Why Do You Believe That?

An Absurdist View Of Culture and Society

Good morning lovely people!

I’m sharing an interesting article below, which I wrote for The Philosopher’s Stone last week about the basis of our belief systems. If you’re interested in other happenings the past week:

  1. My article, “Trusting Someone New After You’ve Been Cheated On,” was published by The Good Men Project on Thursday.

  2. Sober January is officially 2/3 over. I will write a full post at the end of the month breaking down what happened, and why I think I will be starting every year like this from now on.

  3. I started writing a sci-fi novel, and now that I spoke it into being, I have to follow through with it.

As always, I would greatly appreciate it if you shared the newsletter with anyone you know who might appreciate poetry or perspective pieces. The easiest link is through here: http://bit.ly/calexanderpoetry and they’ll get a free pdf of my first poetry collection, The Cosmic Hello. If you never got a copy yourself, feel free to email me at calexanderpoetry@gmail.com and I’ll send you one too.

Lastly, there has been a severe lack of poetry in this poetry newsletter, so before you read the article, here is a poem that I wrote a couple of years ago that hits on some of the major themes of the article:

Apes Actually

Sometimes I think our monkey
brains probably shouldn’t have realized
we have monkey brains. Maybe
we should have stayed in the trees.

And there was an exceptional monkey;
his name was Richard Einstein (no relation)
relating relativity to a relatively real
rec room crowd. He did and didn’t
and did his didn’t. Didn’t he?

And he did it again, or always
or never, it’s hard to tell some of
the time, or some of time.


Why Do You Believe That?

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”
― Karl Marx

I’m about to lie to you. Well, I guess it is more like perpetuate a lie to you, but it’s a lie that looks a lot like truth, so do you mind? Spoiler: The following story is a lie.


The Five Monkey Experiment goes something like this: a group of researchers once put 5 monkeys in a room with some bananas at the top of a staircase. Every time a monkey tried to climb the staircase, the researchers sprayed the monkeys with a fire hose, until the monkeys stopped trying to get the bananas anymore.

Later, the researchers took away the fire hose, but the monkeys had been trained not to go after the bananas, so it didn’t matter; the fire hose was no longer needed. Slowly, the researchers began taking one monkey out of the room and replacing it with a new monkey.

When the new monkey came in, he looked around and was like, “Hey guys, why is no one going after the free bananas?” and began climbing the stairs towards the bananas. The other 4 monkeys grabbed the newcomer and beat him until he no longer tried to reach for the bananas.

The researchers replaced the other monkeys one by one until there were no monkeys left that had ever been hit with the fire hose, and yet all 5 monkeys had been beaten into submission and learned the lesson to never attempt to get the bananas.

Spoiler Episode 7: Return of the Spoiler: that experiment never happened, even though a lot of people seem to think it did.

Descriptions of this experiment can also be found online, as a result of this story being told many times in various blogs, books, and speeches. The experiment as described in the story, however, never happened. — Dario Maestripieri Ph.D.Games Primates Play

Why then, has this experiment been shared so many times even though it’s all but confirmed as fake?

Because It Tells The Truth

Ethics are the set of moral principles that guide a person’s behavior. These morals are shaped by social norms, cultural practices, and religious influences. Ethics reflect beliefs about what is right, what is wrong, what is just, what is unjust, what is good, and what is bad in terms of human behavior. They serve as a compass to direct how people should behave toward each other, understand and fulfill their obligations to society, and live their lives. — Lumenlearning

A huge part of our beliefs about right and wrong, moral and immoral, taboo or not, etc. come from our culture. If you think about the strangeness of large parts of our identity being placed in such a nebulous construct for a moment, you find yourself in a never-ending vortex of infinite regression.

Infinite regression is a phenomenon that arises when we ask about the justifications for reasons rather than just the reasons themselves.

This is not the same as asking, “why do you believe (insert cultural norm here)”; it is actually asking, “why does anyone believe (that same cultural norm)” You find yourself in an infinite regress when you ask questions like: “Who made God?” or “What came before the big bang?”

There is a rather famous example in philosophy called Turtles All The Way Down that goes something like this:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!


We also find ourselves in infinite regress when we think too deeply about our cultural beliefs. Why are W.A.S.P. (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) American’s in general so prudish about sex? Oh, we have Puritan forebearers. Oh, and their parents were religious extremists in their own countries before that. Oh, and their parents branched off from their own religious sects in the dark ages. etc. etc.

The only problem is if we think too deeply about this. It all starts to feel very silly. How many of our core beliefs and actions are based on an infinite regress that has little or no connection to reality? How many of us are staring at bananas with no idea why we aren’t all climbing the stairs to grab them?

The experiment itself is a lie (thankfully for the poor monkeys). But the underlying truth is constantly impacting our individual and societal decisions, and for the most part, we never question it. We raise our kids in the same faith we were brought up in. We teach our kids the same politics we were taught. We discipline our kids the same way we were disciplined. And we so rarely stop to think:

Does any of this make any sense at all?


Thanks for reading. If you’d like to share this newsletter with someone, here is an easy link: http://bit.ly/calexanderpoetry

Get Yourself Off The Hedonic Treadmill

Exorcising Your Misconceptions About How To Attain Happiness

Hello beautiful people. I have a couple of updates:

  1. You can expect to see the newsletter every Wednesday as a way to break up the workweek, and a future excuse for me to make hump day jokes.

  2. I wrote a weird post about Tragedy and Oedipus last week on Medium that you might like.

  3. I am now at the mid-way point of sober January and I have a few takeaways so far: I miss beer; I don’t miss social media; I miss pasta; I don’t miss the 5 lbs I’ve lost.

I hope you enjoy the article today, and please reply back with any comments or future articles you’d like to see. If you get any value out of this, I would appreciate it if you shared it with someone else who might.

Sincerely,

Caleb

Get Yourself Off The Hedonic Treadmill


“Most people are like all stomachs: they cannot remain satisfied for a long time.”
― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

When I was getting my undergrad in English, I was not always the most studious member of my university. I wrote recently on the ways I’ve had to trick the laziness out of myself, and honestly, it has always been a struggle. One year, I was on the brink of losing my scholarship if I didn’t make an A in a summer class, so what did I do? I took the easiest sounding class I could, of course. That happened to be a psychology class on happiness. How hard could a class about being happy really be?

I didn’t lose my scholarship, so I guess not that hard, but attaining actual happiness seems to be quite difficult for most of us. That’s because we are trained to base our happiness on goals and success, and we’ve got it all wrong.


What Is The Hedonic Treadmill?

Let’s define this sinister-sounding workout routine.

The hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them. — Seph Fontane Pennock, BBA

In some ways, this treadmill can be a sign of hope; if something bad happens, you generally, with enough time, return to your general level of happiness that you had before.

It can also put us on a hamster wheel of achievement, where we forever put off our happiness for someplace just over the horizon line. Let me emphasize this with a fictional story with a guy we will call John.

John is doing okay. He isn’t depressed or anything, but he has his struggles. He believes if he can just get his raise at work, he will be happy. He can pay off some debts he shouldn’t have accrued, and take his wife on a vacation.

John gets his raise, and he is ecstatic. He pays off his debts and takes his wife on a weekend getaway to a cabin in the mountains. After a couple of months, John finds himself daydreaming at work of a new job at a new company; his current job is fine, but it is holding him back. This new job will make him happy for sure.

John gets a new job across town and another small raise. He is so excited. He spends the first couple of weeks feeling valued in ways that he never did at his last job. After a couple of months, John finds himself daydreaming at work, this time he wants to put a hot tub in the back yard. If he could just relax in his hot tub after a long day at work, he would be so much happier.

John gets the hot tub. The first couple of months he spends every evening relaxing with a beer and even sets up an outdoor television to watch. After a couple of months…

Okay, you get it right? John is basing his happiness on an external goal: a raise, a new job, a hot tub, etc. It is good to have goals, but if we know that our external experiences have little to do with our overall happiness, why do we continue to think that new external experiences and objects are going bring us happiness?

“Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book


How Do I Get Off The Hedonic Treadmill?

You must throw away the idea that you can earn your way to happiness. Most of us know that you can’t buy happiness, but we still try to earn through some external goal.

I know I said earlier that people return to their baseline of happiness regardless of what happens to them, but that only accounts for external factors. You can change your happiness level, but it has to be an internal change.

The researchers found that even though there was significant stability in the happiness assessments, 24% of participants still experienced a significant change to their happiness level, and 9% of participants changed by two standard deviations or more. It seems that long-lasting change is possible.

“The very good news is there is quite a number of internal circumstances . . . under your voluntary control. If you decide to change them (none of these changes come without real effort), your level of happiness is likely to increase lastingly.” — Martin Seligman

That begins with finding happiness where you are. If you are not happy at $30,000 a year, you aren’t going to be happy at $100,000 a year, if the only thing that changes is your income.

One of the biggest factors of finding happiness where you are comes down to practicing gratitude.

“A study by Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel showed that the stream of positive emotions induced through loving-kindness meditation can outpace the effects of the hedonic treadmill (2008).”

Instead of thinking that the bench you are sitting on is dreary, or uncomfortable, just take it in for what it is. If you can begin to practice this with small scenarios, you can begin to work on your self-talk when it comes to your life too. Instead of a work assignment being stressful, or a family member being dramatic; they just are what they are.

This takes some serious rewiring of the brain and a lot of time. It’s okay though, you don’t have to be rewired to make progress. So where do you begin? Try to write down 5 things you are grateful for every day. It can be simple. Here are my 5 for today:

  1. I am grateful that my fiancé made kale and sausage soup

  2. I am grateful that I ran a new personal record pace on my run today.

  3. I am grateful my dog is snuggled at my feet while I am writing this.

  4. I am grateful I no longer have the cold I was struggling with last week.

  5. I am grateful I spent time with a friend earlier today.

What about you? What are you grateful for today? How can you use that gratefulness to step off of the hedonic treadmill? It’s funny, but I guess I should be grateful for a couple of things that at the time I thought were quite negative. I am grateful I was so lazy that my GPA dropped into critical territory. I am grateful that I thought a class on happiness would be easy.

And I am grateful that you are reading this right now, and hope that we can learn more together in the future.

“I’m Lovin’ It”: How Brands Make Money Off Of Emotional Manipulation

Am I Going To Get Sued For This?

Before I get into the article, just wanted to let you guys know I had an article about Codependency published by The Good Men Project yesterday. You can check it out here if you’re interested. Thanks again for subscribing, and please email me at calexanderpoetry@gmail.com with any requests for future articles.

“Advertising is legalized lying.” — H. G. Wells

People see between 4,000 and 10,000 ads a day according to some experts. That same article mentions an anecdotal account of a man who counted 487 ads before he finished his breakfast. Of course all of these aren’t necessarily formal advertisements, but just glimpses of logos or slogans. Still, the unavoidable fact is that we are exposed to a ton of ads every day.

And brands are paying for your attention. In 2019, Nike spent approximately 3.75 Billion dollars on advertising. So what are they spending their money on? How does that money translate into paying customers and brand loyalists that allow Nike, and other companies, to profit off of their hefty investment? By the way, if you were wondering like I was, Nike reported 39.1 Billion dollars in revenue for 2019, so yeah, I guess it was worth it.


They Aren’t Selling A Product, They Are Selling An Emotion

“Certainly, it seems true enough that there’s a good deal of irony in the world … I mean, if you live in a world full of politicians and advertising, there’s obviously a lot of deception.” -Kenneth Koch

Let’s stick with Nike for a moment. Think to yourself about a Nike ad you remember…just do it…

…Okay. Got one? The one that first came to mine to me was “Unlimited Will”, which features Kyle Maynard, a mountaineer who has no arms or legs. The ad shows a close up of Kyle climbing, and then it slowly pans to reveal he is climbing a mountain, and he jokingly says “he left them at home” when the narrator asks about his limbs. The screen goes black, and the classic “just do it” comes up on the screen. What is Nike actually selling here? At first, I didn’t even notice any Nike gear at all in the ad, but upon a second watch I noticed Kyle wearing a Nike beanie. Is this an ad for a Nike beanie? No. Of course not.

Nike has effectively branded “just do it” as a message of empowerment. Last year they featured Colin Kaepernick in an ad that your boomer parent, or co-worker probably grumbled about for a few days. The ad itself is really inspiring honestly, with multiple examples of people who have overcome their circumstances, sacrificed for a greater cause, and generally showed the good and socially impactful side of sports and humanity. So what’s my problem? It honestly just feels so disgustingly cynical. I’m sure people have been inspired to do great things by “just do it,” but all I can see is a company using convenient emotional appeals to make loads of money, while operating sweatshops in third world countries, and doing damage to the environment.

Don’t think I’m just hating on Nike (while I wear my Nike sweatpants like the huge hypocrite I am).

Do any of you remember the “America The Beautiful” campaign from Coca-Cola during the 2014 Super Bowl? It featured “America The Beautiful” being sung in many languages, while an ethnically diverse group of people, doing various activities flash across the screen. Just like the Nike ads, I am supportive of the message. America is at it’s best when it embraces the melting pot of diversity that makes us great. It would make a great art project, but instead, it’s being used to sell diabetes in a bottle, not to mention Coca-Cola’s own share of unethical behavior, including racism ironically enough.

The main reason companies use these emotional techniques in their advertising is because it works. People that try to teach others how to brand and advertise, encourage emotional advertisingAllTheTime. . Psychology Today used MRIs to show that people use emotions rather than information to choose a product. But not you right? Next time you see one of these, you’ll see right through it, and then research the company who tried to manipulate you. Right?

Conclusions

The truth is, I don’t think we will be escaping from advertising and it’s emotional ploys any time soon, but I hope that next time you see an obvious emotional appeal in an advertisement, you can see it as the cynical psychological maneuver that it actually is. Don’t get your ethics from a giant corporation’s attempt to make money, and that’s coming from someone who agrees with the “ethical” stance both of the above videos took.

Alright, let’s look at one more, just for fun. I had actually not seen this one before I started researching for this article, but I had to share it after my jaw nearly hit the floor. Check out this one from the U.K. for McDonald’s from 2017.

Is that a commercial about getting emotional over ordering the same fish sandwich with tartar sauce from McDonald’s that your dead father used to? Yes, yes it is. The encouraging thing, is it has just about as many “dislikes” on YouTube as “likes.” So it seems that sometimes, people can see right through the heavy handed emotional manipulation. Let’s hope more people can start to see emotional appeals in advertising as the logical fallacy that they truly are.


Have a subject you want me to write about? Email me at calexanderpoetry@gmail.com

Want to read more? Check out all my other published work here. Thanks for being a subscriber.

The Reverse Scientific Method: Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Convincing

How To Recognize The Difference Between Pseudoscience and Science

Thanks for subscribing to my poetry and pop culture newsletter.

A few of you may have already read this article. Sorry for the retread. I’ll send a fresh one later tonight. :)

-Caleb

“… if you assume a big enough conspiracy, you can explain anything, including the cosmos itself.”
― Fritz Leiber, The Big Time

If you haven’t seen it, there’s an excellent documentary on Netflix about Flat Earthers called Behind the CurveIt may not sound like a great way to spend an hour and a half, but I promise it is super entertaining. It’s not only entertaining though; the documentary reveals several reasons that conspiracy theories can begin, spread, and prosper, and surprisingly it is not just due to a bunch of crazy people. Honestly, nothing is just due to “crazy people;” that is always too simplistic, so let’s look into why intelligent people can be duped by lies, misinformation, and a distrust of authority.


1. It’s A Community

Conspiracy nerds are kind of weird. I mean everyone worth knowing is kind of weird, but a lot of people who spend a lot of time researching conspiracies, buying conspiracy books, making conspiracy YouTube channels, and posting on conspiracy forums, march to the beat of their own drum. The documentary, Behind The Curve shows several of these interesting characters, like Mark Sargent, who has 84k subscribers on YouTube. He’s written a flat earth book, spoken at flat earth conferences, and even runs a flat earth forum called “enclosed world.”

There’s a whole rabbit hole of flat earth content creators, and many of them, while seeming quite nice, are also a little strange. And yet, thanks to the internet, they can all talk to each other, go on each other’s podcast, buy each other’s merch, and have real world meetups. That’s awesome and cute, especially when it comes to something relatively harmless like believing the earth is flat. It is not so awesome when it comes to alt. right terrorist groups posting manifesto’s on 8chan before they commit domestic terrorism, like we saw in El Paso in 2019.

The internet is a beautiful and scary place. But the simple fact is, people who may have not always had someone to talk to about their weird thoughts, now can find many like-minded individuals online. That is great most of the time, but you can also find yourself in echo chambers, where you, and a group of people who think like you, continually reinforce each other’s fantasies until they look an awful lot like reality. A lot of the dogmatic stubborness of some conspiracies stem from the sense of community built around them. Of course you might say the same about CNN comment sections, or r/politics on Reddit. It is difficult to be objective and find objective truths.

“Feedback loops, echo chambers, circular reinforcement. All could play a part in escalating the utterly imaginary to the level of reality, sometimes with fatal consequences.”
― Jasper Fforde, Early Riser

2. Their Science and Facts Back Them Up

Okay, okay, how am I going to show you that science backs up some outlandish theories such as flat earth or Trump being a time traveling soldier from 2036? Well, sometimes conspiracy books, videos, and websites, look like they are using science, at least to someone who knows (only) a little bit about science. Let me show you what I mean with two strange examples and why it is so easy to confuse science and pseudoscience.

  1. This image is from the Flat Earth Society wiki:

“The picture below illustrates how the sun moves and also how seasons work on a Flat Earth. The apparent effect of the sun rising and setting is usually explained as a perspective effect.”

Now, of course the seasons could also be caused because the earth is tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees, and as it travels around the sun, some parts of the year, the sunis pointing more directly at certain places than others. At least that’s what this homework help site for primary students in the U.K. tells me.

If you do not have a good understanding of the underlying functions of the earth, our galaxy, and physics at large, the graph above, and the “perspective effect” could very well look scientific.

This also is a perfect example of the Dunning Kruger effect which says that when people have insufficient knowledge about a subject they ALSO have insufficient ability to know they don’t have sufficient knowledge. If I am looking for a scientific justification for my beliefs, and I trust any scientist that justifies my belief, regardless of what “most” scientists say, I can easily feel informed and confident in an incorrect belief. Of course, I am also not a physicist and I’ve never been in space, so I could be getting duped by believing the status quo too I guess, except…

2. Science follows the scientific method, pseudoscience goes backwards

If it has been a while since high school science class, the scientific method looks like this:

1. Ask a question
2. Do background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis with an experiment
5. Analyze the data
6. Draw a conclusion (and I’ll add, EVEN IF the conclusion is different than your hypothesis).

In Behind the Curve we see several Flat Earth “scientists” buy a laser controlled gyroscope to prove that the earth is not rotating. The earth makes a full 360 degree rotation approximately every 24 hours, which is why we measure a “day” every 24 hours. If you divide 360 by 24, the earth should rotate about 15 degrees every hour. In the documentary, they set up their gyroscope and wait an hour, and what do you know, it registers a 15 degree rotation. This is a great example of the scientific method.

  1. Ask a question: Does the earth rotate 360 degrees in 24 hours?

  2. Do background research: If the earth rotates 360 degrees in 24 hours, it should rotate 15 degrees in one hour. A gyroscope, if place unmoved on the earth, should register this rotation if the earth is in fact rotating.

  3. Construct a hypothesis: The earth does not rotate because it is a flat plane and the celestial bodies are a projection that move across it.

  4. Test your hypothesis: Leave gyroscope in one place for an hour.

  5. Analyze the data: The gyroscope registered a 15 degree rotation in one hour.

  6. Draw a conclusion: The earth does in fact rotate 360 degrees in 24 hours.

What happens in the documentary though, is they decide they do not like the conclusion because it does not match their hypothesis. So they go back to the drawing board to find an experiment that will make their conclusion match their hypothesis. This is the scientific method backwards. It is not meant to work backwards from a conclusion to find evidence. It is okay to be wrong about your hypothesis in science. It is not okay to be wrong about your hypothesis in conspiracy dogma.

3. There Is Comfort In The Conspiracy

“Conspiracy theories are really attractive. Figuring out patterns is one of the things that gets your brain to give you a nice dose of chemical reward, the little ping of dopamine and whatever else that keeps you smiling. As a result, your brain is pretty good at finding patterns, and at disregarding information that doesn’t fit. Which means it’s also pretty good at finding false patterns, and at confirmation bias, and a bunch of other things that can be fatal. Our brains are also really good at making us the center of a narrative, because it’s what we evolved for.”
― Elizabeth Bear, Ancestral Night

What is scarier? If an elite group is in complete control of everything and is trying to brainwash the public about round earth, Bush “doing 9/11”, lizard-aliens, time-traveling Trumps, and poisonous vaccines, OR if the world is messed up and tragic, and no one is pulling the strings? What if terrorists groups just get past security and kill thousands of people sometimes? What if we elect a bankrupt celebrity as President? What if pharmaceutical companies are greedy, maybe even sometimes “evil”, without them intentionally causing a rise in autism?

Chaos is scary. We grow up hearing stories with villains and heroes and endings tied with a bow. I think most of us see ourselves as heroes, and when villians threaten our families, our communities, our religious beliefs, our country, or our other ideals, we want to point it out, find out the cause, and try to overcome the evil. It can be comforting to find a group of people, a book, a YouTube channel, which seem to have answers, connecting seemingly disparate dots. It gives you hope that maybe you, and others like you, can overcome the bad in the world.

I’m afraid the truth is, there is plenty of bad in the world, but I don’t think it has an identifiable face. I don’t think we are being lied to about every single thing in order to get away with unimaginable evil. I think the evil we are facing is pretty clear, and at times, it feels hopeless. Corporate greed, genocide, racism, misuse of power, and many more terrible realities do rain down on people every day, and I wish there was an easy answer to the most important question:

Why?


Have a subject you want me to write about? Email me at calexanderpoetry@gmail.com

Want to read more? Check out all my other published work here. Thanks for being a subscriber.

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