Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [2]: Cultural Belief and Mass Delusion

We think we have an independent ability to think and believe as we like, to know this or be convinced about that. But that’s not the whole story:  our outlook is also shaped by our cultural context.

As we’ve seen , when enough people agree about what is true — whether they “know” it or are “convinced” of it — their agreement becomes a cultural belief system — for example, as reflected in a religion, country, neighborhood, business, athletic team, or other institution. Cultural belief systems are wired into the neural pathways of individual members, and as the culture coalesces, its belief system takes on a life of its own thorough a process known as “emergence.” As the emergent belief system is increasingly reflected in and reinforced by cultural institutions, it is increasingly patterned into the neural pathways of the culture’s members, where it defines individual and collective reality and sense of identity,  The belief system becomes The Truth , defining what the group and its members know and are convinced of.

Throughout this process, whether the culture’s beliefs are true in any non-subjective sense loses relevance. The result is what physician and author Paul Singh refers to as “mass delusion”:

“[When a conviction moves from an individual to being widely held], its origins are rooted in a belief system rather than in an individual’s pathological condition. It is a mass delusion of the sort that poses no immediate threat to anyone or society. Mass delusions can become belief systems that are passed from generation to generation.”

The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)

For a dramatic example of this concept in action, consider an experience described by Jesse Jackson:

“There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

Despite a lifetime of civil rights leadership, Jackson’s cultural neural conditioning betrayed him. What he experienced was not just personal to him; it conformed to a cultural belief system. The particular “mass delusion” involved has been confirmed by clinical research.

“Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California, recently showed how beliefs help people’s brains categorise others and view objects as good or bad, largely unconsciously. He demonstrated that beliefs (in this case prejudice or fear) are most likely to be learned from the prevailing culture.

“When Lieberman showed a group of people photographs of expressionless black faces, he was surprised to find that the amygdala — the brain’s panic button — was triggered in almost two-thirds of cases. There was no difference in the response between black and white people.”

Where Belief Is Born, The Guardian (June 30,2005)

When cultural beliefs are not constantly reinforced — by cultural norms of thought, language, practice, etc. — the neural networks that support them can weaken, allowing opportunity for new beliefs.

“‘Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain,’ says [Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscientist at Oxford University] ‘If you challenge [beliefs] by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you’re going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other.’”

Where Belief Is Born

This helps to explain, for example, why religious believers are more likely to “fall away” if they are “out of fellowship.” Or what can happen to a student off to college, a world traveler, or an immigrant. It also helps to explain why leaders and despots alike can manipulate brain networks to create cultural belief systems to fit their desired ends:

“In her book on the history of brainwashing, Taylor describes how everyone from the Chinese thought reform camps of the last century to religious cults have used systematic methods to persuade people to change their ideas, sometimes radically.

“The mechanism Taylor describes is similar to the way the brain learns normally. In brainwashing though, the new beliefs are inserted through a much more intensified version of that process.

“The first step is to isolate a person and control what information they receive. Their former beliefs need to be challenged by creating uncertainty. New messages need to be repeated endlessly. And the whole thing needs to be done in a pressured, emotional environment.

“Stress affects the brain such that it makes people more likely to fall back on things they know well – stereotypes and simple ways of thinking,” says Taylor.

“This manipulation of belief happens every day. Politics is a fertile arena, especially in times of anxiety.”

Where Belief Is Born

More next time.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul’s letter to the Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

How did Paul know that? Why was he so convinced?

According to psychology and neuroscience, he didn’t know it, he was convinced of it. The difference reflects Cartesian dualism:  the belief that we can know things about the natural world through scientific inquiry, but in the supernatural world, truth is a matter of conviction.

Academics draw distinctions between these and other terms,[1] but in actual experience, the essence seems to be emotional content. Scientific knowledge is thought to be emotionally detached — it wears a lab coat, pours over data, expresses conclusions intellectually. It believes its conclusions, but questioning them is hardwired into scientific inquiry; science therefore must hold its truth in an open hand — all of which establish a reliable sense of what is “real.” Conviction, on the other hand, comes with heart, with a compelling sense of certainty. The emotional strength of conviction makes questioning its truth — especially religious convictions — something to be discouraged or punished.

Further, while knowledge may come with a Eureka! moment — that satisfying flash of suddenly seeing clearly — conviction often comes with a sense of being overtaken by an authority greater than ourselves — of being apprehended and humbled, left frightened and grateful for a second chance.

Consider the etymologies of conviction and convince:

conviction (n.)

mid-15c., “the proving or finding of guilt of an offense charged,” from Late Latin convictionem(nominative convictio) “proof, refutation,” noun of action from past-participle stem of convincere “to overcome decisively,” from com-, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (from nasalized form of PIE root *weik- (3) “to fight, conquer”).

Meaning “mental state of being convinced or fully persuaded” is from 1690s; that of “firm belief, a belief held as proven” is from 1841. In a religious sense, “state of being convinced one has acted in opposition to conscience, admonition of the conscience,” from 1670s.

convince (v.)

1520s, “to overcome in argument,” from Latin convincere “to overcome decisively,” from assimilated form of com-, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (from nasalized form of PIE root *weik- (3) “to fight, conquer”). Meaning “to firmly persuade or satisfy by argument or evidence” is from c. 1600. Related: Convincedconvincingconvincingly.

To convince a person is to satisfy his understanding as to the truth of a certain statement; to persuade him is, by derivation, to affect his will by motives; but it has long been used also for convince, as in Luke xx. 6, “they be persuaded that John was a prophet.” There is a marked tendency now to confine persuade to its own distinctive meaning. [Century Dictionary, 1897]

Both knowledge and conviction, and the needs they serve, are evolutionary survival skills:  we need what they give us to be safe, individually and collectively. Knowledge satisfies our need to be rational, to think clearly and logically, to distinguish this from that, to put things into dependable categories. Conviction satisfies the need to be moved, and also to be justified — to feel as though you are in good standing in the cosmology of how life is organized.

Culturally, conviction is often the source of embarrassment, guilt, and shame, all of which have a key social function — they are part of the glue that holds society together. Becoming aware that we have transgressed societal laws or behavioral norms (the “conviction of sin”) often brings not just chastisement but also remorse and relief — to ourselves and to others in our community:  we’ve been arrested, apprehended, overtaken by a corrective authority, and saved from doing further harm to ourselves and others.

Knowledge and conviction also have something else in common:  both originate in the brain’s complex tangle of neural networks:

“It is unlikely that beliefs as wide-ranging as justice, religion, prejudice or politics are simply waiting to be found in the brain as discrete networks of neurons, each encoding for something different. ‘There’s probably a whole combination of things that go together,’ says [Peter Halligan, a psychologist at Cardiff University].

“And depending on the level of significance of a belief, there could be several networks at play. Someone with strong religious beliefs, for example, might find that they are more emotionally drawn into certain discussions because they have a large number of neural networks feeding into that belief.”

Where Belief Is Born, The Guardian (June 30,2005).

And thus protected by the knowledge and convictions wired into our neural pathways, we make our way through this precarious thing called “life.”

More next time.

[1] Consider also the differences between terms like conviction and belief, and fact, opinion, belief, and prejudice.