Thursday, November 7, 2013

True Believers

Several times in past blog postings I have referred to true believers. This concept was first introduced by Eric Hoffer in his 1951 book, The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements. 

Hoffer was reflecting on how fanatical movements begin and sustain themselves. These movements, both political and religious, were made up of people with low self-esteem. Quoting from Wikipedia, one contributor states, that such movements "arose under predictable circumstances: when large numbers of people come to believe that their individual lives are worthless and ruined, that the modern world is irreparably corrupt, and that hope lies only in joining a larger group that demands radical changes."

Hoffer was examining the rise of the totalitarian governments of Hitler and Stalin which he described as  "madhouses".  There are many, perhaps too many, examples in human history of these "madhouses" of "human psychology". But, like most things in life even the true believers vary in degrees of true
'believerism'. I suspect that even within Hitler and Stalin's organizations were varying degrees of commitment. The real true believers in the movements are those at the sharp end of the spear. These are the suicide bombers, the Sovereign Citizens movement, and even individuals acting alone in violent ways.

What happens when the sharp end of the spear is broken in these "madhouses"? What happens to the true believers? Within the Nazi movement post war members kept the 'dream alive' for a time by regrouping into secret organizations. Others started right wing parties that were regrouping in the open but with a more tempered nationalist agenda.

I recently finished a book by Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War. I don't recommend it but Kinzer describes the brothers as true believers. He doesn't label them as such, however his bullet points of their psychological proclivities is on point with Eric Hoffer's concept.

Here then is Mr. Kinzer's criteria for true believers:

  • People are motivated to accept accounts that fit with their preexisting convictions; acceptance of those accounts makes them feel better, and acceptance of competing claims makes them feel worse.

  • Dissonance is eliminated when we blind ourselves to contradictory propositions. And we are prepared to pay a very high price to preserve our most cherished ideas.

  • Moral hypocrisy is a deep part of our nature: the tendency to judge others more harshly for some moral infraction than we judge ourselves.

  • Groupthink leads to many problems of defective decision making, including incomplete survey of alternatives and objectives, failure to examine the risks of the preferred choice, poor information search, selective bias in processing information, and failure to assess alternatives.

  • We are often confident even when we are wrong…. Declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.

  • Certain beliefs are so important for a society or group that they become part of how you prove your identity…. The truth is that our minds just aren't set up to be changed by mere evidence.