Crazy People Make Sense

by Quinn O'Neill

BirdEveryone knows there are crazy people around. You probably know a few personally and you can find plenty on the television and internet. These are the days of Honey Boo Boo and political attack ads that feature Big Bird. We live in a crazy world.

Crazy, however, is a pretty subjective term. It might mean delusional or stupid, or maybe just of a perspective that’s radically different from our own. The people you think are crazy might think the same of you and almost no one thinks himself crazy. Craziness is in the eye of the beholder.

Craziness also takes many forms, including religious fanaticism, science denialism, daredevilry and behaviors that might be described as “all kinds of crazy”. Folks who partake in such practices are often referred to with a variety of colorful terms like wingnuts, ass-hats, and dumbasses.

Given the amount of senseless and stupid behavior that we perceive, it might seem outrageous to claim that people – all people – make perfect sense. The crux of my argument rests on the idea that behaviors are caused, and to the extent that they are caused – fully, I believe – they will always make sense if the causal factors are understood.

This seems to be the approach that we intuitively take when we observe unusual behavior in animals. We don’t blame the animal and label it a dumbass, we assume there’s something causing the behavior, like an illness, the presence of another animal, or the animal’s having been trained by humans. A bizarre behavior could also have a strong genetic component; maybe it’s evolved because it’s adaptive or maybe it’s the result of a spontanteous deleterious mutation. In any case, we're likely to attribute the behavior to material causes rather than to blame the animal.

As animals, we should look at our own behavior in the same light. We can think and reason, but reasoning is just one of many factors that shape our actions. If we consider all of the relevant causal factors, even the most extreme human behaviors become comprehensible. A man eating another man’s face, for example, can be understandable in light of drug abuse or psychiatric disorders.

More subtle examples of silly and apparently irrational human behaviors abound and we’ve all Regaliaundoubtedly participated in some. Consider the graduation ceremony – an academic ritual with more pomp than a peacock could manage. Even the most educated participants flounce around in ornate priestly gowns and big floppy hats with tassles or plumes. I’ve done this a number of times myself and I couldn’t have felt more ridiculous if I’d been wearing a chicken suit; and yet this practice is commonplace. People have a desire to celebrate milestones and achievements; it meets psychological and emotional needs and makes us feel good about ourselves. Given that it's rewarding on some level, it makes sense that we do these things.

Even a common practice like skiing would undoubtedly seem bizarre to an alien observer who's unfamiliar with the practice. He might wonder why humans would strap thin boards to their feet and slide down snowy hills, an inherently risky behavior with no apparent purpose. The skier may spend an entire day going up the hill and down the hill, back up and back down, only to end up in exactly the same place where he started. How futile! But it takes little more than the skier's enjoyment of the activity for it to make sense. When we understand the reasons, we understand the behavior.

Irrational beliefs and ideas, like behaviors, are the products of causal factors. The beliefs themselves may not be logical, but it nevertheless makes sense that the believer holds them. The irrational belief could result from an innate lack of reasoning ability, ignorance or misinformation, or, like ceremonies, it may meet important psychological or social needs. There are reasons why people think crazy things and it often behooves us to figure out what they are.

Irrational beliefs and the behaviors they inspire aren't always bad. An athlete's belief that wearing his lucky socks will improve his competition performance isn't likely to cause much harm. Conversely, harmful behaviors aren't always associated with an irrational belief; sometimes they result from mental illness, drug abuse, social or family influences, desperation, or a range of other factors. But undeniably, there are harmful behaviors that would be worth preventing or modifying.

Understanding the factors that give rise to a harmful behavior gives us the best chance of modifying it. In many cases, common factors underlie a number of undesirable behaviors. Educational attainment and income inequality, for example, have been linked to violent crime, religiosity (and by extension religious fanaticism), smoking and drug abuse, and some kinds of science denialism. Improving access to education and reducing poverty are much more difficult than arguing with individuals, but they're more likely to be effective. People’s adherence to comforting but delusional beliefs would suggest that making sense of the world is sometimes less important than coping with it. In such cases, we shouldn’t expect appeals to reason to be persuasive.

When we encounter “wingnuts” and “dumbasses”, instead of asking “what’s the matter with these people?” we should ask “what causes people to act this way?”. In the US, income inequality has grown over the past several decades and almost a quarter of children now live in poverty. The K-12 public education system has been demonstrably poor for decades and the cost of higher education is prohibitive and rising. The media provides the public with mixed and often misleading information serving only to further reduce public literacy. Considering these circumstances, it’s no wonder that the country’s awash with science denialism, religious fundamentalism, violent crime, ignorance, and irrationality. It’d be crazy if it weren’t.

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