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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