Sunday, May 22, 2011

True Believers

"I saw someone peeing in Jermyn Street the other day. I thought, is this the end of civilization as we know it? Or is it simply someone peeing in Jermyn Street?" Alan Bennett
Well the date of the rapture, apocalypse etc. has come and gone. Many people apparently believed that it was going to come and even though it did not - and likely will not for some time to come, say a couple thousand years or so, give or take a few thousand - most of these same people will continue to believe and believe in the person who made this prediction.  With Camping not even opening the door.

The headquarters, which appears to be normally closed on Saturday, was also shuttered on Friday.
Camping, whose deep sonorous voice is frequently heard on his radio network expounding the Bible, could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

The shades were drawn and no one answered the door at his house in Alameda, California.
This whole phenomenon may be explained by a behavior know as cognitive dissonance.
The most famous case in the early study of cognitive dissonance was described by Leon Festinger and others in the book When Prophecy Fails.[3] The authors infiltrated a group that was expecting the imminent end of the world on a certain date. When that prediction failed, the movement did not disintegrate, but grew instead. By sharing cult beliefs with others, they gained acceptance and thus reduced their own dissonance .
This sharing of beliefs also brings up another pattern that has been noted.  That of crowd wisdom.
The wisdom of the crowd refers to the process of taking into account the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than a single expert to answer a question. This process, while not new to the information age, has been pushed into the mainstream spotlight by social information sites such as Wikipedia and Yahoo! Answers, and other web resources that rely on human opinion[1]. The process, in the business world at least, was written about in detail by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds[2].
But this wisdom apparently breaks down when each individual is informed of the others answer.
When people can learn what others think, the wisdom of crowds may veer towards ignorance.
In a new study of crowd wisdom — the statistical phenomenon by which individual biases cancel each other out, distilling hundreds or thousands of individual guesses into uncannily accurate average answers — researchers told test participants about their peers’ guesses. As a result, their group insight went awry.
“Although groups are initially ‘wise,’ knowledge about estimates of others narrows the diversity of opinions to such an extent that it undermines” collective wisdom, wrote researchers led by mathematician Jan Lorenz and sociologist Heiko Rahut of Switzerland’s ETH Zurich, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 16. “Even mild social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowd effect.”
I am not sayin that the above does relate but it is something to think about.  And add to this another effect that relates to cognitive dissonance. That of the True Believer syndrome.
True-believer syndrome is an expression coined by M. Lamar Keene to describe an apparent cognitive disorder characterized by believing in the reality of paranormal or supernatural events after one has been presented overwhelming evidence that the event was fraudulently staged. Keene is a reformed phony psychic who exposed religious racketeering—to little effect, apparently. Phony faith healers, psychics, channelers, televangelist miracle workers, etc., are as abundant as ever.
There have been a few small studies done on this syndrome.
Some small-scale studies have been undertaken; for example, a study by psychologists Barry Singer and Victor Benassi at California State University showed that more than half of the study's subjects believed a fake psychic to be real, even after they were told that he was fake and his tricks were explained. [Benassi and Singer; Hofstadter]
And there appears to be some very distinct types of True Believers as well.
In any case, there are at least three types of true believers, though they are clearly related. One is the kind Keene was referring to, namely, the type of person who believes in paranormal or supernatural things contrary to the evidence. Their faith is unshakable even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, e.g., those who refused to disbelieve in "Carlos" once the hoax was revealed, or those chiropractors who would rather give up randomized, double-blind controlled experiments than admit that applied kinesiology doesn't work. Keene's examples are mostly of people who are so desperate to communicate with the dead that no exposé of fraudulent mediums (or channelers) can shake their faith in spiritualism (or channeling).

Another type of true believer is the cult follower. Emily Harrison watched her mother, Debra Harrison, die as she and Consegrity® co-founder, Mary A. Lynch, practiced their "healing energy" medicine to no avail. As they tried to will away the "bad energy" that they believed was causing Debra's illness, Lynch, an M.D. who should know a diabetic when she lives with one,  spoon-fed her partner orange juice. Debra Harrison had co-invented Consegrity with Lynch and did not seek medical attention, even though at the time of her death she showed all the signs of diabetes.
One other type of true believer is described by Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer. This type of person is irrationally committed to a cause like terrorist attacks on civilians, murdering doctors who perform abortions, or following a guru like Jim Jones even to the point of murder or suicide.

One possible explanation for true-believer syndrome is that the belief satisfies an emotional need that is stronger than any other emotional need. Why some people have such a strong emotional need to believe in something that rational people recognize as false is perhaps unanswerable, but it is clear that the kind of beliefs we are discussing here are based on emotions and feelings, not reason and evidence.

And I put this all here not for the religious examples quoted but wonder if this same behavior is what is behind the right wings adherence to the failed economic policies of Reaganomics AKA Free Market and the works of Ayn Rand.  Even though it has been shown time and time again that they run counter to reality.  That these same folks will hold on to their economic beliefs with the same deaths grip as a cult follower of Jim Jones or the Family Radio preacher regardless of the outcome.
Now having said this I also need to say that the idea of hold onto some - apparently illogical belief - is not always a bad thing in the appropriate situation since it appears to be closely linked to what is known as intuition. Where people come up with the correct solution or answer with contrary or insufficient data or information.  But like all such behaviors can run afoul when taken to extremes.

1 comment:

Beetlejuice said...

At least I now know why conservatives are so screwed up thinking up is down and inside is out. Thanks for the references!