Review of "A Colorful History of Popular Delusions"

By Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall
Prometheus Books, 2015
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D. on Nov 10th 2015
A Colorful History of Popular Delusions

Nowadays, exposure to the news media, including TV news shows, newspapers, magazines, and news blogs, is likely to entail exposure to a variety of statements that may be unfounded or blatantly false.  Debates or speeches made by some current and past political candidates come easily to mind, but the pool of examples is sadly much larger.  In addition, countless examples exist of opinion makers or even reporters who do not appear to require evidence-based statements from those they interview.  Even if the agenda that drives specific statements is casually mentioned, the veracity of the claims made remains largely unchallenged.  False or unfounded statements are then repeated across diverse media channels by a multitude of other individuals who are no more ostensibly credulous than their sources.  The cacophony of repetition is so potent that can easily override audiences' analytical skills in favor of attention-grabbing sound bites.  

What can consumers of information do to protect themselves from unsupported and misleading information when its presence is so overwhelming? Most importantly, why do they go along? A Colorful History of Popular Delusions by Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall is by and large a vibrant and memorable list of examples that highlight the gullibility of the human mind as seen through the unifying and probing lenses of reason.  Undeniably, the book contains information that is both entertaining and disturbing.  If the objectionable outcomes of shared delusions are temporarily ignored, the authors' narrative of events that have driven and supported the selected delusions is so humorous that the reader will find himself or herself absorbed in a torrent of captivating stories.  Yet, concern is likely to overcome the reader's amusement when outcomes (including loss of lives) are considered.

The key question that drives the authors' narrative (i.e., how can the human mind be so dumb?) is both challenging and inevitable.  Bits and pieces of the answer can be found in A Colorful History of Popular Delusions.  The book contains a rich narrative of cases of shared delusions organized thematically in twelve chapters.  The very last chapter, which is entitled "Lessons to Heed", contains common-sense advice on how to avoid becoming a victim of each type of shared delusion, including rumors, manias, urban legends, and mass hysteria.  It does not contain though a comprehensive and unifying review of theories and findings in neuroscience, which may offer valuable insights into the human mind's reliance on biased processing.  Although it may be disappointing to a reader that there is no attempt to bring together such theories and findings in the last chapter, references can be easily found in each of the other chapters devoted to specific types of delusions.

In all chapters, the authors skillfully distinguish between and among different types of shared delusions.  The common thread, however, is the human mind, its functioning in social contexts, and related weaknesses.  It is an astute device if one considers that the human mind can selectively and quickly process relevant information out of all sensory stimulation that bombards its sensory apparatus.  Yet, selectivity and speed, which often rely on processing shortcuts and uncritical use of preexisting information, come at the expense of accuracy.  Research findings suggest that repetition of a statement not only may help people remember it, but also may lead them to believe that the statement is about a fact rather than an opinion, even if supporting evidence is not immediately available (see Fazio, Brashier, Payne, & Marsh, 2015; Koch, & Zerback, 2013).  Research findings also remind us that human beings are both "cognitive misers" and "emotional beings" who not only do the least amount of analytical processing of incoming information (see Kahneman, 2011), but also allow affective states to bias it (see Arceneaux, 2012).  Susceptibility to repetition and emotional states along with predilection for minimal processing are properties of the mind that make audiences likely to believe as factual statements that are either false or unsupported.  Thus, it is not surprising that other factors, such as social influence, may merely promote a predisposition to be gullible that the human mind already possesses.  Inter-personal communication then can easily spread a false or unsupported report to entire social groups, communities and societies, thereby making it even more resistant to the scrutiny of critical analysis and impervious to the challenge of scientific evidence.  In fact, it becomes a shared delusion.

Notwithstanding the common thread that characterizes common delusions, there are different types, which are artfully identified by the authors.  They include rumors, fads, crazes, shared manias, urban legends, etc.  In A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, examples of each type abound.  Thus, it is virtually impossible for the reader not to encounter novel cases, or new details of known cases, thereby making the book difficult to put down.  At the end of this clever and well-written marathon of cases of delusions, the reader is left with the awareness that differences mostly pertain to the physical and temporal range of delusions (e.g., small groups versus entire societies, and ephemeral versus enduring).  Sadly, they are all driven by questionable information and sustained by strong emotion, both of which accidentally or intentionally will continue to be spread through the networks of social relations that characterize human endeavors.



Arceneaux, K. (2012). Cognitive Biases and the Strength of Political Arguments. American Journal of Political Science, 56(2), 271-285. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2011.00573.x

Fazio, L. K., Brashier, N. M., Payne, B. K., & Marsh, E. J. (2015). Knowledge does not protect against illusory truth. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(5), 993-1002. doi:10.1037/xge0000098

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

Koch, T., & Zerback, T. (2013). Helpful or Harmful? How Frequent Repetition Affects Perceived Statement Credibility. Journal of Communication, 63(6), 993-1010. doi:10.1111/jcom.12063


© 2015 Maura Pilotti


Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Ashford University


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