teach us quite lot about the human condition.

As Mackay’s book repeatedly demonstrates, one lesson is that strong beliefs often destroy all reason, and large groups of people believing hogwash is a problem not just throughout history, but also in our present and undoubtedly for our future. The second lesson is that delusions are dangerous not just for the deluded, but also for the subjects of their delusions. These include the hard-pressed security guards threatened at the old TV centre building, those bankrupted by Tulipmania, or who perished in Panama. But the deluded themselves may suffer most. Anti-vaxxers are the subject of ridicule, and in Britain some have, on their deathbeds from Covid-19, wished that they had been vaccinated after all. As for the snake handlers, I asked Pastor Alfred how he became pastor of a serpent-handling church. He told me that the previous pastor had died.

“How did he die?” I wondered.

“He got bit,” Pastor Alfred told me, by a poisonous snake.

Published: August 16th 2021, 2:00 PM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National