Things Writers Need To Know About Skepticism & Disbelief

Writing a story where it's important that a substantial number of people disbelieve in something or other? If so, here are some things to know about the whole matter, based on years of reading and observation.

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Reasons people might disbelieve something.

The following is a list of reasons often people don't believe in certain things. It's not every reason that there could ever be, but they all exist in real life.

People don't have a lot of personal experience. This one is the backbone of pretty much any plausible mass denial scenario. The more people have personally experienced something and can recognize it for what it is, the less plausible it is that people would disbelieve in it, especially on a large scale. For example, there's no doubt that birds exist because we often see birds on a regular basis. Similarly, while not everyone has personally had braces, plenty of people know of someone who did and there's enough general awareness of braces that nobody really doubts their existence. On the other hand, not everyone has personally seen a fossil in a rock, making it easy for some people to say that all fossils are just faked.

They can easily rationalize it as something else. It's easy enough for someone to rationalize away one person's report of a strange monster lurking around as a hallucination or a grab for attention. It's also easy enough to rationalize multiple witnesses as being caught up in a mass panic that's making them mistake something ordinary for something extraordinary. Likewise, a few videos can be dismissed as student film projects. However, it's a whole other story when dozens of photos start popping up from a number of different sources and when people can actually bring in samples of the creature for analysis and different laboratories can independently confirm that these samples don't come from any known creature.

People don't trust the source. For example, a group of people who believe that all scientists are colluding on some sinister scheme might not believe scientists when they all agree that hair and skin samples sent in by people for testing all come from an unknown creature. Instead, they might rationalize that the scientists are making the whole thing up to spread mass panic or to cover something up. For another example, people might disbelieve anything claimed or stated by a member of a demographic that they consider sinister and/or intellectually deficient. (In real life, this kind of thing often leads to members of marginalized groups being brushed off and ignored when they claim to be suffering from discriminatory action or from various other ills.)

Hoaxes, frauds, and/or false positives are known to happen. The Boy Who Cried Wolf must never be forgotten here. In a world where most people claiming to have magic powers turn out to be charlatans, one can't really blame people for not believing that the real thing has finally come along. If it's easy and common for people to fake realistic-looking pictures of strange monsters, no one should be surprised when people are skeptical when someone finally turns up with a genuine, unedited photo of the real thing. If people's claims of meeting some fantastic creature usually tend to unravel when examined closely, then people will naturally get into the habit of presuming these stories false until reliably proven otherwise.

People are ideologically motivated to disbelieve it. If it's part of or connected to someone's belief system, then it will encounter strong resistance. For example, if someone is wholly convicted in a belief system that says human brains are made of cabbage, this person is hardly going to just up and believe someone who says something contrary. This person might even rationalize diagrams that show the human brain not being made out of cabbage as a presumptuous guess made by ignorant people who just don't want to believe in the truth, and might rationalize actual photos or videos of human brains as part of a sinister, desperate conspiracy to keep people away from the truth.

Their internal model of the universe doesn't accommodate it. Everyone builds up an internal model of the universe based on what they see and learn about it. This ranges from a mental image what's out there in space, to how they believe their mothers will react if they track muddy footprints across the floor, to what they think happens after death. People can usually readily accept new information that doesn't immediately contradict or challenge anything that's already in their internal models. For example, the discovery of a strange new deep sea squid probably isn't going to come into conflict with many people's internal model of the universe, so most people are going to accept it as real just fine. However, if someone is firmly convinced that the deep sea is a barren wasteland for some reason or other, then this person is very likely to reject the idea of a deep sea squid. This person might rationalize that the scientists and researchers are being presumptuous and just imposing their own preconceptions onto the creature they found, or might even rationalize that the creature is a deliberate hoax to make people believe in their own ideas of what the deep sea is like.

They personally can't understand how it could be so. Someone who believes that a government is always just and fair could have a very hard time believing that it's actually treating certain people very horribly. People who see a co-worker always behaving in a friendly and sociable manner might have a hard time believing that this person is abusing family members at home. And one could hardly be surprised if an Ice Age human found it difficult to believe that the Earth is round rather than flat, that it orbits in a circle around the sun, and that the sun is in fact larger than the Earth - because there's nothing that really gives any of this away when you're out standing in a meadow.

They've been conditioned to distrust it. They may have been conditioned to believe that anything they hear that goes against what they already know and believe is enemy propaganda or designed to lure them away from the truth, or that it's all "brainwashing." They may have been conditioned to believe that any other belief system or way will lead them to disaster and destruction. More on how this kind of conditioning can occur can be found here. (Important to note that conditioning on this level tends to require very strict control, which is rarely feasible outside of a small scale - IE, a small country, a cult, an Internet community, etc.)

The source they hear it from is too confrontational or condescending. Rude, pushy, insulting, and haughty behavior makes people defensive, and when they're defensive they're a lot less open and trusting. Those who go around insulting and belittling those they're trying to explain themselves to often only have themselves to blame when others finally just tune them out or leave.

The source they hear it from is incomprehensible. Whoever they hear it from might be bad at explaining things in a clear and concise manner. They might also try to explain it in jargon that most people don't understand, or use uncommon definitions for common words and thus leave people thinking that they're saying something very different from what they're actually trying to say. (Sadly, it happens all too often that people who explain themselves in a hard-to-understand manner end up blaming other people for being too stupid or ignorant to understand what they're saying rather than try and ask themselves how they can make their messages clearer and more accessible.)

They want to be contrary or spite someone. A small fraction of people might dig in their heels and disbelieve something out of a simple need to be contrary. However, it must be emphasized that the number of people who will do this is very much in the minority - it's not plausible for this to be a motivation for the majority. If anything, it's far more common for people to accuse others of disbelieving out of spite or contrariness when the reality is that there's just no good reason to believe their claims, and/or there are good reasons not to believe them.

There's just no reliable evidence, period. This is the case for many things in real life - despite people's claims that something exists or happened, investigations reveal that someone lied or made a mistake. Maybe their stories don't jive with verifiable fact, or maybe corroborating evidence that should be there if what they claim is true just isn't, or maybe nobody can recreate some effect/phenomena they claimed they made happen when following their steps exactly.

Important things to know about skepticism.

Skepticism isn't always bad. In fact, it's usually good. While too much skepticism can create serious problems, it's still an important life skill and survival mechanism. If you believed everything that everyone told you, you'd find yourself cheated and swindled left and right, always being talked into doing things that were seriously harmful to you, or being talked out of doing things that were really in your best interests. To denigrate skepticism is to denigrate someone's ability to think autonomously.

Skepticism/disbelief isn't as simple as supernatural vs. natural. A lot of fantasy stories treat it this way, but the reality is a little more complex. It's more about what's in one's personal acceptance zone vs. what isn't. For some people, that might be the supernatural, or at least certain aspects of it. (Someone could very well believe in ghosts and magic spells, but not in vampires and werewolves - or vice-versa!) Someone might believe in quite a few supernatural things, but be very skeptical when it came to, say, claims that the local police force is completely corrupt.

Not everyone who dismisses something out of the gate is being "narrow-minded." For example, if your friend claims to have made a sculpture from molten lava without using any special equipment, you can confidently brush your friend's claim off as false from the start because you know that your friend couldn't touch molten lava without sustaining serious injury. Likewise, someone who is well-aware of how arachnids work could confidently brush off the existence of a living species of dog-sized spider (arachnids' book lungs simply can't collect enough oxygen from our current atmosphere when scaled up beyond a certain point), and someone who understands the principles of a combustion engine and how fuel works can immediately dismiss the existence of a gravy-powered race car.

Skepticism doesn't make people boring or dull. Just because somebody doesn't believe in fairies doesn't mean this person don't know how to have fun or isn't deeply interested in topics that are interesting in their own right. If anything, deciding whether or not someone is "interesting" or "boring" based on how many unprovable things this person believes in is pretty shallow and narrow-minded.

So what can make people change their minds?

Personal experience that cannot be easily rationalized away. It's one thing when a few random people on the street say that there are vampires out there. It's another thing when you come across someone in the middle of getting drained. Maybe you could rationalize that away as some weirdo, but then this "weirdo" flees and you go to help the victim, and you see teeth marks that betray long fangs. At this point, it becomes very hard to come up with an explanation that isn't "vampires." When it comes to people on the whole, their disbelief will not be able to withstand repeated exposure to the thing in question. They might come up with some odd explanations for it (especially early on), but they'll eventually come to accept it as real.

Hearing about it from sources they trust. Alternatively, maybe you didn't come across a vampire first-hand, but maybe people you've known awhile and trust to be reasonably honest and sensible report sightings of their own. The longer this goes on, the more plausible and likely it will seem that vampires are really out there. Likewise, hearing about it from a politician, celebrity, scientist, etc. that one regards positively can make it seem more plausible. (Also, as people come to better know and empathize with marginalized groups, they will come to trust them more, and thus find them more credible.)

Hearing about it often. The expression "where there's smoke, there's fire" describes how the human mind tends to operate. The more people hear or read about something happening or existing, the more likely they are to believe that there's at least some measure of truth to it. (Unfortunately, this tendency can be, and has been, taken advantage of to get people to believe all kinds of false things.)

Having the right set of personality traits and life circumstances. Those who are curious and prone to valuing honesty above ideology are more likely to change their minds, as are those who feel that they'll be relatively safe if they do. They're also more likely to change their minds if they want something to be true or want an escape from a belief of worldview that's bringing them unhappiness and stress. These reasons are explored in more detail over here.

Straight facts and logic often aren't quite as effective in changing someone's mind as one might think. Many people have believed for years that simply showing people the plain and simple facts and appealing to them with reason would make them change their minds on certain matters, but it turns out that doing so just makes some people cling to what they believe even more stubbornly. So what does work? The research found (among other things) that calmness, eloquence, citations, and using specific examples seemed to help.

What to know about the mind-changing process.

It can take awhile for people to change certain beliefs. It can take up to weeks, months, or even years for someone's beliefs to really and truly change. (If it was always easy for people to just up and change their minds on a dime, cognitive behavioral therapy wouldn't take as long as it does!) People usually first need to warm up to the possibility that something might be true or correct, which is different from accepting that it is true or correct. And then, they need to see what they consider to be compelling evidence that something is indeed actually so. Also, belief systems and worldviews are made up of many different beliefs, and knocking one or even a few of them out won't usually be enough to make somebody discard it entirely. Instead, it usually takes knocking out several small beliefs to make the whole thing crumble.

If a former belief is shattered, people will often doubt and question the validity of other categorically-related things they believed, too. For example, upon discovering that one's parents kept a major secret hidden from oneself, it's natural and normal to wonder what else they're lying about or keeping hidden. If somebody finds out that one mythical creature is real, this person will likely consider it possible - even probable - that all kinds of other creatures are real, too.

If someone's identity is tied up into the former belief, losing it can even be traumatic. People need a sense of identity to feel comfortable, and if they suddenly have that ripped away they can end up feeling like they are nothing and/or have no purpose in life. People in this situation may even end up glomming onto the first new identity that they can find, for better or worse. (Some abusive/manipulative groups take advantage of this - when they tear down people's identities by tearing down their beliefs, they try to give them a new identity centers around the group.) On the other hand, someone whose identity is mostly internal won't suffer this as much, if at all.

The same goes if they sunk a lot of time and effort into it. People are likely to feel deep regret for having wasted so much time and effort, and they might feel like they're complete idiots for not seeing the truth sooner. If these people were essentially swindled or had no real way to know better at the time, they will deserve some support and reassurance during this time.

So what should you do in your story?

Exactly which factors should be driving people's disbelief in your story depends on what kind of tone and setting you're aiming for. If religious conflict isn't supposed to be a major theme or element, for example, you might not want to go for people being ideologically opposed to the idea.

You should probably also avoid chalking it all up to one single cause. Things in the real world usually happen for a variety of reasons, and if you use only one you run the risk of losing plausibility. And not just that, but you also run the risk of coming off as a bit preachy and condescending by presenting an issue that would would be fairly complicated in the real world as a simple, two-dimensional matter.

What you can do is aim to come up with at least three reasons, bearing in mind that a lack of personal experience with the thing in question is mandatory, not optional, for the disbelieving group. (Again, nobody's disbelief can withstand repeated, undeniable exposure to something unless somebody is just really incredibly motivated to deny reality, and most people are not. Just as with spite, use this one very sparingly, if at all.)

If the thing people don't believe in is some sort of fantasy element, it also helps to avoid simply chalking it up to people lacking imagination, being too arrogant to consider it possible, or just having some inexplicable irrational hatred for the whole subject. In the real world, people don't believe in these things largely because there's no reliable evidence for them. The seeming irrational hatred some people have can come from them seeing it as a waste of time compared to things they perceive as more useful, perceiving it as heretical or demonic, or from having a strong need to control the thoughts and beliefs of others. (And the last one should be used sparingly. Most people are not like this. Besides, it doesn't take many people like this to make a lot of people really miserable.)

Also, characters not believing in something they never had any real evidence for should not be considered a legitimate reason to mock or scorn them, nor reason to consider them deficient in any way. You are not mentally or morally deficient for not believing in, say, mermaids when there's no substantial evidence for their existence - all you're doing is basing your image on the world on what you can actually infer from the evidence. By keeping basing one's views based on what is actually in evidence, one avoids jumping to conclusions, which in turn helps prevent immoral or harmful action.

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

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Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
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Alexis Feynman's Guide To Writing Better Vampire Fiction
Common Plotholes In Vampire Fiction
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
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Things Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Should Know About Science
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