Sunday, February 14, 2010

On Cognitive Dissonance

In 1954, a housewife reported receiving mysterious "automatic writing" from aliens from the planet Clarion. Through these writings, she learned that the world was going to end via a Noah-like flood on December 21st of that year, and she began publicizing this fact. More specifically, she advertised that those who believed in the flood would be saved by a UFO that would rescue them.

Believers left jobs, colleges, and spouses to join the group that would be saved. They gave up their possessions and lives to prepare for the event. December 20th approaches, and they gather. The clock strikes midnight--the appointed time for salvation. There is no alien savior. The group waits--perhaps their clocks were fast. By five in the morning, though, it is clear no one is coming for them. But wait--the leader suddenly receives a new piece of automatic writing, declaring that the flood has been called off, thanks to the light spread by the group of believers.

The individuals here gave up their entire lives on the promise that they would be rescued from a flood at midnight of December 20th, 1954. You might expect that once they received clear and irreparable disconfirmation of that belief, they would angrily reject it, and demand compensation. Instead, psychologist Leon Festinger reports (in his book on the event), the crowd grew more attached to the belief.

This was a case study that grew into a robust literature in social psychology on cognitive dissonance theory. Bluntly, the theory states that if someone has two opposing cognitions--i.e. a belief and an opposing action--they will experience an unpleasant psychological tension. As such, they will resolve the tension somehow, most likely by changing their belief to accommodate their action. The individuals in the Clarion cult had devoted too much behavior to the cult. When push came to shove, there was no way for them to reconcile their actions with a belief that the UFO-flood story wasn't true--so they adjusted their beliefs in line with their actions. (Achrei ha'peulot nimshachim halevavot may be true, after all.) Participants in experimental psych labs do the same thing all the time, albeit with lower stakes. For example, participants will get paid only one dollar to write an essay they disagree with, and will end up agreeing with the position more than they used to--because if they don't agree with it, their unconscious reasoning goes, why are they defending it well for such little reward? Participants who are paid twenty dollars, on the other hand, do not need to rationalize their actions to themselves, and so do not change their beliefs.

The nimshal? If you are in the position of doubting your previous beliefs, you have a few options. You can look at your actions, and everything you have devoted to orthodoxy, and conclude that you simply must believe it after all--and come up with new justifications for said belief. Or, your actions can eventually change in line with your new beliefs. Or, you can become orthoprax, and just live with constant intellectual dissonance. If you're lucky, you'll alleviate some of the dissonance by finding some justification for the actions you are doing, such that they seem merited (for example, you like the community). Then you end up like an experimental participant offered $20 to write an essay you disagree with. You don't have to change your beliefs to match your actions, or change your actions to match your beliefs. You know exactly why you wrote the essay. It's not because you believe in it; it's because they gave you twenty bucks.

And if you're not lucky...cognitive dissonance it is.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Psychology, Religion, Orthopraxy


Here is a list of psychological phenomena connected to religion I have come up with so far. (Of course, as any psychology article on this topic always notes, showing a psychological phenomenon related to religious belief neither proves nor disproves the belief itself.) Am I missing any? Connection to orthopraxy below.

-Anthropomorphizing of the universe. 1) Partly as error. Humans have a tendency to over-apply agency to things that aren't really agents. Kids do this as they are learning to apply concepts of agency (e.g. saying goodnight to their stuffed animals and meaning it), and adults yell at their cars and computers when they malfunction, see faces in the clouds, etc. In ancient times, people had pretty intense anthropomorphisms (like whipping the sea for misbehavior). 2) Partly as motivated approach to the world. Anthropomorphizing happens when people need social contact and feel lonely, or need to explain something unexplainable. Interestingly, one social psych study (Barrett & Keil, 1996) suggested that religious people were more likely to use an anthropomorphic concept of God than a classic theological one in daily life.

-Just World Hypothesis (referenced in a previous post). People have a need to believe the world is a just and ordered place, to the extent that if something bad happens to someone and we cannot help them, we will often assume it is in some way the victim's fault (either for causing it or having some flaw that "brought it upon them").

-Illusions of External Agency (Gilbert et al, 2000): We have psychological defense mechanisms that make us happy with what we have. However, they work unconsciously, so people often assume that what they have received is objectively good for them, rather than realizing that they their minds have subjectively made it seem good. Consequently, they assume there is an agent looking out for them, since they are getting all these good things.

-Fear of death. This one sort of speaks for itself.

-Supersense. I haven't read the book of that name yet--though it's on my list--but it shows how we develop a sense for the supernatural.

So the question for me now is, can orthopraxy relate to any of these psychological needs and principles? (Not really, as far as I can tell, which is why it seems pretty untenable as a movement to me.) It often feels to me as though being in the skeptic vein pits one's automatic psychological system against one's rationally-determined beliefs. From this lens, orthopraxy comes with the costs of religion without providing any of the core psychological benefits. One lives in constant intellectual dissonance, instead of gaining the relief the lifestyle should provide (in one ideal sense).

On the other hand, though, you can justify it by appeal to practical consequences, and--in theory--other psychological/emotional gains. You get a sense of community, some nice values and traditions, it's what you're comfortable with, etc. And maybe you've got it better than the full believers--you don't accept all the beliefs and whatnot, and get to do more of your own thing, but you get to gain the community (something a la this post).

I guess the point is, orthopraxy: a double-edged sword. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Evil as a Reason to Believe?

Most people think of the problem of evil as one of the prime theological challenges facing religions throughout history.

A commenter writes on XGH, though:

There are many reasons to assume God exists -

1) why do bad things happen to good people?
2) Why do we exist?
3) what is our purpose?
4) How does something come from Quantum Soup if all there exists are laws of physics?

Ignoring 2-4 for now*, it was at first incredibly odd to me that someone cited bad things happening to good people as a reason to assume God exists. This was one of the prime arguments against religion for millennia!

But I realized how much sense that makes. One of the prime motivations for religious thinking, it seems, is to explain the universe in an ordered way. The Just World Hypothesis in social psychology states that we all have a need to view the world as ordered and just. If something bad happens to someone and we cannot help them, we will often tend to assume it must in some way be their own fault. By doing so, we keep the world ordered, and separate ourselves from the bad things that happen.

As such, while an argument from evil would be just about the worst logical argument for God ever envisioned, it gets directly to the root of the matter as an emotional argument for God.

*2 and 3, like 1, are psychological reasons we would like to assume God exists, not standalone reasons to assume God does exist. 4 is somewhat unintelligible to me as written.