Thursday, 27 December 2007

Dynamics of Fanatism

Imagine that you were in a cult. You believe that the world was going to end in 2007, and the only salvation was to believe that the mighty mothership of the Pink Invisible Unicorn would whisk you away on New Year eve, as was pre-ordained in an ancient holy text passed down by the Holy Unicorn herself.

New Year eve came. And there was no mothership. What would you do?

Rationally, you would think that is wise to reexamine your life and reassess your belief. But it is well-known that when a cult suffers from counter-evidence, it comes back stronger than ever. When cult members get setback as such, they become more fanatical.

The common explanation is cognitive dissonance: when you have given all you have to believe, you cannot possibly admit that you have made the wrong decision. You become more fanatical, more entrenched in your belief.

There is another explanation.

Imagine the same cult again. Now there are 20 members in the cult, of varying level of fanatism in belief. When the mothership fails to appear, who would be first to leave? Those who are least fanatical. Thus, the 'average fanatism' of the cult increase not because everyone suddenly became more fanatical, but because the least one left. And this increased fanaticism attracts more fanatics. And so on.

Now, for some real life applications.

University Rankings:

Consider a university that is unconcerned about quality of education and research. One that is more concerned about pleasing political masters in which reward and promotion of staff are based on connections rather than merit.

Who would be first to leave? The best lecturers. Who would remain? Those who would perpetuate the system. Quality would deteriorate. More good lecturers leave. Quality becomes worse. And so on.

Brain Drain:

Similarly, consider a country with misguided discriminatory policies that are obsessed with dividing wealth, ignoring real issues of competiveness and socio-economic inequality; without regards for merits and performance. This translates to huge incentive for the best minds and best companies to leave the country first. Situation deteriorates further, and more leave. Sounds familiar?

Racist Parties and Racial Politics:

This is the motivating example for me to write this post; the reason why the system perpetuates and becomes worse.

For now, what do you think?


(Inspired by Eliezer Yudkowsky: Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs)


Sooth said...

My friend was talking about the same thing previously about people leaving the company. I think that your example extrapolates from a smaller environment (ie the university/company) and projects it into a country wide view with the reasoning behind it as racist politics. I think while that's true in Malaysia, the discrimination doesn't necessarily have to be race based to have the same effect. Any form of discrimination can be just as effective in creating a similar situation. The self-perpetuating vicious cycle that follows is an effect from the discrimination.

However, I would like to ask in all honesty, is there such a utopia where zero discrimination exists? Not to wreck your ideals as I'm an idealist as well but recently, I've begun to reconsider many things. Humans will always have a reason to discriminate against another group if they feel that they have something to gain from it. The justifications may range from protecting their cultural heritage to religious issues but I think that behind all those facades, the real reason is always economic. Yes, humans are a hypocritical bunch. We might even lie to ourselves saying, "X people stole our business, so we should discriminate against them" or "Y people are the hated of God, so we should drive them away". But I think if we look deep enough, you can spot that the real motive (for the majority, anyway) is always economic in nature.

How can this be overcome? When all humans start to think and work for the good of humanity and discard our tribal instincts. When can we achieve this? Definitely not in my life-time. Maybe never.

On the spaceship issue:

I think the more fanatical followers will tell the rest that the others that the spaceship can only be seen once they transcend from their impure physical bodies. They then start killing off the rest of the followers that disbelieve this and try to leave before killing themselves. Morbid but didn't a similar case happen like that in real-life? Or maybe my memory is failing me and I'm confusing fact with fiction.

Chewxy said...

How dare you subscribe to the IPU!

You, who were raised in a complete wholesome family who believe in the Great Turtle in the Sky (who Ate The Pasta) subscribe to a rival religion!

yok hoong said...

to the dot and our neighbour, the little red dot which to one of our ministers is not even a country, is literally laughing all the way to the brain bank with the brain drain.

sooth, i agree that discrimination happens elsewhere. big difference is that here it is sanctioned by the STATE and is unquestionable with no time frame to dismantle the apartheid-like policy. its not good for the country in the long run but the malay masses are brainwashed by the media into believing that this discriminatory policy is their salvation. to whom it benefits except the elitists who stand to gain by plundering STATE resources via mega projects.

Tinker said...

Sooth says that: ‘Humans will always have a reason to discriminate against another group if they feel that they have something to gain from it.’ This is a classic case people acting in narrow self-interest for short term benefits and is not totally detached from reality.

However, economic theory has always over simplified human nature. To truly understand discrimination, the starting ground is not from Economics, but Psychology. As Sen argues in his book ‘identity and violence’, humans consist of myriad identities. All of us contain multitudes, the fallacy we fall into is to choose among our identities, one identity to belong to- what he calls the 'solitarist' approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group. Discrimination from the grass roots can be eliminated if we recognise the complexity of humans as learn to emphasize identities we share with others rather than those we do not. The average citizen I believe recognises this.

But perhaps the problem does not lie in the grassroot, but from the top down. As Yok Hoong points out discrimination stems from policy instruments legalised by the government to discriminate. From the policy perspective, there are only two reasons that can justify discrimination- equity and efficiency. So has the discrimination policy achieved that? I think we all know the answer to that. Thus beget the question why are the policies implaced? Perhaps the problem does not lie with discrimination among Malaysians per se but in the moral perversion of those who put the policies in place.

Open to criticism as usual.