Beliefs Have a Social Purpose. Does This Explain Delusions?


From Psyche: “Rather than exposing a generally irrational or dysfunctional reasoning process, the new theory suggests that delusions might emerge from specific processes in our ‘coalitional psychology’ – the set of cognitive mechanisms that have evolved to help us understand our social environment. These processes help us live and cooperate with others by understanding their intentions, the groups and allegiances that other people form, and our positioning within these groups.

. . . Considering the social role of beliefs, delusions become easier to understand. For example, persecutory delusions are consistently higher in people who have been bullied, or in marginalised groups such as refugees. If you have been repeatedly threatened or abused, it makes sense to be wary of people in the future. Therefore, rather than persecutory delusions being ‘irrational’, in many cases they are a direct response to sustained coalitional threat in a person’s environment. Similarly, grandiose beliefs might function to increase engagement in the social environment by staving off depression in the short term.”

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  1. I agree that the boundary between belief and delusion can be hazy, and I think the important takeaway from the article is that most people in this world are deluded to an extent just by being part of a society with its dominating religions, myths, values, etc. For example, being able to ignore climate change and the current mass extinction we’re in takes delusion of a grand scale for most people to go on living their daily lives. Maybe in some cases depression could even be considered a state of being un-deluded.

    But the problem with the article is that it still ends up pathologizing the individual, because the author, Greenburgh, omits a key link in her causal reasoning. The author states that what separates delusions from beliefs is that delusions are rigid and not responsive to social context. She states that they are therefore maladaptive because they don’t allow social coordination (and hence, assimilation). But, if the individual does not identify or feel belonging with the social group (“the coalition”), then it makes sense that their beliefs will not be influenced by the social context.

    Interestingly, the author cites two works of fiction to support her argument (Don Quixote, really?), rather than cases of sexual harassment or whistleblowing where the victim/whistleblower is gaslighted and often accused of being delusional, or even something in the sociological literature on workplace bullying:

    The point is that the distress may come from being part of a hostile, toxic, or abusive environment that is itself unrelentingly rigid and exclusionary, in which case assimilation may be undesirable. The focus on whether the delusion is actual reality or not may be beside the point, as it’s more a matter of which delusion (society’s or our own) that we choose to live in.

    • You make some good points. Here’s a little of my thinking:

      Having everyone believe the same thing can create social cohesion within a group: “we all think Trump is going to save us from an elite group of pedophiles and cannibals!” So why do some people come up with their own unique beliefs? I think it’s also for the purpose of cohesion, but that of cohesion within the person. When people are confused and distressed, they may organize internally around some weird belief, and having that internal coherence may seem more important than whether or not they match up with anyone else.

  2. Over the years, I’ve noticed that paranoid notions in individuals arise as an attempt to explain why unusual perceptual experiences are going on- the beliefs would be rational if the perceptions were real, but, alas, they aren’t. This is most obvious in chronic stimulant consumption, notorious for inducing paranoid notions quickly.

  3. I think delusions, and beliefs generally, arise because there are gaps in our knowledge, and as you said, we need to create sense and meaning of our experiences. But I think the idea that we can judge that certain perceptions and experiences are real, and consequently that only certain beliefs are rational, is problematic. Because delusions and beliefs are about individual (and sometimes collective) interpretations of reality, and people can experience different realities. For example, before the advent of smartphones with video, white people would accuse black people of pulling the race card when they tried to talk about being followed in stores and being pulled over while driving. This just wasn’t part of white people’s collective reality, and so white people discounted the other reality. In fact, both realities are real to the people experiencing them.

    • While judging only some beliefs as “rational” is indeed problematic, failing to do so also causes problems, often ones that are more severe.

      By “rational” I mean “in proportion to.” So a “rational” fear would be in proportion to a threat, while an “irrational” one would be out of proportion to the threat. We can also have “irrational” lack of fear, as when people aren’t bothered at all by the threat of climate change, etc.

      People do indeed have “different realities” in the sense of different perceptions and different maps of what is going on. But these perceptions and maps apparently exist inside a world that has effects on us whether or not we believe in those things to start out with: so people who think Covid is a hoax can still die of it.

      This especially becomes a problem when we need people to take collective action, for example, to stop systemic racism, Covid, or climate change. We need some way to respect the fact that no one has an absolutely correct perspective, and everyone needs some slack to make sense of things for themselves, while also pushing people to “face facts” that may be essential to survival and to social justice.

      • People having different beliefs is a big part of the problem of collective action, but I would never use that to justify the clinician taking on a bigger role to be deciding which ideas are dangerous or right or wrong (except when there is a very clear and immediate threat of physical harm to others). Like even though I agree that climate change denial is a mass delusion that is causing real harm right now, and I definitely agree that certain beliefs like intolerance cause real harm to marginalized people, but I don’t think these should be considered mental health issues. We should definitely be “pushing people” to our side in our daily lives, but not as clinicians and not in the guise or context of “treatment.” I think people like Bandy Lee are dangerous for promoting a political role for clinicians.

        • Hmmm, I think this is a complex topic. I would agree that I wouldn’t want mental health professionals doing things like deciding who can run for political office, but I do think they may have opinions worth considering (to the extent that mental health professionals know anything at all – many of them seem to know less than the average citizen!) I would rather hear the opinions of people like Bandy Lee rather than have them shut up by the Goldwater Rule – though they are just a perspective. Regarding mass delusions, I think they are a kind of public mental/social health issue – I’m not sure what the best treatment is, but I sure hope we come up with something good before we exterminate ourselves!