I decided last week that I know nothing about delusional thinking or psychosis and so I ought to read up about that. I mean, I know a fair amount I would say about my own issues, about trauma and dissociation and what you might call attachment issues. I even know some useful information about what have been classed as personality disorders—namely, borderline and narcissism, although I believe less and less that they represent distinct illnesses rather than a collection of symptoms that may or may not occur together. But that’s another topic.
So, I did. And it turns out that what causes delusional thinking—which is surprisingly common–may have to do with how people consider evidence. Those who develop delusions tend to consider only very sparse evidence before reaching a conclusion. In addition, they may reason emotionally, as others of us also sometimes do.
For example, a person walks outside, has an uneasy feeling, sees the neighbors talking, and decides the neighbors must be plotting to blow up his house. He doesn’t consider additional evidence, such as the fact that the neighbors don’t generally seem inclined towards violence and have no compelling motive to harm him.
It seems to me that a difficulty in considering probabilities must have something to do with this as well, because many of us get crazy ideas about things from time to time, but then we think about the odds and reconsider. But that’s just my own idea.
Uncle #2 is inclined towards delusion. He’s an anxious person generally, and seems constitutionally set up to worry. Last week, I was 20 minutes later than usual coming home in the evening, and he concluded I had decided to give up my room and take up residence elsewhere. Never mind that my rent for the next month has already been paid.
Uncle #2 has a few obsessions: the bougainvillea is one of them. He’s perpetually worried someone will chop it down, because this has happened before. He doesn’t seem to consider the number of times he has thought it was going to be chopped down and wasn’t. This doesn’t enter in.
He’s also concerned that the other owners in the lane are conspiring to persuade his paying guests to pick up and leave. The watchman, of course, has been paid to assist in this process.
Granted, Uncle #2 not the easiest person to have as a neighbor, because he feels constantly threatened and is therefore inclined to be a bit obstructive and, well, crotchety is the word that comes to mind. But my experience has been that most people are really just too lazy and preoccupied with their own lives to form elaborate plots. In most cases, their difficult neighbors continue to remain in their houses and continue to be difficult in spite of any neighborhood sentiment against them. Also, Uncle #2 has lived here for nearly 20 years. But these are facts he seems not to have considered.
This has also gotten me thinking about the rest of us, and other differences in how much and what kind of evidence we consider when coming to conclusions. I know for myself that, in most things, I want to see quantitative studies that use acceptable samples (large enough and random enough to mean something), control for important variables, and yield statistically significant results. Better yet, I’d like to see meta-analysis so that I’m seeing the results of many studies at once. Qualitative studies have their uses, but not as decisive evidence. I think this way in terms of my work (education) as well as in other areas where I need to make important decisions, such as physical and mental health.
If you work in the humanities, you probably have a completely different way you approach evidence, which I probably don’t understand. But I’m sure that that way is also valid. Whatever it is.
Of course, we all weigh new information against the framework of what we already know and believe—some of which is true and some of which probably isn’t. But that’s a different matter for a different post.
However, some people use an entirely different standard for assessing evidence, a standard that has to do with the person providing the evidence and not with the evidence itself: name recognition, prestige, the air of confidence and certainty in which the evidence is submitted, and personal qualities that are valued or associated with authority and believability. Some of this has some value: my physician has a medical degree from an accredited university. That seems important. But most of it probably doesn’t.
Sometimes, you know someone’s name because they’ve advertised well and not because they actually have anything to offer. Or, maybe you keep hearing their name because they’ve captured the imagination of a lot of people who know even less than you do about the subject.
As for confidence, that’s usually a better indicator of bias than of correctness. Absolute confidence means the person is unwilling to consider other explanations or interpretations aside from their own, so they have blind spots. The more confident someone is, the less seriously you should probably take them.
In the same way, I think we often consider religious and political figures in light of their personal qualities rather than think critically about their message. If they can persuade us, we believe what they are saying must be right. But the tactics that lead to persuasion are more often emotional than factual. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who I think was right, seems to have mainly compelled the nation to listen because of his oratory gift and not because of the strength of his ideas. Listening to him, I still get chills. And it’s good we listened to him, but not everyone who can do that has something to say that’s worth paying attention to.
Still, I think we learn what evidence to use in making decisions–as well as in making sense of our lives–from our families as well as the larger culture. I was raised to defer to the “workers” (the 2×2 ministers) in nearly everything I did. Their source of authority? A place in the hierarchical structure of the church and compliance with the accepted practices and beliefs of those higher in the structure. Where did those come from? Charisma, really, and the political acumen to know who to align yourself with and for how long. Personal qualities and nothing else.
And I think this needs to change. I think we need to change how we consider evidence–responding less to how something is said or who has said it, while considering more what it is that is being said. Otherwise, we could all end up wearing our hair in buns or drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.