Lisa Bortolotti, Why Delusions Matter, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2023, pp ix and 186.

Adam J. Berinsky, Political Rumors: Why we accept misinformation and how to fight it, Princeton University Press, Princeton / Oxford, 2023, pp xiv and 224.

Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite

People believe some strange and weird things – and many would say that this tendency is becoming ever more of an issue, with significant numbers of United States citizens adhering to ‘QAnon’, and the size of the movements which opposed Covid-19 vaccinations in the United Kingdom and in many other countries. During ‘difficult conversations’ training and skill-sharing sessions I have helped deliver, I’ve heard from many youth and community workers who are concerned that ‘conspiracy theories’ are achieving worrying levels of resonance, together with misogynistic attitudes such as those promoted by Andrew Tate, and the racist ‘great replacement’ fear-mongering pioneered by Renaud Camus.

Can we understand the reasons why people believe ‘irrational’ things? Lisa Bortolotti’s new book makes a helpful contribution to this task through a forensic and precise exploration of delusions, and of what is going on when we talk about beliefs or people being ‘delusional’. Bortolotti is a philosopher, and most of her book consists of carefully considered distinctions and definitions which enable us to focus on the issues more clearly.

She distinguishes between ‘clinical’ and ‘everyday’ delusions, and notes that ‘in the philosophical literature’, there’s debate on whether delusions can actually be considered as beliefs. The implication of those who think not is that ‘none of us can be so irrational as to genuinely believe the content of a delusion’. By contrast, Bortolotti is amongst those who credit people who believe different things to her as holding actual beliefs, which need to be considered rather than dismissed, and she proceeds to complement points from ‘the philosophical literature’ by drawing usefully on psychological theories.

Bortolotti assesses whether falsity, bizarreness, or being harmful are key and essential defining characteristics of delusions, and decides not: there are plenty of things that we may believe that turn out to be mistaken without them having been ‘delusions’; we find it charming rather than alarming when young children believe in Santa Claus; and there are people who hold beliefs which I may consider harmful to their own (or to my) interests without judging them to be delusional.

When considering the effects which delusions have on those who believe in them, Bartolotti offers a ‘balanced’ view, noting that they often contribute ‘to social withdrawal and isolation when the belief is idiosyncratic and other people do not understand it, but it gives rise to a sense of affiliation and belonging if the belief is shared, and embraced by a group of people rejecting mainstream explanations of the contested events’.

She notes that commitment to implausible beliefs can stand in the way of the person gaining a better understanding of themselves and their social situation, but recurrently pulls against those who would pathologise ‘delusions’ and stigmatise people seen as ‘delusional’’: why, she asks, are ‘some unusual beliefs considered delusions while other unusual beliefs aren’t?’.

Her summary argument is that, ‘although it is common for interpreters to associate delusional beliefs with the speakers not being “in their right minds”’, there is no good reasons to think of delusions as pathological beliefs … processes giving rise to the adoption and maintenance of delusional beliefs do not need to involve a cognitive dysfunction … my scepticism towards the view of delusions as pathological beliefs and [my] conviction that there are both costs and benefits in adopting and maintaining delusional beliefs leads to a discussion about the best ways to approach delusional beliefs’.

On the basis of this conviction, Bortolotti sympathetically observes that any of us can sometimes ‘react to setbacks by constructing a desired reality or developing an explanation of a puzzling experience that helps us retain some control over a world that we were never given a fighting chance to understand. We need causal maps to guide us through an environment that is especially difficult to navigate; and delusions are our fallible and faulty attempts at drawing those maps … [for interpreters], speakers’ delusions are the bits of the map that are difficult to read’.

There are broader psychological ‘motives’ for people believing implausible things: ‘delusions can apparently make sense of otherwise disconnected events or of tragic moments in the person’s life’. They ‘are often imperfect ways to make sense of a threat or of events which could paralyse us if we did not have the capacity to make sense of them’. Adopting ‘conspiracy beliefs may be comforting, at least in the short run, and can strengthen social relationships with individuals or groups who also endorse the same conspiracy belief’. Furthermore, when we endorse a conspiracy belief, we distinguish ourselves from others by ‘being the ones who have special access to the truth of the matter’, by being ‘in possession of unconventional and scarce information’, and this can help generate ‘a sense of control’ which ‘can override other needs’.

In making such points, Bortolotti’s purpose is not to excuse or endorse delusions or conspiracy theories: she is explaining that simply dismissing them, and dismissing the people who hold them, is not only a mistaken approach, but counter-productive. What approach should be taken, then?

She states that ‘in tackling delusions, the ideal path would be to find a way, at the individual level, to maintain the boost that delusions often offer and get rid of the element of illusion that isolates us epistemically from other agents … at the social, systemic level, more support can be put in place to enable all of us to make better epistemic choices, to be in a position to identify genuine expertise, cultivate good habits infused with the epistemic virtues of integrity, open mindedness and humility, and acquire practical skills such as critical thinking and bullshit detection’. (For a review of Quassim Cassam on ‘epistemic virtues’ and ‘epistemic vices’, click here).

Resulting approaches are set out in the very valuable final ten pages of the book, where Bortolotti emphasises the importance of those who are ‘approaching’ people with ‘delusional beliefs’ taking the time to connect to peoples’ feelings rather than countering their current beliefs. She explains that if we are looking to establish common ground and to have a productive dialogue with someone, we should not focus on ‘what we [each] already believe but what we feel, what we are concerned about and what we are scared of. We may have very different ideas about how to protect ourselves and the people we love, and we may even have a different answer to what the threat is, but most of us want to avoid pain and death and want our loved ones to do the same. Starting from what we have in common, the minimal, basic things and building from there may help defuse potentially polarised situations’.

She cites the method of ‘deep canvassing’ (which this reviewer feels is broadly consistent with Marshall Rosenberg’s ‘nonviolent communication’), and which is used, for example, by the Peoples Action Institute in Chicago. Their practice opens up and develops ‘two-way conversations where you ask people to share’ what is relevant and emotionally significant for them, and ‘reflect … aloud’. Deep canvassing involves ‘non-judgementally soliciting views around an issue and asking follow-up questions to go deeper’, and ‘sharing narratives about personal experiences with the issue that reinforce values relevant to the issue’.

This respectful approach is ‘about sharing stories and not arguments … arguments do not help us understand why the belief is so important for the speaker … Further, one of the effects of exchanging argument … may be that the delusion becomes even more ingrained in the speaker’s worldview’.

The point is to resist the temptation to counter-pose positions, but instead to ‘trade stories’. This is likely to be ‘a better strategy than exchanging arguments, because the stories about how speakers grew attached to their delusional beliefs show how the beliefs emerged as reactions to situations that were difficult to manage, and encourage the interpreters to practise curiosity and empathy in finding out more. Although the exchanging of arguments simply invites a cycle of statement, objection and response, the story invites the sharing of personally significant experiences. And where arguments divide, stories unite’. Such an approach to dialogue does not require you to accept what the other person is saying as true: ‘responding by saying “I want to know more about how you came to believe this” is very different from saying “I agree with you”’.

Something like a phenomenon

Though she discusses the ‘environmental’ level of explanation for such things as the prevalence of conspiracy theories (some social situations and dynamics provide contexts for delusions to be more vigorously promoted and more widely believed), Bortolotti’s main focus is on what is going on during individual interactions: Adam J. Berinsky’s new book considers how misinformation is shaped and promoted by political actors – what we might call the social organisation of delusions.

In the acknowledgements, Berinsky tells of working back in 2015 with a colleague, Briony Swire-Thompson, who was ‘interested in the phenomenon of Donald Trump’. Berinsky remembers that ‘I told her that we would have to collect data quickly because I was sure Trump would be gone from the scene’ within months. We will categorise this as a mistaken prediction, rather than as a delusion or even as wishful thinking: it’s certainly a reminder that the success and ongoing impact of populist figures who have undermined and disorganised the previously-established standards and processes of political conduct and discourse over the last decade has proved surprising to many.

Berinsky sees ‘the persistence of false information’ such as that peddled by Trump as ‘troubling for the prospects of our political system’ – and his concern for the health of US politics should be shared by people in the UK and many other countries. He argues that ‘rumors consisting of lies, false narratives and “alternative facts” can undermine the factual foundations of good public policies, taint faith in the political system, and even motivate violent political action. A democracy where falsehoods run rampant can only end in dysfunction’.

A ‘political rumor’ (this review will keep to the US spelling of the book’s title) is different from a ‘misstatement of fact’ or an ‘incorrect answer to a factual question about politics’. It is an ‘insidious … weaponised mistruth … often with a conspiratorial edge’. On the basis of this understanding, Berinsky details a range of delusions and lies which have been (mis)shaping American politics, offering lively insights into how they evolve and how they work, and underpinning his observations with the results of large-scale surveys he has helped devise and carry out. An early survey, carried out in 2010, confirmed his worries: ‘most people exhibit at least some belief in prevailing rumors … over 70 per cent of respondents expressed support for at least one of the statements. Thus, it is not just that some people believe a lot of fanciful things. It is that a lot of people believe some fanciful things’.

In seeking to understand why this is so, Berinsky uses models which see individuals as being placed along ‘a continuum of conspiracism’, with some resistant to believing any falsehoods, and others almost entirely open to them, with most people being somewhere between: it is ‘the interaction of conspiratorial dispositions and partisan motivations [which] predict who accepts rumors, who rejects them, and who is uncertain’.

If Berinsky’s portrayal of the US political landscape is ‘grim’, his positive purpose is to ‘offer strategies to effectively counter rumors’ and suggest how ‘to establish a method to correct false information’. This, he laconically concludes, is ‘easier said than done’, admitting that, rather than being able to offer a ‘“silver bullet” solution to fixing the problem of misinformation, I largely discuss the bounds on the effectiveness of such strategies and the limits of the various types of people that can be convinced to unconditionally reject political rumors’.

Berinsky, unfortunately, has no shortage of examples to draw from in evidencing his concerns: the book’s value consists in the limited but helpful insights he offers about how misinformation can be countered. Who debunks a rumor is important, for example: a prominent Republican who speaks out against a right-wing conspiratorial fantasy will convince more people to shift towards a well-grounded understanding of the issue than would ‘seemingly neutral, “authoritative” sources’. This is because the sensible Republican is ‘a messenger who speaks against their apparent interest’ (though Berinsky notes, depressingly, that although ‘corrections increase rates of rumor rejection … their traction can be limited’: the positive effects of corrections ‘fade’ and ‘have a diminishing effect over time’).

Considering the usefulness (or otherwise) of ‘fact-checking’, particularly as it was applied during the (first?!?!?!) Trump presidency, Berinsky glumly judges that ‘it is like playing Whac-A-Mole, batting down rumors as they pop up on the political landscape, only to have a new set appear’.

Nevertheless, you have to do what you can: Berinsky suggests putting particular effort into resourcing critical thinking on the part of those who are ‘uncertain’ about rumors: given that ‘believers’ minds are extremely hard to change’, he judges that it’s a better use of time to address those in the middle of the ‘continuum of conspiracy’ in order to ‘short-circuit’ the spread of misinformation.

Political Rumors offers a historical overview of the subject, evidencing that while rumors and falsehoods have recurrently had an effect on political life, contemporary phenomena including the development of the internet and social media means that they can now spread in new ways and on an extensive scale, becoming fixed in the understanding of ‘self-reinforcing communities’ online; an ‘anatomy of rumors and misinformation’; empirical studies of ‘rumor belief’; and detailed case studies of particular conspiracy theories (discussing, for example, the results of opinion polls to test whether people believed Barack Obama was born in the US, or is a Muslim, carried out both before and after the release and publication in the media of Obama’s ‘long-form’ birth certificate).

The book concludes with considerations on ‘the role played by politicians in forming misinformation’. With the defensive caveat that ‘my empirical findings are inconclusive’, Berinsky suggests that ‘politicians – and Republican politicians in particular – have contributed to and exacerbated the problem of political rumors in modern society’. This has to change, he argues: ‘it is the job of our leaders to stand up and challenge unsubstantiated rumors and outright falsehoods, even when the targets of such rumors are their political adversaries’.

Like Bortolotti, Berinsky grapples with the question of whether conspiracy theorists ‘really believe’ the things they say they believe: rather than reflecting on categories and psychological dynamics, he turns to his large scale surveys (which is not to say that this is a better methodology). He explores the extent to which a predilection towards conspiracy belief on the part of some people is patterned on more fundamental ways of understanding things, such as a ‘predisposition towards making causal attributions to unseen intentional forces’, or interpreting events in terms of ‘universal struggles between good and evil’.

Across the book, Berinsky’s frustrations about the problems he is grappling with are evident – and this is a positive and engaging feature of his writing. His questions and uncertainties are as stimulating as the points he is most definite about: we need to be unsettled about the issues which his book – and Bortolotti’s – explore. This reviewer was certainly challenged by some of Berinsky’s arguments – and bemused by some of his omissions. There is only slight reference to the kind of engagement across divides and positive dialogue work which Bortolotti highlights at the end of her book, and none at all to the highly relevant and pioneering work on ‘the authoritarian personality’ and analysis of the techniques used by anti-Semitic and right-wing American agitators which was carried out in the 1940s by members of the ‘Frankfurt School’ when they lived in the US during their exile from Nazi Germany. Nor does Berinsky properly consider the long-term social factors and cultural shifts which have created the context for the current degradation of political discourse and wider challenges to democracy: deindustrialisation in the USA (and in the UK and western Europe); the de-alignment over many decades of working-class voters from the Democrats (and from the Labour Party and social democrats) in a context of centre-left political parties not having addressed the fundamental needs and concerns of these voters; and the intellectual trend of post-modernism which was first promoted from liberal and left wing positions, but which has served the right very well through its promotion of relativism and individualist subjectivity.

Nevertheless, many of Berinsky’s challenges are ones which will continue to generate reflection. Amongst his carefully-pitched conclusions, he offers a ‘word of caution’ about some ‘techniques that can enable citizens to defend against misinformation’ which this reviewer has, to date, favoured and used in his work, such as encouraging ‘people to recognise techniques commonly employed by purveyors of misinformation; inducing lateral reading, skills  that encourage readers to verify what they are reading as they are reading it; and providing media literacy tips for engaging with digital content’. Berinsky says that ‘while these techniques hold great promise, we must also be wary of the unintended consequences of interventions that are based on fostering critical thinking’. The risk is that encouraging scepticism of ‘all information’ can encourage ‘a mindset [which] can be destructive in a democratic society. Being sceptical of all things leads to trusting nothing … there is a fine line between productive scepticism and rejection of authority’.

Published October 2023.

Illustration: Anti-Vaxx demonstration in London during the COVID-19 pandemic (July 2021).