As if I had cued it with yesterday’s post about Why People Believe, particularly the final item by David Brooks, as well as the last of my four new provisional conclusions, the new issue of The New Yorker has a long review of a book by Sarah Berman called Don’t Call It a Cult. The book is about a particular cult that preyed on women, but as usual with NY’s long reviews, the writer, here Zoë Heller, explores the broader subject of the history of cults, how they form, why people are attracted to them, and the psychological understanding we can make of them.
There are mentions of several classic works in the field, including oft-cited books (though which I’ve never seen) by Leon Festinger (1956’s When Prophecy Fails, about what happened when a Midwest cult’s prediction of the end of the world failed to come true–spoiler, the true-believing core doubled-down and revised the date) and Charles Mackay’s 1841 Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which extends its cases back to witch trials and the Crusades. I mention these not just to establish the present writer’s bona fides, but to indicate that the phenomenon of cults is not merely a contemporary one; it reflects an enduring human nature.
The essay lands on a another recent book, by William J. Bernstein, The Delusions Of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups, and Bernstein’s take on these issues. Stories!
Bernstein uses the lessons of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to elucidate some of Mackay’s observations, and argues that our propensity to go nuts en masse is determined in part by a hardwired weakness for stories. “Humans understand the world through narratives,” he writes. “However much we flatter ourselves about our individual rationality, a good story, no matter how analytically deficient, lingers in the mind, resonates emotionally, and persuades more than the most dispositive facts or data.”
People engaged in cult thinking usually have to figure it out for themselves. You can’t talk them out of it; people aren’t rational.
The process by which people are eventually freed from their cult delusions rarely seems to be accelerated by the interventions of well-meaning outsiders. Those who embed themselves in a group idea learn very quickly to dismiss the skepticism of others as the foolish cant of the uninitiated. If we accept the premise that our beliefs are rooted in emotional attachments rather than in cool assessments of evidence, there is little reason to imagine that rational debate will break the spell.