Monday, June 4, 2012

communal reinforcement

"We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers."--Daniel Kahneman

Communal reinforcement is the process by which a claim becomes a strong belief through repeated assertion by members of a community. The process is independent of whether the claim has been properly researched or is supported by empirical data significant enough to warrant belief by reasonable people. Often, the mass media contribute to the process by uncritically supporting the claims. More often, however, the mass media provide tacit support for untested and unsupported claims by saying nothing skeptical about even the most outlandish of claims, such as that a ballroom dance instructor or a telephone operator hears clips from another dimension that are messages from ghosts.

Communal reinforcement explains how entire nations can pass on ineffable gibberish (aka religious claims about virgin births, godmen, miracles, and the like) from generation to generation. It also explains how testimonials reinforced by other testimonials within the community of therapists, psychologists, theologians, politicians, talk show hosts, etc., can supplant and be more powerful than scientific studies or accurate gathering of data by disinterested parties. When communal reinforcement joins forces with the tendency to defer to authority, the result can be deadly. Recall the history of quack "cures" or "harmless" paints laced with radioactive material that were popular in the early part of the last century. Recall also the history of the belief in and treatment of witches, as well as the belief in demonic possession and exorcism.

Communal reinforcement explains, in part, why about half of all American adults deny evolution occurred and believe that Abraham's god created the universe in six days,* that he made the first man and woman out of clay, and that a snake talked the woman into disobeying an order from Abraham's god thereby causing all our problems. Every cult leader knows the value of communal reinforcement combined with isolating cult members from contrary ideas.

If you find yourself continually praising people who agree with you and who are more articulate than you are at expressing your hatreds and criticizing and ridiculing those who disagree with you, you may be addicted to communal reinforcement, which can be a mood enhancer for people who are too lazy or brainwashed to think for themselves.


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