Cognitive Immunology: How Can We Protect Against Harmful and False Ideas?

An interesting, fairly new discipline is emerging within the social sciences: Cognitive Immunology (CI). This discipline of science studies the immune system of the mind that protects against infectious and dangerous ideas, just as the immune system of the body protects against microbes. Cognitive immunologists strive to better understand disorders, causes of mental immunity, and interventions to improve mental immunity. Below I give a brief description of this discipline.

The popularity of bad ideas

In our time there seems to be a revival of the popularity of bad ideas. By bad ideas I mean ideas that are false, misleading, irresponsible, harmful or otherwise problematic. (See also Contaminated Mindware). This revival is largely made possible by the rise of social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram. Power seekers actively use this type of media to spread propaganda. Many are prone to such bad ideas and allow themselves to be exploited by deceivers.

Mental immunity: resilience to bad ideas

The Cognitive Immunology Research Collaborative (CIRCE) is a non-profit organization focused on exploring the concept of mental immunity. This is the idea that the mind has its own defense system to protect itself against harmful or misguided ideas, in a similar way that the body has an immune system to protect itself against harmful pathogens. Within CI, ideas harmful to the mind are seen as parasites that spread and harm the host. Mental immunity is supported by various brain functions such as critical thinking, curiosity, mindset and impartiality.

Cultural immune systems

Defensiveness against bad ideas is definitely not just an individual task. Societies, too, have systems to filter out harmful ideas, so-called cultural immune systems. Important examples are fact-checkers, the free press and science.

Mental immune disorders

If mental and cultural immune systems do not work sufficiently, so-called mental immune disorders can arise. These come in two ways: 
  1. type 1 misconceptions (not recognizing bad ideas);
  2. type 2 misconceptions (attacking good information). 
A healthy mental immune system requires a balance between criticism and open-mindedness.

In some cases, one's mental defense mechanism can become overactive and even attack valuable or true beliefs, which is known as mental autoimmunity. This can happen, for example, when a cult leader manipulates the mental immune systems of his followers, causing them to question even established and tested beliefs.

Identity-protective cognition

Embracing harmful and false ideas and rejecting right and valuable ideas is sometimes sustained by identity-protective cognition. The tendency of individuals to unconsciously reject any evidence which is inconsistent with the beliefs prevalent in their group.

Cognitive biases can also increase our susceptibility to misinformation, and when people lose faith that beliefs should be changed based on evidence, they become more susceptible to conspiracy theories and delusions.

Applications of cognitive immunology

Based on cognitive immunology, some recommendations have been put forward to increase our mental resilience against harmful ideas.
  1. Promote idea testing: Teach people to question beliefs and reinforce the norm to change them based on evidence. Teach children a scientific attitude and emphasize that testing ideas is a collaborative effort to gain profound immunity.
  2. Activate Antibodies Against Mental Parasites: Listen to doubts and concerns as the mind's antibodies to develop strong mental immunity. Treat mental immunity disorders by diagnosing and curing habits of the mind that hinder rigorous idea filtering. Cultivate a growth mindset, because a fixed mindset is a mental immune disorder.
  3. Develop mental vaccines: Develop "mind vaccines" to protect against misinformation and improve belief standards to reduce confirmation bias and encourage the use of reason in decision making. This includes educational interventions that confer immunity against particularly problematic ideas and tendencies.
  4. Challenge willful belief: Promoting responsible belief by embracing doubt and accepting evidence rather than cultural norms that promote blind belief, thereby enhancing mental immunity.
  5. Resist identity-protective cognition: Teach people to separate their sense of self from their beliefs to avoid identity-protective cognition and strengthen mental immunity.
  6. Practice Critical Thinking in the Digital Age: Learn critical thinking to promote fairness online and avoid culture wars that can harm mental health. Redesign education to build immunity against toxic ideologies and improve online communication practices.

12 steps to mental immunity

Andy Norman, author of the book Mental immunity , has formulated 12 steps to increase our mental immunity:
  • Step 1) Play with ideas, test them, ask questions and stress test those ideas using realistic thought experiments.
  • Step 2) Understand that the mind is not a passive repository of knowledge . They are dynamic, ever-changing balls of clay.
  • Step 3) Get past the selfish idea that you are entitled to your opinion. What you believe affects the well-being of others as much as it affects you. This is the core of empathy.
  • Step 4) Distinguish between good and bad faith. Be tolerant of quasi-religious views. It's not just the evidence that counts, the consequences of healthy mental states are just as important. We can have faith that sings to our better angels without invoking our inner demons. An idea backed by evidence has a very good chance of being a good idea. However, be aware of statistical and mathematical biases.
  • Step 5) Learn the art of "unlearning" by removing ideas. This method is as important as the art of learning by adding more information to your knowledge base. This natural balance is a very good litmus test for a healthy mental immune system.
  • Step 6) New information is like a puzzle piece, you have to find where it fits and how it connects to your existing picture of the world. True wisdom requires that you organize and clarify your thoughts based on the pre-existing patterns in your mental landscape.
  • Step 7) Ditch the "Who's in Charge" mentality. Only we are responsible for our actions in the world.
  • Step 8) Let go of the idea that value judgments cannot be objective. Kindness is really a virtue and cruelty is really a vice. Abolishing slavery was certainly a moral exercise that made us more tolerant as a collective group of monkeys. These truths are as Newtonian as the laws of gravity.
  • Step 9) Treat challenges to your beliefs as opportunities rather than threats. You are not your ideas. A challenge to an idea in no way diminishes your self-esteem.
  • Step 10) Satisfy your need to belong with a research community instead of a faith community.
  • Step 11) Reasonable beliefs are beliefs that can be questioned endlessly. The best supported hypotheses are basically open to unexpected challenges. The idea that a reason can fully secure a belief is a myth.
  • Step 12) Don't underestimate the value of ideas that have survived scrutiny. Be ready to re-examine and set them aside if necessary. Think and then put your values ​​into practice. 

More information:


Coert Visser said…
Link to book description

► New book: Foolproof is a comprehensive guide to understanding and combating misinformation in today's world. The book explains why our brains are susceptible to false information, how misinformation spreads on social networks, and how to protect ourselves and others from its influence. Author Sander van der Linden introduces the science of "prebunking," which involves inoculating people against false information by exposing them to a weakened version, enabling them to recognize and resist manipulative tactics. By deconstructing common techniques used in spreading misinformation, the book provides readers with practical tools to defend themselves and others against deceptive persuasion, whether on a large scale or in everyday conversations.