Fear as The New Religion: How confirmation bias became the new sacrament and YouTube the new church

We’ve all seen them – the often crazy conspiracy theory videos that seem to be the fastest growing section of the vast YouTube library.  They are amusing and occasionally interesting, and I’ll admit that once in a very great while, on the surface, they appear to make compelling arguments.  I say “on the surface” because it doesn’t take much research or even just some good old-fashioned logical thought to see the flaws in the “evidence” they purport to present.  Unfortunately, it seems that logical thought has become a commodity in shockingly short supply as of late.  Are people just that stupid and gullible?  Well, the short answer is a resounding “yes”, but there may well be a more insidious psychological mechanism at work here.

            Confirmation Bias, according to the American Psychological Association, is the tendency to look for information that supports, rather than rejects, one’s preconceptions, typically by interpreting evidence to confirm existing beliefs while rejecting or ignoring any conflicting data. Simply put, people want to be right, so it’s only natural to find oneself attracted to information that says as much.  Of course, this is not how scientists think.  To the contrary, in a way, they actually look to be wrong or for ways and examples that a given supposition falls apart.  One of the precepts of the scientific method is to look for all of the ways something doesn’t work in order to find the one that does.  Another colorful school of thought which exemplifies this principle is that of the criminal’s mind.  When scheming, it’s imperative to contemplate every possible scenario and detail of a plan to look for ways for it to fail or worse, get the perpetrator caught.  In doing so, one may come up with a foolproof method to execute the crime.  More often than not, one will realize that it can’t or won’t succeed because of security safeguards that have been put in place to thwart them.  The prison system is full of people who believed they were right without considering all of the ways they were wrong.  They succumbed to their own confirmation biases and rejected, ignored or simply didn’t consider facts that would have caused them to scrap or at least modify their nefarious plans. 

The Sacrament: In addition to the adrenalin rush associated with fear, specifically when the pituitary gland secretes the adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) hormone into the blood, it has been long known that fear releases other “feel-good” chemicals in the brain such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.  Anger has similar effects.  Counterintuitive as we may feel that it is, people garner some modicum of enjoyment out of being scared.  Just ask Stephen King.  With almost 100 published novels and the most works adapted into movie screenplays of any living author, he’s made an entire cottage industry out of this concept.  So, when people watch videos whose sole purpose is to present agendas that enrage the viewer while pandering to that viewer’s often irrational fears and paranoia, they get a kick out of it, even if they don’t consciously realize it at the time.  Therein lies the sacrament. Furthermore, they get to pat themselves on the back and say, “Yeah, I knew it all along.” which carries with it, its own type of gratification, above and beyond the aforementioned biochemical pleasures.

The Church: There’s an old Irish proverb which says, “When one person at the pub tells you that you’re drunk, you tell him to sod off, but when three people tell you, it’s time to go home.”  Similarly, watching one video that presents a radical or crackpot idea is one thing, but when one sees several which all reiterate the same nonsense, the trap is set.  The viewer thinks “Aha. So, it’s not just this one guy saying this.  Many are saying this.  Ergo, it must be true.”  Confirmation Bias 101.  The wizards at YouTube have algorithms in place which cater to this.  When you watch a video about kittens, what kinds of videos automatically play afterward?  More videos about kittens, of course.  The same goes for virtually any subject matter.  So, when a person watches some preposterously unscientific explanation as to why the Earth is flat, they are directed to other videos on the same inane subject immediately thereafter.  Generally, they will not be prompted to watch videos which debunk this sheer idiocy.  The viewer becomes distrustful of facts, which leads to paranoia, which leads to fear, and that is the proverbial hook.  The fear is the juice, the rush, or whatever term you prefer. It’s easy to see why YouTube operates like this.  They want viewers to keep watching.  Let me amend that. They need viewers to keep watching.  It is a business after all.  Nevertheless, they are creating and/or pandering to addicts of the brain chemicals much in the way that Purdue Pharma spawned the Oxycontin market, as did the cigarette manufacturers before them.  The difference is the level of insidiousness.  Although most forms of addiction sneak up on the addict before he knows it, there generally comes a point when the addict becomes painfully self-aware of the dependency.  Just to be clear, by no means is that to be confused with the addict reaching a point of desiring to free himself from the clutches of said addiction.  That tends to arrive much, much later.  This is an entirely different paradigm in that the person generally has no knowledge that his “innocent hobby” is quietly feeding a biochemical addiction.  In fact, the person actually sees this activity as healthy, because he firmly believes that he is doing himself a service in terms of self-education.  Unlike other addictions which have clear and present symptoms and results like blackouts, legal consequences, accidents, physical sicknesses, and withdrawals in the cases of drug/alcohol, and disastrous financial consequences in the cases of gambling, this addiction has no obvious discernable symptoms.  If anything, the viewer feels smarter and more knowledgeable for the exercise.  As I said, it’s insidious.

The social costs and ramifications of this are plain to see.  We now live in a time in which expertise is ignored and even resented and maligned.  This is why well-intentioned but dangerously foolish people aren’t vaccinating their children.  This is also why not-so-well intentioned people are convincing themselves that not only are masks ineffective at reducing viral transmission, but that the wearers actually suffer negative effects like oxygen depletion of carbon dioxide poisoning.  Of course, this is utter nonsense.  Surgeons and their assistants wear masks 8+ hours a day, 5 days per week, and frequently have 40 year careers, and there’s no such thing as “Surgeon’s Hypoxia Syndrome”.  So, if they can manage, chances are good that you can as well.  Of course, the foolishness doesn’t stop at medical disinformation.  People now believe that we didn’t go to the moon, that the Earth isn’t spherical, and that 7 adults and 20 children weren’t brutally murdered at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown CT, and the list of preposterous nonsense goes on and on.

My final thoughts on this are that YouTube has a tremendous responsibility which I firmly believe they are shirking in favor of profits.  Incessantly satiating the various confirmation biases may fare well for their viewership numbers, but it’s taking a tremendous toll on the very fabric of our society.  It’s creating, or at least augmenting, an ever-increasing divide between sane, rational, factually-oriented people and people who foolishly and incomprehensibly reject science.  This pathway is fraught with peril and discourse and absolutely no good can come from it. 

Grant Strauss grew up in Southern California and in his teens and twenties was a well-known fixture in the Sunset Strip music scene. Although he was merely a self-described “dabbler” in musicianship himself, he managed to have personal friends and acquaintances in almost every band to come out of Hollywood during that era including Motley Crue, W.A.S.P., Steeler, Poison and Guns ‘n’ Roses, to name a few. He now resides in Las Vegas dividing his professional life between his Automobile Dealership (Value Motors, Inc.) and playing profitable poker. He can be contacted at [email protected]