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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“So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.”

January 13th, 2014 § 5 comments § permalink


Munro, G. D. (2010). The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief‐Threatening Scientific Abstracts. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(3), 579-600. (Full Text)


At times we all probably feel like we are the only ones who are right on the internet. Hopefully you have the humility and good sense to realize that this is an impossible state of affairs. But why is it so difficult to get past our own biases? Answering that question is one of the major goals of this blog.

Arguing with evidence

Personal opinions and anecdotes make for unconvincing arguments. Do scientific arguments fare any better? The title of this post references something Red Auerbach once said about a study by the psychologist Tom Gilovich that debunked the “hot hand” phenomenon in basketball. Clearly Mr. Auerbach was unimpressed. But science is a way of knowing that our society invests with a lot of authority, which is why actors assume white lab coats in drug commercials. People also believe that certain topics cannot in principle be answered by science (see Steven Jay Gould’s NOMA for a popular example involving science and religion). How do we know which method best suits which area of inquiry? Welcome to the black hole of the internet! Not 4chan, but epistemology, where certitude is pounded into ambiguity.

Ambiguity is what fuels motivated reasoning. People who have sufficient motivation to reach a certain conclusion will hack their way through a tangled undergrowth of competing ideas, collecting supporting evidence and discarding contradictory evidence; they will find whatever ambiguity exists and exploit it in the service of confirming their correctness. Scientific evidence is not impervious to the blade. Even if that evidence represents the pinnacle of modern scientific practice, opponents will find ways to dismiss its results, including denying that science can even answer the question.

This is the effect Munro examines in this article. The author wants to know if this denial does indeed take place, and if it erodes trust in science as a way of understanding the world in general.

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