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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Doubling Down

One of the behaviors that has been prominent in recent years is a seemingly irrational form of widespread denial over what should be uncontroversial fact. We have seen it among Covid deniers, and anti-vaxxers most recently but it is the same aberration exhibited by those who refuse to accept the outcome of the recent Presidential election and the Q’Anon faithful. Faced with seemingly incontrovertible evidence that their closely held beliefs are wrong, these believers not only remain unshaken, but to use the term of art, double down on their insistence that they are correct.

A recent article on this topic shed some further light as to the psychology behind such behavior. The story concerned a cult led by a woman who claimed to have direct contact with God. According to this woman, God had once again grown displeased with humans and intended to end the earth and all who lived on it on a date certain. Only a small number would be spared, and they would be rescued by Aliens flying a UFO. Now you may ask yourself, who in their right mind would buy into such nonsense but apparently several dozen people sold their homes and possessions, quit their jobs, and prepared themselves for the end of days. As an aside, there are some among the fringe anti—whatevers that claim we are in the end times now—citing Biblical verse as their authority. Biblical verse is a convenient thing to cite because it is often sufficiently allegorical and vague that one can assign pretty much any interpretation to support one’s views.

As events unfolded, the original date for the rescue came and went and, of course nothing occurred. You might think some members of this cult would be a bit dismayed, but you’d be wrong. The leader claimed that she had received an 11th hour revision to the date and so the group patiently awaited their rescue several days later. Again, the day came and went without rescue or for that matter any indication of God’s forthcoming wrath. In fact, the date came and went twice more until the cult leader finally announced that God had changed his mind and decided to grant humanity a reprieve.

It all sounds like some wacky comedy plot, but it wasn’t—the story is real, and the events transpired as I describe them. In a seminal paper a now famous psychologist interviewed cult members and developed an explanation that I suggest makes perfect sense of contemporary behavior. In his analysis cult members were so invested in the outcome, having in essence burnt their bridges to home, job, family, and friends that they suffered a psychological break. Instead of coming to their senses—they doubled down and became even more adamant that they had been right all along—despite a total lack of any evidence to support such belief. Does that sound familiar?

As I watch divisive rhetoric and actions play out each day, I am certain that some of it is unquestionably incited with malice and intent by various entities, including foreign agents, with the purpose of sowing internal dissent in America and fueling a chaotic social and political environment. I need not guess, it is already documented fact. No doubt there are some corporate players as well—looking to profit from disinformation, and sensationalist media as well as passionate but deluded individuals who use the bully pulpit of social media to feed lies, misinformation and quackery to a gullible populace in order to feed their narcissistic ends or delusional fantasies.

The point is that you cannot logic someone out of their beliefs—as much as we might believe, all we are likely to do is entrench those beliefs even deeper. In a perverse way, attempts to rationalize the irrational only strengthen resistance, a sure sign to resistors that they are right. I’m not sure what or even if there is a cure for this irrationality. We already know that humans are eminently capable of holding diametrically opposed thoughts in mind without apparent discomfort. The key is to know who you are dealing with—people who hear the voice of God telling them about destruction, UFOs, and Alien rescue or just people who have been subjected to a deluge of propaganda and are fearful, unable, or unwilling to see their way to reason. But do not be deceived into thinking that one day the true believers will see that they were wrong or were conned. That day will never come for the deluded.

In the words of poet Robert Burns, "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Sorting out those who are genuinely fearful or misguided from those with a pathologic intent is important. We may yet help those who are not malicious to find better answers by listening carefully to their views without condemnation and by asking their help in addressing the inevitable inconsistencies and contradictions. Without antagonism they may find their way to rationality. But avoid the incredulity and insistence on reason that too many practice in response to those who posture the irrational. In time they will be trapped in their own web as we have so sadly seen.

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