Sunday, September 24, 2023


painted bÉdouard Riou, 1864. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US}}

In his recently released book MISBELIEF, Dan Ariely aims to "shed light" on "a distorted lens through which people view the world, reason about the world, and describe the world to others" (2023, p. 27). He talks mainly about conspiracy theories and other disinformation. He relates the surprise and difficulty of becoming a target of characters who see the world through what he describes as a "Funnel of Misbelief."

Comfortably embedded in the word "misbelief" is the word "lie," neatly highlighted within the cover graphic for the book's title. This picks up Ariely's observation in an earlier book that "When we and those around us are dishonest, we start suspecting everyone, and without trust our lives become more difficult in almost every way" (2012, pp. 158-9). My Irish grandfather and the philosopher Immanuel Kant would likely have agreed there are no degrees of honesty, even if a great many others apparently believe differently.

Ariely is a popularly published professor of psychology. Writing in the chatty, first-person mode fashionable with some readers and publishers, he relates many encounters with people who readily believe what's weird, trust no one, are mean or violent, and continuously exhibit anger and outrage. He wraps rational explanation around his whirlpool of experiences, with the help also of some quizzes, interpretation of experiments, and principles of psychology. 

At times, this less than pleasant, personal journey becomes a bit like what's unfortunately unforgettable about two movies scantily translating Jules Verne's sci-fi novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The few coordinates guiding that journey of course didn't provide a map that changed the world. In contrast, along the way, Ariely offers some signposts to understanding through what he calls "Hopefully Helpful" comments. He places value on strengthening qualities like trust, "healthy skepticism," and "genuine open-mindedness" that evaporate as people slide into "dysfunctional doubt" (2023, pp. 27-8).

A selection of his "Helpful" comments is: Practice Intellectual Humility; Tend to Your Narcissists; Start with Common Ground; Fight the Temptation to Ostracize; Listen to Former Insiders; and Invite Trust by Demonstrating Care, each followed with a brief, reasonably-grounded discussion.

Ariely rightly, in my opinion, places value on nurturing empathy and trust. It's too bad for all of us though that this book is just a shade better than yet another warning. It mainly explores intricacies in the swamp of disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories, pseudo-populism, and propaganda.

Meanwhile, we face these dangerously growing challenges, wishing for more writers, publishers, media, civic leaders including legislators, or other fellow citizens with the chops required to join in intelligently and systematically to deliver remedies.


Dan Ariely (2012), The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves, New York: Harper

Dan Ariely (2023), MISBELIEF: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things, New York: Harper

Simon Winchester (2001), The Map That Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science, New York: Harper Collins

Jules Verne (1864), Voyage au Centre de la Terre [A Journey to the Center of the Earth], Paris: J. Hetzel et Jie