Suppose a cult leader calls you crazy

January 22nd, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

One day this fall my social psychology seminar had veered into an interesting discussion about the ethics of persuasion, and the class agreed that cult leaders are the paragons of this dark art. I was less sure. “What is it that makes their persuasion unethical?” I asked the class, “Can’t the same thing be said about vegetarians and atheists? What makes it ethical when you try to persuade people about your beliefs?” My professor replied, “The difference is, I appreciate reality for how it really is.” “But,” I responded, “Isn’t that exactly what a cult leader would say?” The class rolled with nervous laughter. The professor was briefly silent. “Yeah, I guess that’s right, huh…?” Objectivity is what makes persuasion seem ethical; but in practice, “objective” normally means “what I want to be true.”

Naive realism

This property of belief is called naive realism, which is a philosophical term appropriated by psychologists Lee Ross and Andrew Ward (full text). According to Ross and Ward, we all feel like our perception of reality is essentially accurate, and that our beliefs are merely a consequence of seeing the world how it really is. It’s clear to us that cult leaders believe impossible things, but they surely would say the same thing about you. How do we figure out who’s right? Naive realism is an error of perspective taking, as my professor accidentally demonstrated in class. So to clear up the confusion, we’re going to look at things from the other side.

“Why,” the doomsday prophet laments, “do people still not see the Truth?”

“The end is nigh, and it is my job to make the world repent.”

Despite his earnestness and the verity of his words, he fails to win any converts. Why do they still not believe?

“It must be that other people don’t, or can’t, see the facts. Maybe they’re simply incapable of connecting the dots. If I show them the way, they can’t possibly ignore the Truth.”

After another day of miserable failure, The Prophet sits ruefully on his soap box, head in hands. The world is doomed. How does he make sense of this?

“I’m sure I’m right.” he says. “Those who don’t believe are hopelessly corrupted.”

The Prophet fails because he presumes that he is the one person who understands the real Truth about the world. Ross and Ward note that we’re all prophets in this way, treating our own perspective on issues as sacrosanct, and with results that convince us too that doomsday is imminent. No doubt you’ve often inspired the same thoughts in others. Why does disagreement breed hopelessness?

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