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We Need a Mind Vaccine

How to address the other pandemic.

Key points

  • Parasitic ideas can thrive at our expense.
  • Minds have immune systems, just like bodies do, and we can enhance them.
  • If we can vaccinate bodies against infectious microbes, we can vaccinate minds against infectious ideas.
 Martin Sanchez / Unsplash
Infectious ideas are effectively mind-parasites
Source: Photo: Martin Sanchez / Unsplash

We face two deadly pandemics, not one. Covid’s delta variant is laying siege to our bodies, and infectious ideas are laying siege to our minds. We’ll treat the first with vaccines and eventually achieve herd immunity. We’ll treat the other with mind vaccines: lessons that will someday give us herd immunity to divisive ideologies, conspiracy thinking, and disinformation.

I mean all of this literally. Bad ideas can be thought of as mind parasites. Minds host them. They replicate. An infectious idea can induce a mind to spew it online, just as a flu virus can induce an infection-spreading sneeze. And ideas can actually commandeer minds. Witness the viral spread of QAnon — the idea that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles runs our nation. It’s a stunning example of human susceptibility to mind viruses.

For most of us, QAnon belief is easy to identify as parasitic. But far sneakier mind-bugs are loose in the meme pool: The election was stolen. Vaccines cause autism. Climate change is a hoax. Experts talk openly of “infodemics,” and such language is more than metaphorical. Epidemics of unreason are real and dangerous.

It’s tempting to think that the cure lies in a renewed commitment to facts and evidence. But this prescription falls short, for infected minds can become fact-resistant. More importantly, our values, too, must be tethered to reality.

In the wake of World War II, Bernard Baruch wrote, “Every man is entitled to his opinion, but no man is entitled to his own facts.” He was calling for accountable talk about objective reality, but notably, his dictum failed to insist on accountable moral conviction. Seventy years later, we still cling to a malignant mythology that licenses irresponsible value judgments.

Here’s why this mythology is so dangerous: It gives willful belief great latitude to disorder thinking. Recent research details how this works. First, our culture tells us we’re entitled to our opinions, and we start to feel cognitively entitled. Second, we latch onto sacred or nonnegotiable values in an attempt to stabilize our identities and give our lives meaning.

When we encounter evidence suggesting that our commitments are problematic, we tend to get defensive. Some end up defying the evidence, and win the approval of others with similar, and increasingly tribal, commitments. Fact-resistant avowals become a way of signaling loyalty to embattled beliefs, and unaccountable talk proliferates. This damages a pivotal norm: the one that says beliefs should change in response to evidence. That’s how minds — and entire cultures — come unhinged.

Consider an example: Some feel that pandemic mask mandates are oppressive, and treat our freedom to go maskless as a sacred right. When reinforced by online disinformation, partisan demagoguery, and anti-vax screeds, this feeling can overwhelm the abundant evidence that, in the face of Covid, masking is the prudent and civically responsible thing to do. The value commitment breeds fact-resistance, moral disorientation, and shockingly selfish behavior.

The takeaway? The unruly horse of willful belief can drag a cartload of facts into a ditch. Fail to rein it in, and eventually, all hell will break loose. But that’s just metaphor. The literal truth is stranger still: Willful believing weakens the mind’s immune system, allowing thinking to go haywire.

Outbreaks of mass irrationality are nothing new, but now they surge through networks of internet-connected minds. And critical thinking instruction can’t contain them. In 2016, a whopping 43% of college-educated voters cast their lot with the disastrously unqualified Donald Trump. This represents a massive failure of American higher education.

So how do we navigate past our “post-truth” predicament? We do it by following the lead of immunologists and public health professionals. Immunologists developed a hard-won understanding of the immune system, and for over a century, public health officials applied this understanding to protect our bodies. We’ll solve our infodemic problem in a parallel fashion: by developing a hard-won understanding of mental immune function and applying its findings to protect minds.

Few realize that science of mental immunity exists. For decades, adherents of “inoculation theory” gathered evidence that minds behave as if they have immune systems. In recent years, scientists have shown that it’s possible to inoculate minds against misinformation in a process called “prebunking.” Now, some of us are studying the way minds ward off false and otherwise problematic ideas; we’ve identified the mind’s antibodies and cataloged species of mental immune disorder. We’re learning how mental immune systems work, and how we can strengthen them against failure. We’re even testing prototype mind vaccines. Cognitive immunology — the science of mental immunity — has arrived.

Immunology — the science of bodily immunity — has transformed the human condition. It has saved hundreds of millions of lives and prevented untold suffering. Cognitive immunology — the science of mental immunity — could be similarly transformative. To see this, just add up the costs of cognitive contagion and envision a future in which such outbreaks are contained.

Imagine a world where political ideologies don’t routinely divide nations against themselves; where fruitless culture wars are skillfully de-escalated before they can poison political discourse; where foolish policies don’t frustrate human aspirations, communities become more resilient, and societies grow steadily wiser and more just. That could be our future.

How do we get there? Above all, we need a systematic, scientifically informed approach to developing our immunity to infectious ideas.

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