Fake news and conspiracy theories as an evolutionary strategy

Danish social scientist Michael Bang Petersen illuminates the evolutionary foundations and social processes involved in the spread of outright falsehoods.

We utilize the framework of evolutionary psychology, basically trying to understand: Could there be anything adaptive about believing false information? Could this in some way be functional? Is it actually sort of on purpose that false information is believed and spread, rather than being an accident?

In particular he says there might be certain advantages, within one group, to spread misinformation and spread falsehoods, if that can give them an upper hand in the conflict with the other group: group mobilization for conflict, coordination of attention, and signaling commitment.

When you want to mobilize your group, what you need to do is find out that we are facing a problem, and your way of describing that problem needs to be as attention-grabbing as possible before you can get the group to focus on the same thing. 

In conclusion:

When social scientists have abandoned the ignorance argument for those kinds of beliefs and looked into social function, then they say, “Well, the social function of these beliefs is to make you feel good about yourself.”

What we are saying is that while it is probably true that these beliefs make you feel good about yourself, that’s not really their function, that’s not their real purpose. We’re saying that evolution doesn’t really care whether you feel good or bad about yourself. Evolution cares about material benefits and, in the end, reproductive benefits. So the beliefs that you have should in some way shape real-world outcomes. 

We are arguing that these false beliefs don’t just exist to make you feel good about yourself, but exist in order to enable you to make changes in the world, to mobilize your group and get help from other group members. I think that’s an important point to think more about: What it is that certain kinds of beliefs enable people to accomplish, and not just how it makes them feel.