Mind Viruses and Potential Hosts

From: Reed Konsler (konslerr@mail.weston.org)
Date: Mon 10 Feb 2003 - 17:04:03 GMT

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    Human beings are social animals. Our ability to relate psychologically to dogs and wolves comes from our mutual instinctual understanding that an individual has more success in the pack than alone.

    The "prisoner's dilemma" from game theory models this situation. However, in it's simplest form, we usually see the scoring as a "fair system" in which both players receive equal benefits and penalties. The principle at the core of the game is the same in circumstances where the payoffs are not equal. In most real situations the payoff for various members of a social institution is not equal. Dominant individuals receive greater benefits and suffer milder setbacks than lower ranked individuals. And yet, even under these circumstances, it is usually better for the lowest ranks to be within the hierarchy as opposed to outside it.

    Every human institution is structured on this basis: governments, businesses, religions, education. The complexity of modern life that our instincts have not prepared us for is the vast number of different organizations that we are either compelled or given the opportunity to join. Unlike our ancestors, we are no longer simply members of family and tribe but also church, state, company, school and listserv.

    People value those hierarchies which they rise in.

    Atheists tend to be people who consider themselves relatively more intellectual. People of faith tend to think of themselves as more disciplined and moral. Accomplished businesspeople are more cunning and industrious in their own eyes. People who become teachers were usually good students. In a sense, those are all cults.

    People value what they are good at and look for organizations and ideologies where those talents lead to dominant positions. Academics or Amway, there isn't a difference.

    When thinking about organizations it's easy to focus on the structure and not the individuals. Except in circumstances of almost complete isolation
    (the Amish come to mind) most modern people have many options. We can think about how an organization entices and how it treats it's members once they are within. But, a more interesting question might be: what type of person would join a "cult" anyway?

    How do you decide what groups to be a member of? I think most people watch what happens to the people around them. If your father was a minister then you'll probably be faithful. It might be because you were indoctrinated. But, it might be because you were the child of a person of high status (and thus high status yourself) within the organization. If your mother was a professor at MIT and your father a Doctor teaching at Harvard Med then you might be desperate to do well in school because you have been inculcated with the proper values. Or, it could be status seeking inside a familiar hierarchy.

    In blighted areas of America's cities it's hard to convince black children that excelling school is better than drug dealing and gangs. Members of the community find few examples of successful graduates. It might be because those people have the wrong values. Or, they might have the right ones, at least the ones we all share.

    So, what kind of person joins a cult? Who would sell all their possessions, leave friends and family, and focus all their energy into an organization with a nonexistent or questionable track record? Several incidents of sexual abuse and cover-ups have lead many Catholics to question or even abandon a faith with two thousand years of history in which they were probably raised from birth. A bad season could result in attendance at local sporting events dropping by half or more. Most people seem relatively assiduous in choosing organizations in which they can feel like winners and avoiding the opposite.

    Why do people make these decisions which, from the outside, seem so obviously self destructive?

    I propose that focusing on the individual psychology might be enlightening. For instance, I hypothesize that people joining cults feel estranged from their families (whatever the members of the families may claim). They have few or no close long term relationships with friends or lovers and no circle of friends. They weren't fraternity members and probably don't play poker with the guys every weekend. They may have recently moved to a new city. Their work doesn't interest them and they don't feel involved in their church (even though they might go through the motions in each). In short they are isolated from the stable organizations that most people devote their energy to.

    Under such circumstances joining an unknown organization might seem relatively advantageous.

    In times of instability when old institutions falter membership in new organizations should see an increase.



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