The Origin of Myths | Where Do Misconceptions and False Beliefs Come From

September 25, 2020

Myths in the context of this article are conceptualized as misinformation, misconceptions, false beliefs, or erroneous claims. Myths can be found in virtually every field. Sometimes myths can be relatively harmless, while other times they lead to bad decisions and negative consequences. Myths contribute to epistemic irrationality: holding beliefs that are not supported by evidence and sometimes directly in opposition to evidence. Epistemic irrationality may lead to undesired responses including using ineffective medical treatments because of failure to think of alternative causes, poor financial decisions because of overconfidence, misjudging environmental risks because of vividness, acquisition of contaminated mindware of Ponzi and pyramid schemes, being wrongly influenced in jury decisions by incorrect testimony about probabilities, inappropriate goal setting, damage to intellectual vales, and so on (Stanovich et al. 2016).

Social and cognitive scientists studying myths often examine their sources and how individual characteristics impact the formation, spread, and belief in myths. Understanding these variables is important in studying myths. Some of the primary sources of myths include word of mouth, assuming correlation means causation, and the need for easy fixes.

Myths are perpetuated across generations, often by verbal communication or word of mouth. “They say” and “I have always heard” are common phrases. Never mind who they are or if the statement contains a shred of truth; if “They say” it often enough, it will probably be accepted by some as truth. Research shows that an opinion expressed ten times by the same person can be just as believable as an opinion expressed one time by ten different people (Weaver et al. 2007). Statements that have been heard over and over often lead to increased believability, regardless of their truth value. 

Events that are associated or correlated (occur at the same time) do not necessarily indicate a causal relationship. There are two major problems when attempting to identify a cause-and-effect relationship from a simple correlation. The first is directionality problem: Before concluding that a correlation between variables A and B is due to changes in A causing changes in B, it is important to realize the direction of causation may be the opposite, thus, from B to A. The second is the third-variable problem: The correlation in variables may occur because both variables are related to a third variable. This third variable may in fact be the cause of the association. When the third variable is controlled, the relationship between the two originally correlated variables is no longer significant.  

Humans are cognitive misers; we have a tendency to engage in thinking that doesn’t require much energy or analytical thinking. At times this is advantageous, but often it leads to irrational thinking and behavior. Research has found that fluency, the subjective experience of ease or difficulty associated with a mental task, plays a huge role in decision making. Generally, information that is easy to process is preferred. This partly explains the popularity of mainstream magazines that are written on an elementary school level. Even though they are often unreliable sources of information, they are often referenced as reliable sources. Those are just a few sources of myths; a comprehensive overview is outside of the scope of this article. I recommend reading the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott Lilienfeld and colleagues (2010). The section on common sources of myths gives a broad overview of common sources of myths. The information is relevant to myths in a wide range of areas. 

The formulation and spread of myths are influenced in many cases by vested interests, including financial benefits, an attempt to improve intellectual status, or other personal benefits. In addition to studying the sources and characteristics of those involved with the spread of myths, it’s also important to ask what it is about the myth—or what are general characteristics of myths—that contribute to their tendency to survive and spread. Why are some myths more prevalent than others?

Memetic Science 

An understanding of the meme concept is important when considering the survival value and the   prevalence of myths. Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in his popular 1976 book The Selfish Gene. A meme is conceptualized as a unit of cultural information that is passed on by non-genetic processes (it isn’t directly linked to genetics). Dawkins described the meme as having characteristics similar to the gene. He referred to it as the new kind of replicator, a second replicator in addition to the gene. “We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’… If it is any consolation, it could be alternatively thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word meme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with cream” (Dawkins 1976). 

A key insight from memetic studies is that beliefs and ideas may spread without necessarily being true or benefiting the person who holds them (Stanovich 2004). Memes (like genes) act in accordance to their own best interest. Some beliefs spread because the properties of the beliefs themselves. When attempting to understand myths, this is a key point of interest and leads to the realization that the study of myths is often a complex situation. Myths with high survival value have self-perpetuating properties that make it likely they will spread. Various subcategories of meme survival strategies exist, including “proselytizing strategies, preservation strategies, persuasive strategies, adversative strategies, freeloading strategies and mimicking strategies” (Stanovich 2004). A cultural trait may evolve in a way that it does, because its evolutionary process is solely advantageous to itself (Dawkins 1976). In this sense, the trait doesn’t need to be beneficial to the person carrying it. 

Rational Thinking and Myth Evaluation 

A comprehensive study of myths should involve examining social and cognitive characteristics of those believing, constructing, and spreading myths, and should involve a study of common characteristics of myths. Memetic science shines light on cultural units of information and explores what it is about those information units that allow them to survive. 

Rational thinking is essential as a myth evaluation device, and epistemic rationality requires basing beliefs on the weight of evidence. A thorough analytic cognitive process is needed when evaluating claims, especially when evaluating claims constructed in a way that persuades against questioning or critique. Why should this claim or belief not be critiqued? What makes it different than other claims? Asking for evidence is useful in identifying junk memes (memes that serve their own propagation, but do not benefit us-them vehicle/carrier).  

We need the right mindware when determining whether memes are good or bad for us. We need scientific mindware to optimize our myth busting attempts (Hale 2020). The most important rule for meme evaluation is to avoid accepting memes that resist evaluation; this characteristic is important because parasitic memes (junk memes) tend to increase their chance of survival, by finding tricks that allow them to escape evaluation (Stanovich 2004). The science of memetics, along with social and cognitive psychology, is in line with a scientific materialistic world view. The proper use of those domains can help prevent belief in myths and combat against the spread of myths. 

References

Dawkins, R. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hale, J. 2020. Scientific Mindware. Center for Inquiry. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from https://centerforinquiry.org/blog/scientific-mindware/ 

Lilienfeld et al. 2010. 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. 

Stanovich, K. 2004. The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Stanovich, K., et al. 2016. The Rationality Quotient: Toward a Test of Rational Thinking. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weaver, K., et al. 2007. Inferring the popularity of an opinion from its familiarity: A repetitive voice can sound like a chorus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92: 821–833.