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.

What Iconoclast.blog Is About

icono1

I’ve spent the past ten years writing books, blogs, and articles on technology, jobs, economics, law, personal growth, cultural transformation, psychology, neurology, fitness and health… all sprinkled with futurism. In all those seemingly unrelated topics, I’ve been drawn to a common theme:  change. One lesson stands out:

Beliefs create who we are individually and collectively.
The first step of change is to be aware of them.
The second step is to leave them behind.

Beliefs inform personal and collective identity, establish perspective, explain biases, screen out inconsistent information, attract conforming experience, deflect non-conforming information and experience, and make decisions for us that we only rationalize in hindsight.

Those things are useful:  they tame the wild and advance civilization, help us locate our bewildered selves and draw us into protective communities. We need that to survive and thrive.  But they can be too much of a good thing. They make us willfully blind, show us only what we will see and hide what we won’t. They build our silos, sort us into polarities, close our minds, cut us off from compassion, empathy, and meaningful discourse.

Faced with the prospect of change, beliefs guard status quo against the possibility that something else is possible — which is precisely what we have to believe if we’re after change. Trouble is, to believe just that much threatens all our other beliefs. Which means that, if we want something else,

We need to become iconoclasts.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “iconoclast” originally meant “breaker or destroyer of images,” originally referring to religious zealots who vandalized icons in Catholic and Orthodox churches because they were “idols.” Later, the meaning was broadened to “one who attacks orthodox beliefs or cherished institutions.”

Our beliefs are reflected, transmitted, and reinforced in our religious, national, economic, and other cultural institutions. These become our icons, and we cherish them, invest them with great dignity, revere them as divine, respect them as Truth with a capital T, and fear their wrath if we neglect or resist them. We confer otherworldly status on them, treat them as handed down from an untouchable level of reality that supersedes our personal agency and self-efficacy. We devote ourselves to them, grant them unquestioned allegiance, and chastise those who don’t bow to them alongside us.

Doing that, we forget that our icons only exist because they were created out of belief in the first place. In the beginning, we made them up. From there, they evolved with us. To now and then examine, challenge, and reconfigure them and the institutions that sustain them is an act of creative empowerment — one of the highest and most difficult gifts of being human.

Change often begins when that still small voice pipes up and says, “Maybe not. Maybe something else is possible.” We are practiced in ignoring it; to become an iconoclast requires that we listen, and question the icons that warn us not to. From there, thinking back to the word’s origins, I like “challenge” better than “attack.”  I’m not an attacker by nature, I’m an essayist — a reflective, slow thinker who weighs things and tries to make sense of them. I’m especially not a debater or an evangelist — I’m not out to convince or convert anyone, and besides, I lack the quick-thinking mental skill set.

I’m also not an anarchist, libertarian, revolutionary… not even a wannabe Star Wars rebel hero, cool as that sounds. I was old enough in the 60’s to party at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but then it failed like all the other botched utopias — exposed as one more bogus roadmap claiming to chart the way back to the Garden.

Sorry, but the Garden has been closed for a long, long time.

garden closed

A friend used to roll his eyes and say, “Some open minds ought to close for business.” Becoming an iconoclast requires enough open-mindedness to suspend status quo long enough to consider that something else is possible. That’s not easy, but it is the essential beginning of change, and it can be done.

Change needs us to be okay with changing our minds.

All the above is what I had in mind when I created Iconoclast.blog. I am aware of its obvious potential for inviting scoffing on a good day, embarrassment and shaming on a worse, and vituperation, viciousness, trolling, and general spam and nastiness on the worst. (Which is why I disabled comments on the blog, and instead set up a Facebook page that offers ample raving opportunity.) Despite those risks, I plan to pick up some cherished icons and wonder out loud what might be possible in their absence. . If you’re inclined to join me, then please click the follow button for email delivery, or follow the blog on Facebook. I would enjoy the company.

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