Friday, January 20, 2012

Kill the sucker!

From time to time I’ve written about the related matters of dogma, close mindedness, delusion and bias. My observations ordinarily struck a general tone but in light of the current Republican presidential debates I want to draw attention to how this psychology works specifically and I’ll use the hackneyed cliché of being dug in to illustrate the point.

That expression (dug in) creates a visual image that is instructive. Imagine a person who is persuaded that something of value lies buried beneath the surface. They are so convinced they begin digging a hole to find it. As they dig others come along who share the same conviction and become cheerleaders of their digging. The more they dig, the more energy they expend and the deeper the hole becomes. While they are digging a non-cheerleader comes along and discovers the object being sought in another location and goes to share their discovery with the digger and their supporters. By this time the hole is very deep and the digger has so invested them self in the ideology that their hole alone contains the treasure that they are not open to the discovery and the same is true of the cheerleaders. What do they do in response? Kill the messenger.

Why are they not able or willing to stop digging and accept the truth? Because they have a vested interest in being right. The truth is sacrificed on the alter of egotistically driven righteousness and to them this is far more valuable than the sought-for treasure. Such people are blinded by that desire and see only what reinforces their dug in positions. And this same psychology infects the cheerleaders because they too have a surrogate vested interest.

Groupthink is the handle given to this form of delusion. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University, did the original research of this phenomenon but long before Janis the constructive elements were observed by the Buddha and recorded in the Nipata Sutra. He was asked a question, “What is that smothers the world? What makes the world so hard to see? What would you say pollutes the world and threatens it the most”? And he answered, “It is ignorance which smothers” the Buddha replied, “and it heedlessness and greed which make the world invisible. The hunger of desire pollutes the world, and the great source of fear is the pain of suffering.”

Hum. Apparently groupthink has a very long history but remains live and well right into the Republican presidential debates. It is quite surprising to see (why should I be surprised?) entire audiences (cheerleaders) give standing ovations to digger Gingrich who is proving himself as a practiced charlatan, able with jujitsu skill, to kill the messenger rather than address a message that threatens to reveal his empty hole.
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