Kevin Weitz, Psy.D. and William Bergquist, Ph.D.
During this holiday season hundreds of thousands of families will likely be celebrating, but many will also be lamenting family loved ones lost needlessly because they were not vaccinated against Covid-19. Many of these deaths were likely because they were suspicious of the vaccine and believed sources that suggested the vaccine was a plot by Dr Anthony Fauci and/or Bill Gates and others to make $billions and control the world’s population (or other misinformed theory).
Of the more than 641,000 people who died (in the United States) after vaccines were available, half of those deaths could have been averted – 318,981 – had every eligible adult gotten vaccinated. And those numbers are even more striking in certain states where more than half of deaths could have been avoided.
This is how many lives could have been saved with COVID vaccinations in each state | Health News Florida (usf.edu)
But the essays in this issue of The Future of Coaching have nothing to do with Covid or being a vaccine denier specifically. They have everything to do with why some people (in fact many people) more generally reject the best expert information available and science-based guidance from leaders. These essay concern the people who believe (sometimes vociferously) outlandish and often bazaar conspiracy theories and misinformation that have the potential to put people in danger and (in numerous cases) cause loss of life. As the third and final issue in The Future of Coaching that is concerned with the crisis of expertise, attention is also directed toward structures, processes, cultures and attitudes that enhance (rather than block) the generation and use of valid and appropriate expertise.
Why People Believe and Disbelieve
There are many reasons why some people disbelieve experts and leaders in various fields and rather believe outlandish explanations from people who are not experts, but are rather seeking power and influence, harbor Machiavellian tendencies or have nefarious intent. The articles in this issue focus on a few of these topics:
This essay sets the stage for our continuing exploration of the crisis of expertise. Experts are in trouble. And our whole society is in trouble. We don’t know what to believe and our experts often seem to have only a tenuous grasp on reality. These concerns are societal products of late 20th and early 21st Century thought. Furthermore, there is a much earlier source: the voice of Socrates as heard through the writing of Plato. Socrates (Plato) offered a critique of ways in which we view reality -and how we should view the role of “experts”-through an allegory of the cave.
During stressful times (economic, pandemics, uncontrolled immigration, threat of war etc.), certain people (personality types) experience “status anxiety (which) produces authoritarian (thinking) which produces repression of faults and shortcomings and of aggression against authority,” which is then “projected onto minorities and outsiders”. These individuals are more likely to believe misinformation and conspiracy theories propagated by influential people within their in-groups.
Conspiracy theories result from the basic human orientation as a social animal—and specifically from the human tendency to categorize the world into ingroups and outgroups and from the corresponding desire to protect one’s ingroup from powerful outgroups that might be dangerous. While this process is innate to humans, and has a survival component, it can also have major negative outcomes for both in-groups and outgroups, particularly when people’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories is manipulated by unscrupulous leaders for their own benefit. In particular, how some unscrupulous leaders undermine leaders and experts in out-groups who put forward apposing ideas.
Misinformation has become prolific. In this essay we focus on how some influential people use language to propagate misinformation and lies for their own benefit and how it is possible that so many people actually believe them. When lying is used to manipulate and deceive to the detriment of others – even entire societies – lies and misinformation take on a Machiavellian purpose and outcome.
“Are we all stupid?” This essay focuses on why people (especially lay-people) are often blatantly ignorant on many topics of importance, but more importantly unaware of their ignorance, and therefore much more susceptible to misinformation. A phenomenon in our modern digital world is that information – and misinformation – is rapidly accessible and lay-people are especially susceptible to thinking they know a lot about a particular topic, while unknowingly being woefully ignorant or misinformed about the subject. This mis-informed sense of knowledge is sometimes accompanied by a zealous (and sometimes aggressive) defense of their incompetence. This essay also touches on the notion that we humans are often unaware of why and how we think, feel and behave – our unconscious biases and behavioral drivers or triggers (heuristics) are largely unknown to us leading to beliefs and decision-making that can be damaging to oneself and others.