Why do denialists delude themselves?


Why do people believe things that even the most cursory exploration would reveal to be untrue?

Why do people fervently embrace vaccine denialism, climate denialism and even election denialism?

It’s only partly because they find these delusional beliefs comforting. The real reason is because belief in fantastical delusions has become a form of identity signaling, advertising membership in a particular social group.

Denialism is a form of social identity signaling.

That’s the theory outlined by John S. Wilkins in the 2016 paper Why do believers believe silly things? Costly signaling and the function of denialism.

He starts with the example of a member of the “Exclusive Brethren”:

… I would try to talk to him about his beliefs, but he simply refused to engage. The Exclusive Brethren have withdrawn from all conversation with the secular world (which, in their view, includes all other Christians) except for business. I wondered at how a clearly intelligent person could believe what he believed, and then it hit me: he couldn’t speak to outsiders, because they just looked at him with their jaw open and shaking their head. His beliefs isolated him from those outside his community, and therefore, by implication, strengthened his involvement within the community…

The more delusional the belief, the more aggressively believers hold it:

Think of this as a kind of investment: one spends a long period developing one’s beliefs and social connections. If you are challenged in your beliefs, you put at risk your social networks with those who use the silly beliefs you hold as a test of inclusion, and therefore risk your social connections…

The key point is this:

… [I]t is not the content or topic of the beliefs that matters, but the fact that in order to hold them and assert them, you have isolated yourself from the external community as a show of faith. To abandon them simply because they are false would cost too much. And so you face up to the cognitive dissonance and rationalize your beliefs and the facts that challenge them.

It’s impossible to reason denialists out of their bizarre beliefs because they didn’t reason themselves into them. They swallowed them whole from the arbiters of the social group to which they want desperately to belong.

That explains why group members constantly signal their allegiance to shared delusions. But why believe something delusional — like claiming vaccines don’t work, climate change isn’t real, or the recent Presidential election was stolen — in the first place?

Because the more delusional the lie, the more powerful the resulting in-group identity. That’s especially true if it is personally harmful to maintain belief in the delusion. For example, COVID denialism literally sickens and kills believers by convincing them to forgo protective public health measures.

COVID denialism is the ultimate social signal because it is a “power lie.”

In her book Surviving Autocracy, journalist Masha Gessen explains the “power lie”:

The purpose of the power lie isn’t to get you to believe something that’s untrue, as is the case with ordinary lies. The goal of a power lie is to demonstrate extraordinary power over others by insisting that denying what you know to be true is proof of political fealty.

COVID denialism is a power lie because it forces people to deny the danger of sickness and death as proof of political fealty to Donald Trump.

That’s how South Dakota came to be the epicenter of a massive, deadly COVID outbreak. A motorcycle rally in Sturgis became not merely a motorcycle rally, but an opportunity for identity signaling. Hundreds of thousands showed up, demonstrating the tremendous power of the lie.

The result was exactly what public health authorities predicted.

Albert Aguirre was amped as he and a buddy skimmed across the South Dakota plains, heading to join 460,000 bikers for a motorcycle rally shaping up to be a Woodstock of unmasked, uninhibited coronavirus defiance.

“Sit tight Sturgis,” Mr. Aguirre, 40, posted on Facebook on Aug. 7 as he snapped a photo of the sun sifting through the clouds. “We’re almost there!”

Less than a month later, Aguirre was struggling to breathe and a few days after that he was dead.

The lie is so powerful that there have been reports of COVID deniers desperately trying to maintain their denial even as they are DYING of the disease. They recognize they are very sick; they seek help at hospitals; but they insist literally to their dying breath that they must have some other disease. Even unto death they feared both cognitive dissonance and exclusion from their chosen social group more than they feared death.

That’s why head on efforts to educate denialists out of their denial are doomed to failure. Since denialism has nothing to do with facts it will not be changed by facts. Maintaining delusional beliefs is a form of identity signaling, not a form of intellectual independence. Denialists aren’t cognitively brave; they’re socially weak, dependent on their group for approval and desperate to signal continuing membership.