Our local news paper a ran surprising story in July 2020, a hiker found a footprint in the soil of our local mountains and believed it to be made by a Sasquatch. While the outdoorsman is “a believer,” I am not.
The surprise to me was that the newspaper even printed the story. I suspect that the editor likes to highlight local crazies as validation that he associates with a more prestigious caste. Or, maybe I’m the outlier? Maybe I’m blind to obvious evidence of a race of mammoth-like hominids roaming unseen in the hills?
I confess to nothing, but my bare size 12 feet may have left suspicious foot prints in the mud. After a little weathering they could take on a new identity. Leaving such a mark in obscure places might cause others to scratch their heads and send photos to the local newspaper.
Why is one person convinced by vague evidence and another not?
Everything is Fiction
Glenn Ostlund has a fun little podcast and book entitled “Bathing with God.” In the early episodes, Ostlund explores the idea that everything is fiction; there is no Truth. Not because our perceptions are wrong, but they are always incomplete and only meaningful within the context of our own minds. Everything that we hear, see, taste, touch, or smell must be contextualized within the scope of our unique past experiences. Since each of us have experienced life in unique ways and have absorbed different information, the “facts” we perceive may differ significantly.
Just a simple example: a child learning to add the numerals 4 and 5 may eventually learn that they total 9. Initially, the child may struggle with the abstraction of converting physical quantities to symbols and then back. The symbols may be confusing and the quantity of nine may seem like an overwhelming number of objects.
Eventually, the child may see the numeral 9 and recognize that it has more context and deeper meaning. Mentally, she might make the following associations:
- 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 are odd numbers.
- 3+3+3 = 3*3 = 9
- 9+9=18, which is the number of wheels on a semi-truck; 5 axles, 4 of which have 4 wheels each and one axle with 2. 9 wheels on each side.
- 18 is the age of my baby sitter, twice my age.
- 9 was the number on my soccer jersey last year. I love soccer.
Another child may see the numeral 9 as a backwards ‘P’ or an upside-down 6 or even the letter ‘b’. Math becomes something to be memorized and endured, but is never understood. 9 is associated with anxiety and never becomes meaningful other than the confusion associated with it.
Is the numeral 9 the same “fact” to each child?
Beginning in 1951, a psychologist by the name of Solomon Asch performed experiments to explore the effects of peer influence on bipedal lab rats (otherwise known as university students). In his test he presented participants with four lines. They were then asked questions regarding the various lengths, such as identifying the two with matching lengths, the longest, shortest, and similar relationships. Uninfluenced, the students were correct 95% of the time. However, when students were tested in a group setting with an actor planted in the group who confidently argued for a wrong answer, the accuracy dropped to 25%.
I remember being taught about this study as a young man in church. The intent was to warn us of peer pressure that could be lead us to sin. But, there is something deeper going on.
In 2005, a neuroscientist by the name of Gregory Bern set up a similar experiment to that of the lines. Participants were monitored in an fMRI machine, which maps the active areas of the brain. While the results were similar, in that people tended to conform to the wrong view of the group, the brain activity revealed disturbing information.
When the volunteers played alone, the brain scans showed activity in a network of brain regions including the occipital cortex and parietal cortex, which are associated with visual and spatial perception, and in the frontal cortex, which is associated with conscious decision-making. But when they went along with their group’s wrong answer, their brain activity … showed heightened activity in the regions associated with visual and spatial perception … suggesting that the group had somehow managed to change the individual’s perceptions.Susan Cain, Quiet, p 91
Cain goes on to observe:
These early findings suggest that groups are like minded-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too.
Most of Bern’s volunteers reported having gone long with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.
Many of our most important civic institutions, from elections to jury trials to the very idea of majority rule, depending on dissenting voices. But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think.Cain, Quiet, p 92
So, the danger is that a group may walk off the deep end of the logical pool into extreme, harmful, or unhealthy practices without recognizing it.
A complimentary point comes from David Haight in his book on moral foundation theory. He states:
when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality … .Haight, The Righteous Mind, p34
Our churches (cults) are dedicated to the codification of sacred beliefs and practices that create a common identity, naturally binding individuals to the church community. The result is a clear distinction between believers and enemies of the group, “the world.” Even the Roman emperor Constantine leveraged the formalization of Christianity to unify his empire under the banner of monotheism that gave Roman culture a unique military advantage over “the pagans.” (See Tom Holland, In The Shadow of The Sword)
You would be incorrect to think that sanctity and group think (cult-like practices) are the domain of only religion. Political parties, multi-level marketing schemes, schools, labor unions, employers, health zealots, and even The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization all employ moral foundations—even sacred values—that attract and retain members. All groups have core beliefs or principles that are “sacred,” such as some company mission statements or unstated cultural norms. Consequently, they can exhibit skewed, synchronous fictitious-truth that may become extreme and meaningless or foolish to outsiders.
So, how do we avoid undue influence from groups that we associate with? How can we foster a perception of the world that is less fiction and more “fact”?
Recalling the earlier example of the math students, which child is likely to be influenced into thinking a 9 is something different? Is it the one with a rote, inculcated “knowledge” or the one with a broader “relationship” to the numeral?
As we broaden our range of study, we add more context and experience to our world view; we position ourselves to understand and value different points of view, different “facts.” As we learn to put ourselves into the positions of other people, we are also less likely to become isolated in group-think fallacies.
Our groups (and churches) can take measures to ensure that they don’t create an echo chamber that leaves them at risk of becoming extreme or irrelevant. By the intentional inclusion of diverse viewpoints, group membership and leadership has an opportunity to similarly have a check on their resonant messages:
If you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth … .Haight, The Righteous Mind, p 104-105
Boards of directors and committees are often staffed with yes-men, because obedience and subordination are easier to manage. Building management systems that intentionally include diverse points of view is much more difficult. A token position for a “malcontent” on a board is insufficient, there has to be a real process and culture to incorporating a diversity of values and viewpoints.
Individual, lay members may have little influence in the LDS Church, especially if our individual social capital has been depleted by expressions that fall outside of the norm.
Nevertheless, we can recognize our individual authority and expand our view. We can broaden our individual perspective and avoid narrowly focusing on Bigfoot prints by reading and studying more broadly.
Many members believe themselves to be educated members of the LDS Church, but have never read or studied any religious materials except those that carry the imprimatur of the Church. Ironically, for the technical student, the place to start might be in the explorations of the sources contained in the footnotes used in church materials, such as those in the Gospel Topics Essays.
However, if you want to appreciate a spiritual perspective outside of the Mormon bubble, I would recommend a less technical start. One of my favorite little books is by Richard Rhor, Falling Upward. (I discuss it here.)