Tuesday, November 18, 2008

So today was the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre

I was a kid at the time, almost a teen, and my family had just moved to the Sacramento area days before the tragic event unfolded. That was in many respects my welcome to California (Not to worry - my impressions of the state eventually improved). Since Jones was a significant figure in the Bay Area, just a couple hours west of us, the local news media was laden with Peoples Temple and Jonestown news for several day. I'm reasonably sure that the massacre (or mass murder-suicide) dominated the headlines of the Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento Union, and I can remember watching whatever news coverage was available on the networks in a box-filled apartment on a gloomy November evening.

There are some lessons that can be learned from the Peoples Temple tragedy, which can be applied not only to religious cults but also to partisan politics (and yes, even to our nationalistic tendencies):
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. 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 wasrated 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."
If I had one bit of advice to give those in the business of education, it would be to teach critical thinking skills as early as possible and as often as possible. It is precisely those skills that provide a tonic to such phenomena as confirmation bias (no guarantees, of course, but it certainly helps). As it stands now, those of us in higher education are now on the front lines in terms of sharing critical thinking skills - we get a lot of very talented young adults who are able to consume a great deal of information but have never learned how to synthesize what they've found or how to evaluate the reasoning or the evidence supporting (and more importantly, how to look for the evidence contradicting) the material they've read or heard. A friend of mine laments about how our schools are adept at creating good test-takers, but little else - and yes, that is something that has worsened since we graduated from the K-12 system about a quarter of a century ago. It also doesn't help that our youngest generations have had poor role models over the last few decades; turn on a talk show and try to find some counterfactual thinking, or thoughtful conversation as opposed to merely shouting down those holding opposing beliefs. Similarly, go to one of the gated community blogs (irrespective of its partisanship or ideological underpinnings of its administrators), and witness what happens when someone who is different happens to appear on the scene.

One last thing - before just running with the first claim that confirms your particular beliefs that you find on the web or via email, do yourself a favor and make sure that someone at snopes.com or FactCheck.org hasn't debunked it.

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