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Books about cults.

Review 147: When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter

You’re a good person, right? Of course you are, I never doubted it for a moment. We all like to think were good people – fair, honest, generous, all that. Very few people, if asked, would say, “Well, I’m a right bastard and I don’t care who knows it!”

So imagine that you – a good person – do something bad. Genuinely bad. You cheat on your spouse. You lie to a friend. You steal from your boss. You commit an act which, if someone else did it, you would roundly condemn them, forcing them into public shame and ignominy. What kind of heel, what kind of cad, what kind of a bastard would do such a thing?

Well, you, as it turns out.

Now you have a problem. The vision of you that you carry in your head – the good, honest, kind, humble (let’s not forget humble) person – directly conflicts with the nasty, dishonest thing that you have just done. They’re grossly dissonant views, and there is no room for both of them in your head. So what do you do?

Your first option is to reduce your opinion of yourself. Maybe you’re not that good a person. Maybe you are a bit of a dick. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, you’re just a jerk who knows how to hide it. That right there is some painful truth, and very few people are willing to face up to it.

So you turn to your other option: justify what you did. The spouse you cheated on? Well, maybe if they paid a little more attention to you,you wouldn’t have to do it. The friend you lied to? Well, was he honest about that “business trip” that made him miss your annual Memorial Day Meatapalooza Barbecue? Hell, no. He was “in the hospital,” visiting “his sick mother.” As for work, well if your boss actually paid you what you were worth, you wouldn’t need to steal from the register.

You rationalize what just happened, which allows you to not only move on with your life, but paves the way for similar actions in the future, making it that much easier to cheat, lie, and steal the next time.

Welcome to cognitive dissonance.

The classical view of humankind was that we were, ultimately, rational animals. That if you show a person sufficient evidence, that person will alter his opinion accordingly. So, under that model, our Imaginary You ™ would admit to your inherent badness when confronted with the evidence if your misdeeds.

Well, I can't argue with that. Light 'em up!

In the 20th century, however, psychologists were noticing that this wasn’t true at all. In fact, in a lot of cases the direct disconfirmation of a belief merely made that belief stronger. Show a smoker data on how dangerous cigarettes are, and she’ll tell you that they help her relax, or they only take off the bad years at the end. Show a climate change denier data on the warming of the planet, and you know who you’ll hear from only minutes after the first snowfall of the season.

Humans, as it turned out, were a lot less rational than we had suspected. By being able to hold two thoughts in our minds that are mutually incompatible, we set ourselves up for mental disaster, and the only way out is to fool ourselves.

In the mid 1950s, the authors of this book were looking into this phenomenon, especially as it applied to groups and millennialism – the belief that the world is rapidly in danger of ending. They looked at various historical examples, such as the early Christian church, who believed that Jesus’ return was right around the corner, the Anabaptists of the 16th century, the followers of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century and the Millerites of the nineteenth. They all believed that the end of the world was at hand, they all collected groups of followers who believed wholeheartedly that they were right, and they were all, without exception, wrong. Despite that, not only were they not swayed from their beliefs, they actually became more convinced that they were, ultimately, right.

What could account for such patently irrational behavior? Festinger and his partners believed they knew what it was, and set out five simple conditions under which the phenomenon could arise. In brief:

The monkeys in my head tell me you're CRAZY!

1. The believer must believe implicitly and that belief must have an effect on how he or she behaves.
2. The believer must have committed him or herself to the belief, performing actions that are difficult or impossible to undo. For example, giving away all their money, quitting their job, etc.
3. The belief must be specific, related to the real world, and able to be proven unequivocally wrong.
4. Evidence disconfirming the belief must occur, must be undeniable, and must be recognized by the believer
5. (and most important) The believer must have social support for his or her belief system.

Under these conditions, Festinger hypothesized, not only would a person persist in their belief, but they would become more convinced, and likely try to convert more followers. After all, if more people believe that you’re right, then maybe you are.

But how to test it out? Their best cases, after all, were at least a hundred years gone, and time travel hadn’t been invented yet. Fortunately, they got wind of a group of UFO believers who held that the earth was going to be ravaged by floods and that aliens would rescue the faithful to make them the new enlightened rulers of the species. Led by a woman out of Chicago who was receiving messages through automatic writing, this group held that the event would take place before dawn on December 21, 1954.

Knowing a good chance when they saw one, Festinger and his colleagues managed to infiltrate the group and observe their progress, attitudes and beliefs up to, during, and after the event that never happened. In the book, they go through the timeline and touch on all the major players – names changed to protect the innocent, of course – and watched to see if their hypothesis would hold. Would the media-shy Mrs. Keech do an about-face once the disaster didn’t show? What would happen to people like Dr. Armstrong, who sacrificed his job and his good name in order to assure that he would be picked up by the aliens? How would the group handle predictions that never came true, follow orders that never worked out, and rationalize this fundamentally irrational behavior?

They're here! They're here! They're... No, wait. They're not.

The study does have some fairly glaring flaws, which the authors themselves point out in the epilogue. For one, they had barely enough time to get involved with the group, and gaining entry was a matter of brute force more than finesse. For another, it was almost impossible not to influence the group. Observers were taken as believers, and expected to act as such. Acting undercover, they couldn’t record meetings or, in many cases, take notes until after the fact. Any meeting with the academics had to be carefully arranged so as not to blow their cover, and the long hours, erratic schedule and generally high tension of the group made being an academic double agent very difficult indeed.

Despite that, Festinger and his group present a textbook case of group cognitive dissonance that follows the pattern they expected it to. Believers who met all five criteria were much more likely to seek out new believers than the ones who, for example, were not with the group when the world didn’t end.

Of course, the reason I picked up the book was because of the May 21, 2011 Rapture prediction by Harold Camping. He had the Rapture scheduled down to the minute, and had attracted followers who met the initial criteria set out by Festinger more than fifty years ago. Sure enough, when the Big Day came and went, Camping and his followers kept to the script. They saw that the Rapture hadn’t come, then revised their predictions and went out looking for people to convince.

More interestingly, though, is how this can apply to other group dynamics. It can be applied to political parties, regional differences, racial differences, bigotry of every flavor and color. It can be connected to celebrity worship and religious fervor, to economic theories, institutional groupthink and scientific biases. Almost any common belief that can gather a crowd is an open invitation to Festinger’s five criteria. Look at people who cling to the belief that organic food is inherently better than conventional food. Adherents to market capitalism, homeopathy, religions of every size and shape. The antivaxxers, conspiracy theorists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Wall Street Occupiers, Klansmen, environmentalists, educators…. I could go on all day.

So what does this do for us, other than make us skeptical of anything that more than five people believe at a time? Just that: it keeps us skeptical. When you know what to look for, you can figure out who is likely to be persuaded by reason and who is not. You know who is a valid source of information and who is not. You know who you want to trust, and who you do not.

Most importantly, it allows you to check yourself, to see if you’re being as skeptical as you should be. None of us are exempt from this little psychological phenomenon, but we are all equipped with the ability to deal with it properly. Let Mrs. Keech and her UFO cult serve as an object lesson.

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“When you stop and think of it, it seems rather cruel to drown all these people just to teach them a lesson, doesn’t it? The way to teach people a lesson, or the way to educate people is to educate them slowly; you can’t educate them with one big jolt. And it seems rather silly to drown people and hope to educate them in the astral life. It doesn’t seem very logical, does it?”
“Fred Purden”, in When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails on Wikipedia
Leon Festinger on Wikipedia
Stanley Schachter on Wikipedia
When Prophecy Fails on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, cults, disaster, Henry W. Riecken, Leon Festinger, nonfiction, psychology, skepticism, Stanley Schachter, UFOs

Review 43: Underground

Underground – The Tokyo Gas Attack & the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

On March 20, 1995, in the middle of the morning rush hour, the Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed a terrorist attack on the subways of Tokyo. Five men on five different trains unleashed sarin gas in the subway system, which shut down most of the city, injured at least 5,000 people, and left 12 dead. It was the single worst attack on Japan since the end of World War Two, and it gripped the nation.

I remember hearing about this, but I don’t remember giving it too much attention – I mean, when was I ever going to have to know much about Japan, right? In the light of our own terrorist woes in the US, I wish I had.

Haruki Murakami is best known for being a fiction writer. I’ve read a few of his books, and they’re all really interesting. He has a very strange mind, and he’s a good enough writer that he can often successfully avoid giving his characters names, something that still surprises me. This time, however, he decided to turn his hand to non-fiction, chronicling the events of what was a shocking blow to his home country.

In his introduction to this book, he explains why he decided to write it. Like many people, he heard about the attacks while he was living abroad, and thought, “Oh, that’s terrible.” And then he tried to put it out of his mind. But it wouldn’t stay there. A woman had written a letter to a magazine about her husband. He had been on the subway that morning, and had been injured by the sarin. His injuries had impaired him to the point where he had been forced to quit his job. Not only because of the physical effects of being gassed, but also because he had become an outcast at work. People would look at him and whisper about the “weirdo” who had been on the subway that day. He was, probably, a reminder of what people wanted to forget. He had, by no will of his own, become an outsider, and that pressure led him to quit his job – what Murakami calls a “double violence.” First by the sarin, then by Japan.

From that point, Murakami took to wondering what really happened to people that morning. Not what the newspapers and TV said, but the stories of the people who had actually been on the trains.

So he began taking interviews. Of the hundreds he contacted, he got a total of 60 people to agree to talk to him. This is definitely a huge difference between Japanese and Americans. After September 11th, I’m sure people were falling all over themselves to tell their stories, or to talk about their dead friends and relatives.

In Japan, people were eager to forget. They didn’t want this nosy journalist stirring things up again. It’s easier to put things in the past, to say, “It can’t be helped” and go on with one’s life.

Fortunately for us, Murakami got some people to talk, and for that we have this book.

He divides the stories into subway lines and stations, and it’s interesting to see how peoples’ stories are slightly different at times, where one interviewee and another interacted. He gives the histories of people, and provides a narrative of what was happening to people on that morning – where they were going, what they were doing and thinking, and how they felt. Some people thought they were sick, others thought that some kind of cleaning fluid had splashed. A few guessed that it was an attack.

Some of the best stories come from the station personnel. So far, my experience with the guys in the uniforms who run the stations is that they all say “Arigatou gozaimas” whenever you put your ticket through the gate. These guys, though, had to take charge of a subway system that was under attack by an odorless, invisible weapon, without knowing who had done it or why. Unlike firemen or policemen, these guys had to deal with a situation for which they had likely never been trained.

The civilian stories are also fascinating, as they tell how they tried to help, and they vented their frustration with the lack of help. They talked about what they were thinking as the symptoms set in – dimming of vision, nausea, lack of coordination…. One interesting commonality is how many people kept trying to go to work. They put down their symptoms to any number of garden-variety maladies – anemia, lack of a proper breakfast, general stress. Half-blind, unable to walk straight, many of them still made it to their workplaces, not knowing the danger they were in until they heard about sarin on the news.

Sarin is a nerve gas, originally designed by Nazis, it is one of the most powerful gasses out there. Iraq used it to great effect against Iran in the 80s, and could well still have some floating around. According to the translator’s notes, a drop of sarin the size of a pinhead is enough to kill a person.

The cult members who set this thing off had liters of the stuff. Fortunately, they cut it with another liquid (and even pure sarin doesn’t evaporate well) which cut its lethality. Somewhat.

Perhaps the tiny number of fatalities – 12 – were due to the lower potency of the gas. It certainly wasn’t because the Tokyo or Japanese governments were any good at dealing with disasters. Interviews with doctors at local hospitals talked about the utter confusion that ensued after the attacks. None of them were briefed on the situation, they didn’t know what kind of gas had been used, and therefore couldn’t treat it properly. Worse yet, in some cases, they didn’t even know it was a gas. In some hospitals, sarin victims were admitted to the emergency rooms, where the sarin in their clothes began affecting the ER nurses and doctors.

They figured it was probably cyanide. One doctor, who had happened to have been at a seminar on a previous sarin attack in Japan, recognized the symptoms of sarin poisoning and faxed the information around the city’s hospitals, apparently a very unusual act by a doctor in Japan. Like many organizations in Japan, hospitals are loathe to share information without going through the proper channels, even in an event such as this. But this fits into the Japanese mind-set as well: to take such initiative is to invite criticism. Should the decision be the wrong one, it would bring shame down on everyone involved. Thankfully there were some people whose minds were more concerned with saving lives than saving face. Not enough, though. The Tokyo Bureau of Health didn’t chime in until 5:00 PM, nearly eight hours after the attack.

One doctor claims that the only reason so few people died was because of the efforts of individual doctors and paramedics. The official organizations were more or less useless, much like they were after the Kobe earthquake in 1992.

However it happened, the death toll was kept low, but the effects lingered on. Sarin has long-lasting physical effects, weakening the victim for years to come. Even more, there were the psychological effects that come with any event of mass terrorism.

I saw an article in an Australian magazine which interviewed some people who had been photographed during the burning and destruction of the World Trade Center. None of them were happy, none of them were leading good lives. Months later, the attack still lingered in their minds and their lives, effectively continued on. The same was, and probably is, true in Japan after the Tokyo subway attack.

After the publication of the first edition, Murkami decided that he had a few more interviews to do. It’s one thing to know what happened to the victims, but one also has to wonder: Why would anyone do such a thing?

So he went to interview current and former members of the Aum cult, and find out why they joined, what attraction the cult held for them, and what they knew of the cult’s plans. After the attacks, most of the Japanese media were treating Aum simply as “The Enemy,” a faceless group whose members were, in the grand Japanese tradition, not individuals but simply facets of the whole.

Aum, under its leader, Asahara, worked like most cults do: They recruited people with doubts, misgivings and unreconciled views of the world. Many of the people Murakami interviewed were highly intelligent people who felt, from childhood, that the world they lived in made no sense to them. Others were lost, confused, who felt unhinged and disconnected. Such people are classic candidates for cults, and Aum took them in.

In Aum, they tell Murakami, there was no fear of responsibility, no worries about their choices for the future, because their future was preordained. If anything bad happened, it was just bad karma falling away. For some, Aum was just a new way to look at life, a new way to go through life that offered less uncertainty and pain than conventional life.

For others, though, it was a political movement. It was a group whose goals could be achieved by murder, both individual and mass. The interviews are interesting, because you can understand why the lifestyle of Aum might be attractive to people, if not very practical.

Murakami wanted to point out, by interviewing the Aum members, that this cult didn’t appear out of nowhere. It arose in Japan, made up of Japanese men and women. It was a reaction to Japanese society, a signal of the illnesses that permeate it. It was not, and should never have been treated as, something separate.

There’s not a lot of judgment in this book, as that was not Murakami’s goal. He did what he set out to do – tell the stories of people who had been there, who had experienced the terrors of the sarin attack. It’s always interesting to hear real stories, and always good.

One has to wonder, though…. Terrorism is not all bombs and airplanes and Arabs. These terrorists – and they do fit the bill – were people who looked like everyone else, men in suits, carrying briefcases and a newspaper-wrapped bundle each. No one would have given them a second thought.

Could this happen in America? Probably. We still haven’t found whoever was mailing the anthrax around, at least not at the writing of this review. It would be very possible for a group of men to board the subways in New York at rush hour, gather their resolve, and unleash an attack at least as destructive as the World Trade Center attack was. And the answer isn’t “More Security” – that’s closing the barn doors after the horses have not only left, but they’ve started their own fertilizer reprocessing plant and planned to blow up the Kentucky Derby. The interviews in this book suggest that terrorism is a societal issue, not a security one. If we want to stop people from doing violence to us, we need to find out what drives them to do so. Remember: the majority of terrorist acts carried out in the United States were not done by al-Qaeda. They were done by Americans, just as the Tokyo attacks were done by Japanese.

No matter what our politicians and police tell us, we’re never completely safe. Japan learned that in ’95. We need to learn it as well.

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“We need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re not disadvantaged; they’re not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives (and maybe, from the outside, more than average lives) who live in my neighborhood. And in yours.

“Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there’s some pain they’re carrying around inside. They’re not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can’t find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you.”
– Haruki Murakami, Underground
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Haruki Murakami at Wikipedia
Underground at Wikipedia
Tokyo sarin gas attack on Wikipedia
Aum Shinrikyo on Wikipedia
Haruki Murakami’s website
Underground at Amazon.com

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Filed under cults, Haruki Murakami, history, Japan, nonfiction, society, terrorism, Tokyo