Monday, October 25, 2010

Shaking someone's belief makes them stronger advocates.

It's like when you kill a baby girl in ancient China, you wouldn't feel the guilt because everyone is doing it. So why not? It becomes a norm, something so common and simple.

I read a post by Ed Yong on shaking some people's beliefs and it backfires-- instead of discouraging them, we are actually encouraging them into becoming stronger advocates of their ideas.

It's easy to find examples of people holding on to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thousands still hold to the idea that all life was created a few thousand years ago, that turning on your mobile phone at petrol kiosks could induce fire, and even that drinking industrial bleach is a good idea. Look at comment threads across the internet and you’ll inevitably find legions of people who boldly support for these ideas in the face of any rational argument.

Okay, case study:

There was an American cult leader, Dorothy Martin, who convinced her followers that flying saucers would rescue them from an apocalyptic flood. Many believed her, giving up their livelihoods, possessions and loved ones in anticipation of their alien saviours. When the fated moment came and nothing happened, the group decided that their dedication had spared the Earth from destruction. In a reversal of their earlier distaste for publicity, they started to actively evangelize their beliefs. Far from shattering their faith, the absent UFOs had turned them into zealous proselytizers.

Been there before?

Blame it on statistic? Chances?

The case study reflects the theory of “cognitive dissonance”, which describes the discomfort that people feel when they try to cope with conflicting ideas. Scientists reasoned that people will go to great lengths to reduce this conflict. Altering one’s beliefs in the face of new evidence is one solution but for Martin’s followers, this was too difficult. Their alternative was to try and muster social support for their ideas. If other people also believed, their internal conflicts would lessen.

To sum it up: you've made a mistake. So you try to find alternative explanation to reduce your guilt; god didn't like you, you ate an egg tart while fasting and so god was pissed, etc. In the process you also invite someone else to share your beliefs and so when the two of you make the mistake together, the guilt would lessen.

It's like when you kill a baby girl in ancient China, you wouldn't feel the guilt because everyone was doing it. So why not? It becomes a norm, something so common and simple.

Einstein for example, who wasn't fond of Quantum Mechanics argued that the indeterministic nature of the quantum realm is simply too difficult to comprehend. He battled fiercely against the development of quantum theory, and lost.

Einstein sucked at playing violin. But he played on. Image:
He, too was facing cognitive dissonance--when the whole scientific community was against him on quantum theory, he stood firm by his idea and didn't budge. Earlier in his life, he stood firm with his idea that the speed of light is always constant, defying the principle of Newtonian Mechanics, and when the whole world was against him, he showed superhuman determination, and that's why he is a legend today.

If you need it bad enough... you'll find a way. Image:
It's all down to human nature--sheer determination. Without it we are like helpless sheep, but an overdose could bring trouble to ourselves. We ought to fully utilize this characteristic of mankind; to complete a project on time, to pursue a career, to succeed in life, etc.

Defying all odds could mean two things: you are right, and the rest are wrong, OR they are right, and you are wrong. In Einstein's case, he was right about the speed of light, so he has every right to stand firm and snub at others. But he was wrong about quantum theory. In religion, however, we are always wrong, and the gods are always right, which is why we are mere mortals, and we always have to guess what the gods are planning for their next move. Talking about consistency and predictability...


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