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(Since there is no Psychology.SE, Ph.SE seemed like the best place to ask this question.)

I have noticed that when a person is presented with an unfamiliar idea, the default reaction is often to regard it as ridiculous.

Why is that?

  • Random example #1: If Obama claimed that he had seen a "Bigfoot", most people would think he was looney... But why? Most people, if you talked through the logic with them, would not reject the possibility of a Bigfoot existing, or an "existing Bigfoot" being observed.

  • Random example #2: If Tom Cruise told reporters that he has decided to only eat animals, since plants are alive and they are the real victims, and animals have it coming, most people would gasp incredulously and scoff at that... But why? It is relatively common to have specific eating habits which are tied to ones philosophy. Why is an unfamiliar philosophy-based eating habit "ridiculous"?

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Freud has written one text, known as the "Unheimlich" (uncanny). This term refers to something that seems to be unfamiliar and familiar at the same time, and this would create discomfort, because the person cannot respond rationally to it, so the person would retreat and avoid it (possibly could try to eliminate it as well, e.g. killing it). Possibly the person has some similarity with that which s/he rejects, but cannot recognize that in her/himself.

Your example: someone advocates a "meat only" diet. This has ressonance with the "vegetable only" diet, even though it is the opposite of it. Perhaps a vegetarian would find "meat only" absurd, but is "vegetable only" more rational? Maybe not, but failing to recognize this, the person would reject the "meat only" as being ridiculous. This rejection is a form of intent of protection - "irrational" is threatening, so the person retreats from it. Ironically, in this way, the person fails to see that this is an aspect of her/himself.

Same thing with the Bigfoot... because, how many times have we talked about something that we could not prove? And this is very annoying, because anyone can be accused of madness for talking about things that others have not experienced (many things we "know" but cannot prove it, and when we try to find the evidence of it, it only makes sense to ourselves e.g. "person X loves/hates/chases me", may sound like paranoias, if you observe them closely).

So, generalizing, I'd say that the feeling of "ridiculous" is an attempt to protect oneself from a sense of irrationality, and that this that is seen as "completely exterior" ("it has nothing to do with me"), probably is felt as disturbing precisely because it has a hidden "familiar" side.

You may find some interest in this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny

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I don't dispute your statement that people tend to ridicule the unfamiliar, but you have chosen two particularly poor examples--in fact, they serve to illustrate an alternate phenomenon, which is that people ridicule things that are known to be wrong or not make sense.

In your Bigfoot example, we know that we have observed pretty much the entire surface of the planet--to the extent that we have conducted nearly an exhaustive search for Bigfoot and not found it. Therefore, Bigfoot is very unlikely to exist. Saying that you've seen Bigfoot, therefore, makes about as much sense as saying that bananas are blue and pink, unless you not only state the claim but provide amazingly good evidence of it.

In your meat eating example, if you eat animals, the animals themselves were directly or indirectly (by eating other animals) eating plants. So you not only eat the animals but you cause more plants to be destroyed by raising sufficient animals to sustain yourself. So the whole reasoning is nonsensical and that is what I think people would react to as ridiculous, not the all-meat diet. (The Atkins diet is not far from that already, and that's no longer viewed as ridiculous, although it was by some initially.)

Why do we find these things ridiculous? Hard to say--maybe it's just a way of applying social pressure (since the pressure of reason has clearly already gone awry) to prevent the spread of nonsense.

A better illustration of your claim might involve, say, cutting your ice-cream with a knife instead of a spoon. Ridiculous! Except there's no particular reason why spoons are better than knives at serving ice cream; they each have their own advantages (knives penetrate hard ice cream better, spoons scoop up soft ice cream better, it's easier to get the ice cream to come off of the knife, but spoons are less likely to damage the container). Or, that almost all objects are nearly entirely empty space. Ridiculous! (But true.) Honestly, I have little idea why people find such things ridiculous, but I am pretty sure that historically prominent psychologists and philosophers didn't get the right answer if they speculated on it. It's really hard to know these things with confidence--very hard to do appropriate experiments--and there are such a huge number of mutually contradictory just-so stories you could tell that one should suspect any individual one of being wrong.

But I will note another situation where this sort of reaction makes more sense. Suppose I go to a formal dinner with the Queen of England while wearing a backwards baseball cap instead of a tie. Ridiculous! Of course, neither the tie nor the baseball cap have any direct functionality, in all likelihood. Rather, the tie is a signal: I understand the social situation and am acting accordingly. The cap is a different one: I'm either totally unaware of or snubbing your silly social rules. This sort of thing can be used for "profiling"--really, just figuring out whether someone is one of you or not. Quite a valuable thing to do for a social primate, you know. Cultural ridicule can help enforce easy identification of group membership. Is that why we do it, in some sense? I don't know, but it's quite suggestive, isn't it?

Does this have anything to do with the ridicule of things functionally important or informational, rather than cultural? I don't know. I'd be surprised if there isn't some link, but human behavior is full of surprises.

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    Thanks - this was helpful. My two examples were just random thoughts from the top of my head. Perhaps I should have used "cutting ice cream with a knife", but I'm glad you got the gist of the question. – Jas 3.1 Jul 11 '12 at 2:11
  • as an aside:objects are not nearly full of empty space, thats a myth from the early discovery of the size and structure of the atom. Probing more deeply has revealed it to be full of stuff: look up virtual particles, and then we get onto what we mean by particle and conjecturally the topology change of space itself. – Mozibur Ullah Jul 11 '12 at 5:51
  • might i persuade you to consider the possibility that the probability of Bigfoot's existence is slightly higher than that of blue/pink bananas? – user1539 Jul 11 '12 at 6:55
  • @MoziburUllah - If you start throwing neutrons at something and count the fraction that make it through, in some very important sense objects are nearly full of "empty space". Of course there is no space that does not have some magnetic fields and gravitational fields and such, and obviously anything with a high collision/capture cross-section with electrons is not going to act like it's empty space. But in the sense that objects are massive and _objects are transparent to moving massive particles, objects are nearly as empty as non-objects. – Rex Kerr Jul 11 '12 at 14:07
  • @user1539 - No, not really. We already know enough to genetically engineer blue and pink bananas (but nobody has to my knowledge), and given that there are purple bananas I wouldn't entirely rule out that some wild blue and pink banana could exist. I think it's overwhelmingly likely that they don't, but I think the same of Bigfoot, and for the same reason: we have conducted a nearly-exhaustive search of the relevant space and not found either. – Rex Kerr Jul 11 '12 at 14:10
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I think we need to look at your premises more closely.

I don't think that we can say, as a blanket statement, that the "default reaction" to an unfamiliar idea is usually ridicule; if this were the case, education would be a near-impossible process. Every single thing you have ever learned was originally an unfamiliar idea to you.

So, we need to look more closely at the examples that you provide. The ideas suggested there are not merely unfamiliar, but are at odds with our already-held beliefs. Furthermore, when evaluating testimony, one also looks at the context of the source. Tom Cruise is not known as a philosopher of ethics, so his claims in this regard are not likely to be valued terribly highly. Even if he were a philosopher of ethics, a controversial and counter-intuitive claim of that type would have to be argued at length, and with supporting arguments, in order to be demonstrated successfully.

Similarly, if Obama said that he was walking in the woods by Camp David and saw a Bigfoot that nobody else saw, he would likely be ridiculed, as you said. (As an aside: Jimmy Carter claimed to have seen a UFO before becoming President.) On the other hand, if he were to announce from the Oval Office that military units on a routine patrol in the Pacific Northwest sighted, surrounded, and captured a large mammal previously unknown to science, and that a team of scientists were now doing tests to study the creature, I don't think we would have any cause to doubt him.

So, ultimately your question comes down to one of epistemology and doubt, and that if framed in this way, you'll be able to find resources that will help you solve your problem.

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