Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why We Believe

What makes you believe in one thing and not another?

I was watching the above video on YouTube and someone made a comment than nearly made me fall out of my chair.  They were discussing whether this "Escherian Stairwell" at RIT was real or not (of course it isn't - duh!) and one fellow commented that, "Well, that one actor was so realistic in his response that he had me believing it!"

Fascinating insight.   Not intentional, of course, but fascinating nevertheless.   Rather than view the video as a stupid editing trick, and realize that "Escherian Stairwells" don't - and cannot - exist, the viewer's response was based on the reaction of others to the apparent trick.   If other people believed it, then, well, then maybe it was real.

Wow, this is how religions get started!

In our lives we tend to look to others for normative cues.   We get in line for black Friday deals, or for the gas chambers at Auschwitz, or even for crucifixion (the Brits are so keen at queuing). We establish norms and people react to them.

There is an old gag that kids used to do on college campuses.  One person stops on the quad and looks up at the sky.   A second person (who is in on the gag) stops and asks what is going on.  The other person is pointing at the sky.  A third person comes by and so on.  Pretty soon, you have a dozen people scanning the clouds and pointing, and maybe even a few saying, "I see it, right there!"  Meanwhile the original perpetrators have left, and the crowd just feeds itself.

A similar gag is to stand in a line and see how many people just join the line, assuming there is something worth standing in line for.  Pretty soon, the line forms itself.

Like I said, this is how religions get started.

What struck me as odd was that the viewer's first instinct wasn't to engage their own experience, education, and knowledge or even internal skepticism.  I mean, after all, a stairway into the fourth dimension would certainty be news - and documented in more places than an obscure YouTube video.   But rather than rely on these internal compasses they immediately judged the veracity of the phenomenon based on the reaction of the actors in the piece.   If the actors were believable, then the concept was believable.

Fascinating - beyond belief!  (pardon the pun).

And this is how people get snookered. The snake oil salesman gives his pitch to the crowd. They likely wouldn't believe if just influenced by his song and dance.  But a shill in the audience says, "Gee, this sounds like a good deal!" and an "audience member" gets up on stage for a free sample, and then says how better it made him feel.   We look to others for their reaction as to what to do.   Crowd behavior at its finest.

A pretty stupid video, to be sure.  But a learning experience for me.

And folks say YouTube is just a way to waste hours of your time!