Why do people believe weird stuff? Is it an innate trait? Is it learned—nurtured by life events that, over time, create an intensely skeptical (or perhaps intensely credulous) mind? Or is something else at play?
I’m not writing this to shame believers, or change minds—I’m interested purely in the ‘why’ of weird beliefs. The Washington Post has reported that “fifty percent of Americans believe in some conspiracy theory,” and that was in 2015. Writer John Sides also quotes political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood for a great definition of the conspiracy theory (a major element of what I’m calling ‘weird beliefs’):
The Weird vs. The Conspiratorial
“We define conspiracy theory as an explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim. Not all conspiracy theories are untrue, but they all contradict a commonly accepted explanation for the same phenomenon.”
And just as not all conspiracies are untrue—see Watergate—not all weird beliefs are conspiracies. Consider Bigfoot. The Bigfoot story is that there’s a creature we don’t understand and rarely see. That’s about it. Bigfoot’s not a political operative. It’s not a military weapon to depopulate unruly regions. It’s not the Philadelphia Experiment (look that one up for some truly wild ideas). It didn’t kill Kennedy.
It’s a monkey-looking thing that nobody seems to be able to catch.
Similarly, think of the Loch Ness Monster—and really think about it, because Nessie is the reason these kinds of myths, skepticism, and associated chatter are at a peak right now.
You see, Nessie might be real.
New, Um, Evidence
Okay, okay, that’s not true. We know that. What you might not know is that on July 27th, numerous outlets reported that University of Bath scientists had located fossils that… changed things. Somewhat. These fossils, apparently from a plesiosaur (which the ‘monster’ closely resembles), were found in a freshwater river system.
As Mic reports, “The new detail that prehistoric that prehistoric reptiles may have lived in freshwater rivers means that ol’ Nessy, the modern-day plesiosaur, could conceivably exist in the lake that it is believed to call home.”
Since a lot of things could “conceivably exist” and somehow manage to remain nonexistent, let’s get past the specifics of this almost-breakthrough, and think more broadly.
Why has Loch Ness stayed in people’s minds for so long? What’s the difference between a strange story and an enduring myth?
Visibility Equals Longevity
It comes down to one factor: visual representation. Put differently, does the story/myth/theory have compelling visuals? This includes examples with only one visual, as many of the most popular myths and conspiracies hinge on a single image, film, or the like. The infinitely-reviewed Zapruder film—the most well-known documentation of John F. Kennedy’s murder—is the perfect example here.
Of course, having lots of visual representation certainly helps a myth gain lasting traction. Just scroll the Wikipedia page for the Loch Ness monster to see numerous (admittedly blurry) photographs, drawings, and images of the area surrounding Loch Ness. Sidebar on that last point—it helps if your myth is centered in a beautiful location that tourists can safely visit.
Another fascinating image that has spawned a great deal of interest is the Face on Mars, which is pretty much what it sounds like, albeit far larger. This example reinforces the visual theory as well, but in reverse—scientists reminded the world that optical illusions like the ‘face’ happen frequently on our home planet.
So, in the case of the face, more images debunked most of the extraterrestrial theories that cropped up. With Loch Ness, images kept the dream alive—so what, really, is the role visuals in cultural understanding?
Numbers, Novelty, and More
The difference comes in what the visuals ‘prove’, and how novel they are. We don’t have images of other Loch Ness monsters, so the one we have is ‘proof’ that in this one place—just here—there might be a monster. With the ‘face’, the volume of natural terrestrial features that look like faces ‘proves’ that Mars’ rock formation is truly unremarkable.
Our brains work this way. We’ve evolved to prioritize the novel because it might be a threat or opportunity. We’ve evolved to trust the familiar and the similar because we see ourselves in them. The human face, in particular, is an extremely high-resolution index of information—so much so that we ‘faces’ in tree bark, stones, constellations, and much more.
Visuals drive myth because they’re more highly prized than textual or storied information. Tell somebody you saw a ghost, and your conversation partner will probably laugh. Visual evidence, though, creates a very different interaction.
Changing Standards for Evidence
It’s crucial to note that despite their power, visuals have lost some power in 2022. Technology makes generating ‘fake’ images easier than at any point in world history, and people know it. That’s why the new Loch Ness situation wasn’t just another blurry picture.
Fossils, and an updated understanding of the likely ancestor of the mythological creature? Those are harder to dismiss as fraudulent. Yet, deception shouldn’t be ruled out just because the evidence is physical, either—see Piltdown Man, Cardiff Giant, and other hoaxes if you want to lose a little more faith in the inherent honesty of humanity.
Okay, let’s sum up. Visuals make the myth—even if they don’t really prove anything. They teach and convince without a single word, and it often takes far more work to understand and investigate an image than it does to take it at face value.
Shoot for the Moon (and Fail Spectacularly)
Last example. Conspiracist David Icke thinks the moon is a hollow, metal ship/base made by aliens. Sincerely.
You know why that’s not considered true by more than his diminutive fanbase, and why you’ve probably never heard of that theory or Icke? Because—shockingly—David can’t back up any of this up, with visuals, fossils, moon rocks, or anything whatsoever. All he can claim is what he says NASA said, or something, and also, there was maybe a Russian magazine article from the 70’s that says something similar, probably.
Okay, that’s more ink than David Icke has ever deserved. Let’s head back to reality as we close.
Visuals Promote and Maintain Belief
Show, don’t tell. This applies to so much of human existence, and goes triple for remarkable claims. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Carl Sagan famously posited, and to the human brain, there’s little that’s more extraordinary than visual evidence.
If compelling visuals can cause thousands to believe—and keep believing—in monsters, government assassins, alien invasions, and so much more, what do you think they can do for your customers’ opinions of your brand?