Why it’s easy for anyone to believe false things

I’m currently deleting and/or organizing all of my old digital notes from Evernote. My favorite entry, dated September 9, 2018:

If I could live again my life,

In the next – I’ll try,

– to make more mistakes,

I won’t try to be so perfect,

I’ll be more relaxed,

I’ll be more full – than I am now,

In fact, I’ll take fewer things seriously,

I’ll be less hygienic,

I’ll take more risks,

I’ll take more trips,

I’ll watch more sunsets,

I’ll climb more mountains,

I’ll swim more rivers,

I’ll go to more places – I’ve never been,

I’ll eat more ice creams and less lima beans,

I’ll have more real problems – and less imaginary ones,

I was one of those people who live

prudent and prolific lives –

each minute of his life,

Of course that I had moments of joy – but,

if I could go back I’ll try to have only good moments,

If you don’t know – that’s what life is made of,

Don’t lose the now!

I was one of those who never goes anywhere

without a thermometer,

without a hot-water bottle,

and without an umbrella and without a parachute,

If I could live again – I will travel light,

If I could live again – I’ll try to work bare feet

at the beginning of spring till the end of autumn,

I’ll ride more carts,

I’ll watch more sunrises and play with more children,

If I have the life to live – but now I am 85,

– and I know that I am dying …

Jorge Luis Borges

I cannot imagine Jorge Luis Borges writing this poem. I also cannot imagine Albert Einstein saying “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” And yet, I hear people quote this all the time.

Our brains are lazy. We don’t, for example, come equipped with an automatic fact-checker; we tend to use our environment to see if something is true. The more we’re exposed to information, the more likely we are to believe that it’s true and normal—even if it’s not. Why else would other people quote it if it weren’t true—especially people we know and admire?

Seeing something makes it feel familiar and less risky. In fact, when faced with a choice between two gambles, familiarity can trump the actually odds of something winning (to a point). Any piece of information is initially odd and unknown, but we can get used to anything; eventually, we know how to process it. But at no point does this have anything to do with how true the information actually is.

Fluency refers to how easily we can process a language; the more fluent you are, the less effort it takes to decipher a message. Fluency also refers to how easy it is to handle a piece of information: just as our eyes enjoy someone whose face is “easy on the eyes,” our minds like information that is “easy on the brain.”

Fluency is like love or porn—we get it, even if we can’t always describe it. It’s the “warm glow” of what’s familiar or easy to understand.

Fluent: reading something in your native language; a name like “John,” smooth shapes. For visual images, characteristics such as symmetry, repetition, image clarity, and high contrast (identifying dark items on a white background) all promote fluency; verbally, we like company names that are easier to read.

Disfluent: reading a book in your third language, a name like “Craaüµqqq,” text that’s printed in a weird font, music in a genre you’ve never even heard of. These things just feel off.

Neurons that fire together wire together, so seeing a pattern for the umpteenth time—information that our brain knows precisely what to do with—means less processing volatility for our neurons, allowing for more energy efficient categorization of a new piece of information.⁠ When we say “laziness is built deep into our brains,” we’re talking about milliseconds.

In a nutshell: the faster we can process or understand something, the more fluent or familiar it is—and this is what can trigger a positive emotional response⁠. Our brain doesn’t have totally separate areas for thinking and feeling—thinking and feeling influence each other. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario in the brain: it’s easy to process! It must be true! The more we’re exposed to something, the easier it becomes to process.

The idea that “easy = good” comes up in many theories and frameworks in psychology:

  • The mere exposure effect: Merely being exposed to something tends to make us like it more. (It’s why companies pay more money to have their products placed eye-level in grocery stores.) There’s no magic here, just learning; in this case, it’s the process of repeatedly learning to pair “something” with “nothing bad happening.” When we learn that something is safe, and familiar, it often becomes likeable in its own way.
  • Status quo bias: If it exists, it must be good. We’re notoriously averse to risk and loss. Even if the alternatives might end up being vastly superior, it’s easier to justify what we have and make excuses for it. (Yes, runaway capitalism is destroying the planet, but what are the alternatives? —and what if they’re worse?!?
  • Perceptual readiness/accessibility theory: the more quickly information comes to mind, the more likely we are to assume that it’s true.

Thanks to billions of years of evolution, the brain is king of one thing: achieving its goals while using as little energy as possible. As long as we can survive with whatever information we have, there’s no reason to doubt it or look for evidence suggesting otherwise. Over time, this influences our attention, and we drift towards information that confirms our hunches—regardless of fact. (What news sources do you listen to?) It’s easier to pay attention to information that confirms our beliefs—and ignore whatever doesn’t seem true—than it is to upend our view of the world.


“Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken.”

Bertrand Russell

It’s so easy for us to repeat incorrect information: we tend to assume that agreement or repetition equals truth. And what about if we hear something from people whose opinions matter to us? If celebrities, experts, influential cousins, or industry titans agree with us, who are we to argue? Surprise! We’re not. It’s easy to find any podcast, online community, or book that backs you up, even though social information isn’t the same as objective feedback. But from our brain’s point of view, it’s the same thing.

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