Contrasting Contrarians

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach … gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change. The early meetings were stormy. “You oughta worship me, I’ll tell you that!” one of the Christs yelled. “I will not worship you! You’re a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts!” another snapped back. “No two men are Jesus Christs. … I am the Good Lord!” the third interjected, barely concealing his anger. …

Very little seems to shift the identities of the self-appointed Messiahs. They debate, argue, at one point come to blows, but show few signs that their beliefs have become any less intense. Only Leon seems to waver, eventually asking to be addressed as “Dr Righteous Idealed Dung” instead of his previous moniker of “Dr Domino dominorum et Rex rexarum, Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor, reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Rokeach interprets this more as an attempt to avoid conflict than a reflection of any genuine identity change. The Christs explain one another’s claims to divinity in predictably idiosyncratic ways: Clyde, an elderly gentleman, declares that his companions are, in fact, dead, and that it is the “machines” inside them that produce their false claims, while the other two explain the contradiction by noting that their companions are “crazy” or “duped” or that they don’t really mean what they say. …

Whether scientist or psychiatric patient, we assume others are more likely to be biased or misled than we are, and we take for granted that our own beliefs are based on sound reasoning and observation. This may be the nearest we can get to revelation—the understanding that our most cherished beliefs could be wrong. (more)

Political and religious groups often save their strongest antagonism for groups with similar but a bit different positions. (Think “Judea People’s Front” vs. “People’s Front of Judea.”)  Similarly, contrarian groups tend to be made most uncomfortable not by exposure to mainstream authorities that disagree, but by exposure to other contrarian groups that look similar from a distance, but who have unpalatable beliefs.

For example, contrarians with academic support are happy to discount the non-academic majority, while contrarians opposed by academics are happy to say academics are clueless.  But contrarians with academic support are made uncomfortable by other unpalatable contrarians who also have academic support.

So to help you question your contrarian beliefs, look for other contrarian groups that look similar from a distance, with beliefs you are reluctant to endorse.  Look for groups with similar members or leaders, i.e., similar age, gender, income, academic credentials, tech-orientation, political leaning, years devoted to topic, etc.  If you can’t swallow their beliefs, you’ll have to admit you can’t attribute their mistake to such features.

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  • Dirk

    Is this your indirect way of addressing Mencius Moldbug’s recent post about you?

    http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2010/06/three-homeworks-for-professor-hanson.html

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny

    along similar lines:

    …disagreeableness might be a personality trait that creates a kind of complicated social situation–if people tend to be attracted to similar people, and some people tend to be disagreeable, then it seems disagreeable people might be inclined to congregate, but by their nature, they don’t like to work with others, harmonize, et c.–in other words, they might be attracted to other disagreeable types, and then also they have a drive to disagree with those like them…while agreeable people I would imagine tend towards greater and greater ecumenism, disagreeable people divide and divide and divide until they’re a bunch of Junger-esque anarchs disagreeably pursuing their own solitary paths…

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Who is your contrasting contrarian?

    Off-topic, but Mencius has finally replied to your criticism about relying too much on philosophy. A lot of it is rambling and recommendations to read old books, but there is also reference to specific points you make.

  • mjgeddes

    Well what about the Singularitarians? Here you have a group of people each convinced they are ‘the saviour of the universe’. All these folks can’t be right.

    Go the SIAI school and you have a whole group of people apparently convinced they are me. Definitely some serious indexical mix-ups going on there.

    • http://www.iki.fi/aleksei Aleksei Riikonen

      Well what about the Singularitarians? Here you have a group of people each convinced they are ‘the saviour of the universe’. All these folks can’t be right.

      Go the SIAI school and you have a whole group of people apparently convinced they are me.

      Am I understanding you correctly, that you think you are the savior of the universe?

      (Besides this possibility, I don’t know anyone convinced that they would be. Some SIAI folks think that *someone* needs to do certain things for there to be a good chance for a positive future, and are personally putting effort towards doing the things they see as necessary, but they aren’t at all convinced that they’ll succeed in what they’re trying to do.)

    • Roko

      No, dammit! I’m the real Marc Geddes!

  • James D. Miller

    You expel infidels but burn heretics.

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  • J. Daniel Wright

    To your point

    “Political and religious groups often save their strongest antagonism for groups with similar but a bit different positions. (Think “Judea People’s Front” vs. “People’s Front of Judea.”)

    , Southpark really nails this point in a three-part episode, “Go God Go”. In it, three atheist groups are at war over the most logical name to give their organizations: the Unified Atheists League, Allied Atheist Allegiance, or United Atheist Alliance.

    • Gil

      Or anarchist Libertarians versus minarchist Libertarians as to the role of government.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    interesting. Seems to me to be one element in org behavior. Similar organizations compete, merge, and ignore depending on a range of factors (third party competition, properties of surrounding social medium, managerial competence, structure and biases of organizational subcomponents, to name a few).

  • CB

    This reminds me of some of the things you see daily in UK politics.

    The Labour party channels most of its current invective towards the Lib-Dems, rather than the main Conservative party.

    This is despite the fact that Labour and the Lib Dems are closer on policy grounds than Labour and the Conservatives are.

  • Robert Speirs

    G. K. Chesterton commented on the widespread statement that success comes when you “believe in yourself”. He mentioned that those men who most fervently believe in themselves are to be found in insane asylums with completely unshakable belief systems centered around, shall we say, misapprehensions about their identities? A nut who believes he’s Jesus Christ can give you a seemingly unshakable and extremely articulate explanation as to why he and he alone is the Savior. A man’s conception of his identity has to match some external reality. Passion isn’t enough.

  • Gil

    One problem with non-conforming is the way you feel good with others who non-conform in a way you do and if the group becomes large enough then you’re all a type of conformist.