WHAT SHOULD I BELIEVE
A few months ago in a blog about conspiracies (May 2017, Conspiracy Theories) I attempted to find answers to the question of why so many of us seem willing to subscribe to stuff even when it is far from the truth, or in some cases totally illogical. The question has been of particular interest to me having seen many, many patients through the years with disordered thinking leading to false beliefs. The extreme example of the phenomenon is seen in the paranoid psychotic person whose perceptions are so distorted that his interpretations of reality are far enough removed from that of the average person that he lacks credibility. They are often so bizarre as to make others sufficiently uncomfortable that he may be shunned. As a matter of fact, it is not a stretch to describe paranoia as conspiracy theories on steroids.
ARE WE ALL A LITTLE CRAZY?
We now realize that there are many conditions that can impair brain function resulting in paranoia, yet when comparing the paranoiac to the conspiracist, we see they have much in common, which begs the question as to whether the paranoid’s extreme suspiciousness rather than qualitatively different is merely an aggravation of the basic human condition. After all, suspiciousness has been adaptive behavior for the human race. It has contributed to our survival and those without suspicions are called gullible and looked down upon. On the other hand, the conclusions arrived at by delusional thinking are rigidly held in spite of whatever logic or facts are presented. In like manner, the political zealot’s ideas seem set in concrete, and he brushes off contradictory information as either irrelevant or untrue.
THAT TRUTH THING AGAIN?
If suspiciousness is not only protective but in search of truth, why do we so often believe stuff when there is no evidence that it is true. Any good con man will tell you the best way to gain trust is to tell the mark what he wants to hear, and the best lies are those that confirm what he already believes. As a personal example, there is the case of Donald Trump, who I thought was a jerk long before his TV show. Granted, that opinion was based on feelings and maybe not even rational for obviously I didn’t really know him. Nevertheless, I am now even more convinced that he is a jerk and moreover a bad President. Consequently, I suck up what is said about Trump on MSNBC and reject what Fox News has to say as bullshit. I find it difficult to understand how some of my friends can listen to the Fox News bullshit, and I am sure they feel the same way about me and MSNBC bullshit. As a consequence, we rarely discuss politics, but I am sure that they talk politics to friends who are of like mind while I rap only with the anti-Trump contingent. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing. One study indicated that groups with opposing beliefs actually became more extreme in those beliefs while discussing the issues with those who differed with them. Thus, there may be wisdom in the maxim that “one should not discuss politics or religion in polite company.”
CATCH 22 AGAIN
Unfortunately, that policy presents us with another one of those unresolvable dilemmas, for if one assumes that it is impossible to resolve differences without discussion and discussion simply reinforces beliefs, compromise is unlikely to occur. The phenomenon does offer a measure of security to politicians or political parties in that limited exposure of their base to contrary ideas will keep them in the fold. With that, he can devote more resources to winning the independent vote.
When I was a kid we played a game called Follow the Leader in which participants were to follow the behaviors of the designated leader, and those who failed to mimic the leader were expelled until there were only two players remaining, at which point the one survivor would become the leader and the game would resume with the new leader. There is ample evidence that similar behaviors are seen in nearly all aspects of human behavior, and that we are indeed herd animals.
SO YOU THINK YOU ARE A THINKER?
There is a famous British study in which a large group of volunteers were asked to walk aimlessly around a large hall without talking to anyone, while a few were secretly given instructions as to where to walk, and to appear confident of their destination. 95% of the crowd followed those who appeared to know where they were going, in much the same manner as would a flock of sheep follow a Judas goat. This phenomenon, only one example of what has been called herd behavior or herd mentality, has received a great deal of study through the years by philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, economists, theologians, historians and even psychiatrists like Freud and Jung.
The principles of herd behavior, or tribalism, have been found to have great utility in influencing all manner of human behaviors. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any aspect of our lives that is not affected in some way by our tribal memberships. Those of us who fancy ourselves to be independent thinkers have little awareness as to how these and other genetically ingrained behaviors unconsciously affect not only our behaviors, but our thought processes, opinions and beliefs. To belong, one must conform and conform we do, often with little awareness of why we do so.
HERMITS NEVER MAKE IT
The importance of herd behavior is not lost on the world’s politicians and despots. They know how to make use of our need to belong to a group or to use a shrink term to be “validated.” In order to brainwash someone or start a cult, one must begin by isolating the prospective victims in order to deny them validation so they will eventually align themselves with their persecutors. They make use of the fact that as herd animals, contact with other living things is essential, and they hope that their victims will eventually accept whatever relationship is made available to them. Similar dynamics undoubtedly play a part in the development of the “Stockholm Syndrome” as in the case of Patty Hearst, who joined the cause of her anarchist kidnappers after having been isolated and abused by them. As I mentioned in a previous blog, it has been shown in several studies that solitary confinement often results in the development of psychosis, further evidence of the importance of relationships.
JUST ONE OF THE GUYS
It is largely accepted as fact that negative political campaigning is more effective than merely focusing on issues. In such cases the emphasis is not on issues, but rather on his/her opponent’s character and identity. The candidate will set out to show that he is like his audience and thus is a member of their tribe while his opponent does not belong. When addressing a blue-collar audience, he may shed his coat and tie and roll up his sleeves. The recent election has demonstrated that a baseball cap can generate more votes than a resume in those rallies while more formal attire will be chosen for $1000-a-plate dinners.
HERDS GONE WILD
Nowhere is the herd concept better illustrated than at athletic events. I have been an Ohio State fan all my life, which by the way is a long time. Of course, football is the most raucous of all modern sports and one in which tribalism is on full display. I paid significant sums of money for the privilege of sitting in crowded uncomfortable seats sometimes in rain or snow. Surrounded by 100,000 fellow tribe members all rooting for the enemy to be vanquished, I felt I truly belonged. Fellow tribe members were readily identified by clothing adorned with the school colors. We pledged our fidelity by singing the alma mater followed by the school “fight” song. Seating was arranged so that the opposition fans were separate from us good guys, and the cheerleaders encouraged our totally uncivilized behavior. The best seats are those on the 50-yard line not only providing a better view of the action but placing the fan in the center of the crowd much as other herd animals jockey for position to be in the center of their herd. Our loyalties also affect our beliefs, e.g., questionable calls by the refs are bad if they favor the other team, and the boos of one are apt to be taken up by other fans.
In similar manner mob behavior can be initiated, and there have been instances where those officiating games have feared for their lives. Soccer games seem especially prone to mob behaviors. Political rallies can be orchestrated to take advantage of that same dynamic. It is said that Hitler frequently placed plain-clothed SS agents in crowds when delivering his tirades. Their job was to stir up the crowds by cheering his every word thereby stimulating herd behavior, a technique not lost on modern day political organizers. For example, it is clear that the “lock her up” chants during the last presidential campaign were not entirely spontaneous.
GOOD GUY, BAD GUY
Throughout history leaders have come into power by designating a person or group of people as enemies. A prospective leader must be able to place blame for whatever widespread complaint exists, and convince his audience that they are under assault by the bad guy or a group of bad guys. It is helpful if he can induce hatred, for passion increases voter turnout, and the resulting divisiveness is encouraged. An opponent will feel compelled to respond in kind to the accusations and the campaign becomes a battle of personalities rather than ideas. Charisma triumphs and meaningful debate never happens.
We are all under a great deal of pressure to believe as are our fellow tribesmen. Consequently, we are strongly influenced to share our beliefs with those who are sympatico, which often leaves us isolated from those who don’t share those beliefs. In a previous blog, I referenced a study which demonstrated that people are more apt to believe information obtained from a friend than from conventional sources, another indication that belonging is enhanced by sharing beliefs.
IS INDEPENDENT THINKING A LOST CAUSE?
Although many of our beliefs are buttressed by facts, there is also a certain amount of volition involved. We sometimes reject beliefs that we find objectionable in spite of significant corroboration, and readily adopt those we find appealing despite limited evidence of their validity. Religions demand professions of belief if one is to enter into the fold, be eligible for an afterlife or in some cases even one’s mortal life. Early Christians presented their captives with a choice of believing or dying. Radical Muslims are reported as doing the same even today.
Today, there are powerful pressures brought to bare in efforts to channel our beliefs. We are drowning in information, much of which is distorted or false. We are affected by advertising so sophisticated that it is personalized to each of us. News sources which we trusted to provide truths are under assault. Then there is that whole internet thing which muddies the waters even more. Perhaps it is understandable that in our search for a lifeline we should reach out to our tribe to tell us what to believe.
Addendum by eshrink’s offspring (Maggie)
So, what is the answer to this dilemma? Maybe recognition of our need to belong is the first step to evaluate our own ability to think rationally. Instead of convincing or attempting to persuade others, maybe more listening and less talking will lead to greater understanding. No matter our opinions and thoughts, greater understanding and close relationships are what define the human condition.
One of the primary teachings I learned while earning my journalism degree was one of neutrality and learned objective behavior. “A reader should never know what your opinion is. Save that for the editorial page,” a professor preached to our class. To counter the need to disagree, I was taught to ask why. There is always more value in understanding why someone believes something than trying to convince them why their thinking is flawed. To ask the question and learn about their thought process (if there is one) can lead to greater understanding for the person asking the question and sometimes illicit the process of critical thinking in the one whose opinion differs from your own.
At the end of the day, this life is about relationships. Humans connecting with one another. Maybe we can be an example for the pundits and the politicians who want to gain power by dividing rather than unifying. One can only hope.