Cognitive psychology is a discipline that has been occupying greater relevance in the explanation of many phenomena that occur in various fields of social life. In 2002, economists were surprised by the Swedish Academy awarding the Nobel Prize in Economics to a behavioral psychologist from Princeton University: Daniel Kahneman. It was the first time since 1968, when the Bank of Sweden Prize for Economic Sciences was established, that the award had been given to someone “outside” the guild.
Recently these specialists have been wondering, what makes people believe and accept, without further ado, a number of crazy ideas that have no way of being verified in real life? Why has the acceptance of demagogues and charlatans who offer easy and magical solutions to complex problems been growing in the world?
In his most recent work, which I have already written about, Steven Pinker writes the following: Mercier proposes that conspiracy theories and strange beliefs are reflexive, the product of conscious meditation and theorizing, rather than intuitive (the convictions that we feel in our bones). This is a powerful distinction, though I see it somewhat differently, closer to the contrast social psychologist Robert Abelson and comedian George Carlin drew between distal and testable beliefs. (Rationality, p. 348).
Individuals, says Pinker, divide their experience in the world into two large areas: 1) that related to immediate experience; that is, their relationship with the material world, contact with real people, economic and other transactions that are established on a daily basis, the observance of moral and legal rules. This contact with reality is what allows us to function in social life, get food, pay debts, save for the future and avoid being deprived of liberty for violating the rules. This area generates what is known as a realist mentality. 2) On the other hand, people inhabit a world beyond their immediate experience. Here it is not possible to contrast what is thought with the data of the harsh reality. The explanation of remote history, ideas of the future, the existence of God and many beliefs that seek to give identity and cohesion, moral purpose, to the tribe or sect. This circuitry of human experience generates what is called a mythological mentality.
A person can live without much problem in both worlds, can at the same time act with rigorous realism in their daily life and “let themselves be carried away” by the more or less crazy religious, political or ideological fantasies. One could imagine that the advance of the scientific spirit -which moves in the realist field- and its material achievements could, at this point, have reduced the margins of the mythological mentality, but unfortunately it has not been like that.
Although it must be recognized that many religious and mythological ideas, which were previously interpreted at face value, are now very difficult to sustain literally, precisely because of the advancement of knowledge. In Christian thought, for example, the belief that Jesus ascended to heaven after his death is something that cannot be literally sustained in these times.
Even ascending to the speed of light, something impossible for a physical body, it still would not have left this galaxy, wrote Joseph Campbell. The same is true of the idea of the resurrection and the virgin birth. Among the most sensible religious thinkers it is pointed out that these things are not to be understood literally but metaphorically.
The success of demagogic leaders is due to the fact that they practice with a certain skill the rhetoric of emotions and deception, they cultivate the fertile field of the mythological mentality of their followers. To the extent that your narrative departs as much as possible from the requirement of veridical verification, its effectiveness will be more lasting. However, especially when it comes to heads of state or government, the ability to deceive has limits. Inevitably, the demand for results becomes imperative and verification of their statements sooner or later is required by citizens, more and more numerous, who monitor the data (John Keane: Monitored Democracy).
You can try to build alternative realities from the discourse of power, look for imaginary enemies, underestimate the reports of specialized agencies that measure various aspects of economic, political and social reality, build or destroy reputations and sell utopias of happiness, however, sooner or later Reality sets in early. The Netflix documentary Hitler, a career, tells of the terrible shock that ordinary German citizens suffered when the commanders of the Russian army forced them to “see with their own eyes” the havoc caused by their leaders in the concentration camps. They could not believe it, however, the atrocities were there, in front of them. Donald Trump has invented that there was electoral fraud in the election that he lost in November 2020,
most Republican supporters still believe that lie. The verifiable facts little by little are putting things in their place. Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s partner in the losing formula, acknowledged last Friday that said fraud never existed.
Populist leaders may try to sell the idea that their policies favor the poorest, that they are bearers of invaluable moral virtues, that they seek true democracy, demonize recent history and sow hope for a less unequal society.
But when the hunters of hard information show reality as it is, and when ordinary people see its precariousness firsthand, the mythological mentality collapses. The populist leader is revealed for what he is: a simple demagogue, a seller of collective illusions.
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