The Powerful Pull of Belief

By Michael Shermer

Thirty years ago in the jungles of Guyana, Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple cult, ordered the mass suicide or murder of more than 900 of his own followers by inducing them to imbibe cyanide-laced punch or by lethal injection. He had controlled nearly all information coming into the group and warned them daily that “they” (the government, imperialists, greedy capitalists, etc.) were the enemy.

So when US House Reprentative Leo Ryan and his investigative team showed up in Guyana, Jones’ followers were primed to believe that “they” were coming to destroy them and had to be stopped. After the congressman and others in his party were killed, Jones told cult members that “they” would now really come down on them, and their only choice was to move on to the next stage of life.

Although some members tried to escape (and were shot), and some members were forced to drink the poison, most got caught up in the contagion of the moment and voluntarily took their own lives and those of their children. You can hear it in the screams and voices of their final moments, captured on tape, as Jones eggs them on:

“Please. For God’s sake, let’s get on with it. … We’ve had as much of this world as you’re gonna get. … This is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide. So they’ll pay for this. They brought this upon us. And they’ll pay for that. I leave that destiny to them. … If everybody will relax. The best thing you do to relax, and you will have no problem. … Lay down your life with dignity. Don’t lay down with tears and agony. There’s nothing to death. … Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for people who are socialists or communists to die. We must die with some dignity. … Death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight. … Hurry, hurry my children. Hurry.”

Lamentably, Jonestown was not a one-time event. On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult drank a deadly concoction (and for good measure wrapped plastic bags around their heads for asphyxiation) in order to join the mother ship they believed was on its way to Earth. How can such tragedies happen?

In general, these types of belief systems are coherent and logically consistent when you are inside them. It is not until you step outside the group and gain a different reference point that the coherence and logic vanishes. This is why cults control the movements of their members and especially their access to outside information and contact with friends and loved ones in the real world. (Jones moved his group to Guyana from San Francisco.) There also are well-known social psychological effects at work in these groups – such as the loss of individuality and the compliance of behavior and conformity of thought under group pressure, along with the diffusion of individual responsibility and group think.

But there is something deeper going on here that I think touches on cognitive processes in all of us as members of non-cult groups, such as political parties: confirmation bias. This is when we look for and find evidence to support what we already believe and ignore or rationalize away evidence that does not. And because we are so tribal by nature, we employ confirmation bias with extra vigor when it comes to defending the groups we belong to. American Republicans tend to listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal, gathering data and noting arguments that support their political beliefs. Democrats are more likely to listen to progressive talk radio and NPR, surf liberal blogs and read The New York Times. Everyone does it.

Confirmation bias explains why so many rumors about candidates were eagerly embraced recently. On the left, commentators glommed onto false gossip about Sarah Palin’s ignorance (she doesn’t know that Africa is a continent) and bigotry (she tried to ban books from the public library) because liberals think that conservatives are dumb and dogmatic, and after eight years of George W. Bush’s malapropisms and Palin’s interview fumbles, such rumors merely confirmed what liberals already believed.

On the right, conservatives were primed to process hearsay about Barack Obama being a Muslim or Arab as true, or that his tax plan – indistinguishable from that of most Democratic candidates in recent decades – confirmed that he’s a socialist, even while Republicans were nationalizing the financial industry and running up record debts.

Research on confirmation bias has found that when subjects are presented with evidence that contradicts their deeply held beliefs, they dismiss it as invalid, while other subjects treat the same information as valuable when it confirms what they believe. In one study, for example, subjects were shown a video of a child taking a test. One group was told that the child was from a high socioeconomic class; the other group was told that the child was from a low socioeconomic class. The subjects were asked to evaluate the academic abilities of the child based on the results of the test. The child believed to be from the high socioeconomic group was rated as above grade level, but the child believed to be from the low socioeconomic group was rated as below grade level. Same data. Same kid. Different interpretations.

The confirmation bias sways us all, especially when it reinforces our inner tribalism. Most of us will never join a cult, but all of us are subject to the pull of believing that the evidence supports our most cherished beliefs. Inside Jonestown, Jim Jones’ daily barrages confirmed to members that their cause was right and that ultimately death would bring about peace and justice.

It is for this reason that we need to look for disconfirmatory evidence, to listen to the arguments of those with whom we disagree, to ask for constructive criticism of our beliefs and to remember Oliver Cromwell’s words to the Church of Scotland in 1650: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, is an adjunct professor in economics at Claremont Graduate University and the author of The Mind of the Market.

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