Weirdness 101: Why do people believe the unbelievable?

Some people believe in ghosts; others join cults as they await Armageddon. Many more turn to psychics or reply to emails heralding their million-dollar international lottery winnings.

Even self-proclaimed skeptics can find unlikely possibilities so compelling that they believe, said Case Western Reserve University social psychologist Jennifer Butler. This summer, Butler is teaching a seminar on “Why We Believe in Weird Things.”

Her students are exploring not just stereotypically weird happenings, like ghosts and flying saucer sightings, but also the phenomena that are little more mundane—like how people respond to marketing efforts that make a $4 latte seem like a need, rather than a luxury.

Students are also examining why high-ranking politicians behave recklessly and assume their antics will remain private.

Butler said her goal is to help people understand why odd beliefs can be so compelling and why people continue to believe in the improbably rather than use critical thinking skills.

She talks to her students about separating fact from fiction and also how to understand the framework in which people accept weird ideas or commit inappropriate acts.

“It’s in human nature to want to believe the impossible,” she said.

“The sad truth is that we live in an illogical world,” Butler continued. “Something about the way the human mind works makes us natural pattern seekers who look for explanations that fit within the boundaries of our cultures.”

Butler’s curiosity about why people believe weird things inspired the course, which she started teaching four years ago.

“Why we believe weird things is a question that everyone can relate to and that isn’t easily explained,” said sophomore Chelsea Geise, a psychology and biology major.

“Everyone has their own odd suspicions and beliefs—sometimes even when the individual knows that the concept or idea they feed into isn’t plausible or realistic,” Geise added. “I wanted to figure out the motivations behind these sometimes-farfetched beliefs.”

The weird things in life provide opportunities to develop the skills of a skeptic, Butler said.

She makes it clear that skepticism is very different from criticism.

“I want to train students to be skeptics. Reality is surprising and puzzling enough, without needing to accept the improbable or logically flawed,” she said. Skeptics leave room for exploring ideas. Critics have reached their conclusions on the subject.

Butler aims to teach students to question the roots of why these weird things are so compelling and to have students use critical-thinking and hypothesis-testing skills. Then, she said, students may better understand why a believer has reached a certain conclusion and, possibly, how they might be persuaded to arrive at a new conclusion.

Students’ summer reading list includes: The Skeptics Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions; The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark; How We Know What Isn’t So: the Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life; Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid; Predictably Irrational; and Why People Believe Weird Things.