Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Is Zealotry a Natural Tendency

I think most people agree that certain people have a propensity for extremes. If one assumes a normal distribution for human conditions, this is a logical conclusion. However, is it just whacko’s that go to extremes, or are there equivalent outlets for zealotism that are considered normal? If this is the case, a large part of what we consider cultish behavior can be seen as just belonging to the wrong group. (note zealotism as I am using it is quite different from the KJ scriptural usage. I am equating it with an obsessive compulsive behaviour that excludes other important things. Also, I couldn’t find a better word – feel free to replace it with the word you prefer to negatively describe extreme, manic conviction)

I think a typical view of zealotry involves the following considerations
1. Propensity for zealot behaviour follows a normal distribution.
2. The degree to which human institutions encourage or actualize zealotism follows a normal distribution.
3. Most of what we consider cultish occurs at the coincidence of these two extremes.

But what if instead of only worrying about extremes institutions, we suppose that almost everyone is naturally disposed to zealotry. In other words, it is not just 5% of the population who are zealots, it is 95%. We only recognize 5% zealotry because behaviours are expressed in venues to which the majority do not belong. In other words, most people are zealots, however, the usual way it is expressed is so common it goes unrecognized.

If this theory is to be tested, the following need to be analyzed:
A1. What are the social characteristics of zealots
A2. What are the characteristics of a zealot actualizing institution (most easily observed through a look at cults)
A3. To what kind of zealot behaviour do humans have a natural propensity
A4. What are mainstream institutions that actualize these tendencies

This then leads to the useful discussion, why is that everyday zealotism not recognized?

When we talk of zealots we usually think of members of extreme cults such as the Branch Davidians, the Moonies, etc. Behaviour usually includes the following
B1. a world view created around a single tenet
B2. a willingness to suspend disbelief
B3. a strong tendency to follow a powerful leader,
B4. desire for legalistic requirements that lead to clear expectations
B5. addictive behaviour that becomes manic

Now perhaps 4 is unnecessary. With 5, it certainly does impose a behaviourist interpretation on cultish zealots that may be unwarranted. However, most anti-cult deprogramming certainly do seem to use behavioural psychology as tool. Perhaps this is due to the fact that addicts (like gamblers, drug users, and cult members) tend to be susceptible to behavioural modification. Hence a good explanation for the initial addiction.

Institutions that foster the previous characteristics can probably be boiled down to doing the following things
C1. encouraging more involvement
C2. rewarding correct involvement while punishing incorrect involvement or exodus
C3. elevating the worth of members while negating that of non-members
C4. providing intermittent rewards (more commitment leads to more secret knowledge, or higher positions, etc)

Again a behaviourist would find many of these the hallmarks of operant conditioning. The degree to which institutions encourage zealotism is, of course, related to the degree to which these fours points(or any others that can be imagined) are enforced. And of course as individuals, different people respond to varying degrees to each point. However, there are common human traits that make us susceptible, to one degree or another, to all of these characteristics.

As a pack animals, humans have developed certain behavioural characteristics that allow them to function as a group without killing each other, well for the most part. As we can see in our interaction with pack animals like dogs, there are certain behaviours that are required:
D1. a common group agenda
D2. a leader
D3. hierarchy and acquiescence to a leader
D4. suppression of individual needs for group needs
D5. group rewards

Some may argue that people do not really need a common group agenda. I would argue that this trait is inherit in any pack hunter. From an evolutionary viewpoint, packs arise because they are able to get more resources than a non-pack. This does not change if the resources sought have changed to more than food. If there is no reason to belong to a pack, then one would not belong to a pack. There will always be a motivation for belonging. If pack structure is an inherit trait, its characteristics will continue to surface unless there has been evolutionary pressure that has caused them to go extinct.

A comparison between inherit human tendencies (D1-D5) and characteristics of cultish zealots (B1-B5) leads to some interesting conclusions. The only point that is initially similar is B3, the desire to follow a strong leader. However, I would say that D4, the suppression of individual needs for group needs, facilitates B2. Intelligent animals that follow a pack will always experience some degree of conflict between what they think is best, and what the pack thinks is best. I am not sure how this is possible unless there is some tendency to suspend belief. In other words, I am sure that what the pack is doing is wrong, however…. they have been right before… it may be more important to stay with them than to leave over this…. I will get more out of it in the end… etc. If this rationalization occurs frequently the caveats may become less overt.

Continual suspension of individual needs to group needs also leads to focus on a single ideal. For pack animals like wolves, we often assume most everything revolves around food. For intelligent animals like us, it is possible to substitute the role of food for something more abstract. Usually this abstraction must be fairly narrow. Perhaps it is a goal like eternal bliss, redemption, etc. Something that can encompass a broad enough base that most things in life are seen to, or used to support it.

A desire for legalistic type expectations would seem to be a natural way for a pack animal to determine if their behaviour is acceptable. Packs do not function if every animal is operating on a unique code of conduct. There must be universally approved ways to relate and communicate. The more one can master the intricacies of this communication, the more they are able to ingratiate themselves within the pack. How much of our dogs’ behaviours are their training us instead of the other way around? I think a natural pack hierarchy only re-enforces the desire to understand the rules.

Manic behaviour is tougher to relate to our pack origins. We know that pack animals that are expelled from the group become depressed. For instance monkeys often go into sever depression when isolated. Intelligent dogs go crazy if left alone for too long. Perhaps for some people, the thought of being removed from their group creates a tension similar to the actual removal. For instance, for many people, thinking about writing a test is at least as bad as actually writing it.

I figure I should post this, even though I still haven’t gotten to the main point. Hopefully the ground work should make the conclusion pretty obvious. Perhaps in a day or so I will get the other half up, and go back and polish up this rough beginning. Ideally I will be showing that cults are defined by degree. If this is the case it is very hard to argue that the things to which we belong are not cultish because degree is always set by our frame of reference.