How Not To Be Crazy

People are crazy, and it seems to be getting worse.

In addition, many heavily-promoted news stories turn out to be false. The reasons are various.

There’s a lot we can’t do about the situation. But there are also things we can do. Here are some tips:

Emotional reaction is a red flag

If you react emotionally to something, it clouds your judgment. You become more vulnerable to manipulation by propaganda.

Any time you have a strong emotional reaction to a news story, pause and take a breath. Calm down. Be extra careful to look at the evidence and ask questions about it. Watch out for weasel words like “could,” “might,” and “possibly.” Don’t simply accept what you’ve been told. It might be true, or it might be someone trying to mislead you. They’re good at it. Very good at it. They eat three-card monte dealers for breakfast.

Don’t make snap judgments

Before making up your mind, wait at least a couple of days. See how the story develops.

As soon as you make up your mind about something, it biases all your judgments about it afterward. Propagandists know that. They want you to make a snap judgment so you “frame” new information in terms of the narrative they created in your mind. That puts them in control of what you think. Don’t let that happen. Keep control of your own mind.

Don’t mind-read

Unless there’s actual evidence, don’t assume that you know what other people think or feel.

If someone says, “I hated ‘The Last Jedi’,” then you have reasonable evidence that the person hated the movie. But you can’t reasonably go much further than that. If someone picks the mushrooms off his pizza before eating it (as I in fact do), then you have reasonable evidence that he doesn’t like mushrooms. But that’s all.

Beware of groupthink

If you want to believe something because all your friends believe it and you want to avoid conflict with your friends, then go ahead. But be aware of what you’re doing.

When I was eight years old, I was very concerned about knowing “our side” of every issue. Having a side is fine, as long as we remember that it’s only a side — not the whole story. Eight-year-olds are exempt. Adults aren’t.

Keep an open mind

It’s impossible for anyone’s mind to be completely open. We can’t start with a blank slate every time we get new information. We must make assumptions and rely on what we think we know. But we should be as objective as we can.

Suppose that we believe X, but we get new information that seems to contradict X. Then:

  • One of our options is simply to reject the new information.
  • A second option is to see if we can reconcile it with X so both things can be true.
  • A third option — and you know this is the one I like, since I saved it for last — is to ask what we would think about the new information if we weren’t already committed to believing X. Does it seem to stand on its own merits?

Sometimes, we will still make mistakes. We will believe things that are incorrect, implausible, or downright crazy. But if we’re careful, we can make fewer mistakes and avoid having to delete our embarrassing tweets about the latest hyped news story.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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