Saturday, September 29, 2007

When Prophecy Fails...

It's 1956. A story in the local Chicago news reports: "Prophecy from planet Clarion call to city: flee that flood." Apparently a housewife had come under the conclusion, through automatic writing, that she had received a message from the planet "Clarion" that the world was to end due to a massive flood, and according to the message, December 21st all of human civilization will be wiped out.

In the analysis of the apparent similarities between childhood behavior and adult behavior, invariably the subject of prophecy comes up, and likewise, what happens to individuals when their beliefs about the world and their activities are incongruent. This tale of the housewife and her message from Clarion became the subject of a landmark study headed by Leon Festinger on the topic.

This housewife was successful in amassing a close knit collection of believers from the community and surrounding areas, and they founded an encampment, where through their various stages of shedding selfishness (giving up jobs, families, all their money and possessions) would be deemed worthy and be spared the devastation by the interception of flying saucer. All of this was revealed through the automatic writings of the housewife, Mrs. Marion Keech.

More skeptical minds saw this event as an opportunity to gain some anecdotal insight into how human beings adjust when their beliefs about the world and their behaviors come into conflict, for surely the prophecy in the scientific community, was assumed to fail. The idea, as carried out in Festinger et al. was for a team of social psychologists to infiltrate the group as prospective members, and record the happenings of the social dynamic as they observed them, the justifications, rationalizations, or complete breakdown of the group. It was known that each member of the group had invested heavily in the belief that they would be saved from a great flood through their actions. Festinger hypothesized that following any disconfirmation of their belief the group would proselytize in order to lessen the negative effects of the disconfirmation.

Following some interesting confrontations where the research team were so successful in presenting themselves as believers that one of them were thought to be one of the alien messengers in disguise, the night of December 20th was drawing to a close. When midnight struck and no saucer apppeared, the group wasn't devastated, insisting that it wasn't technically midnight yet because another clock in the room was slow 5 minutes. By 4:00 am, with no visitors yet, another automatic writing session produced a new response from Clarion...that the God of Earth had spared the planet due to their actions. There was to be no devastation.

"The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction."

The term cognitive dissonance refers to the "uncomfortable feeling from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one's beliefs, or from experiencing apparently conflicting phenomena." The theory put forth by Festinger based on his observations, as well as other more experimentally designed studies, is that when a human being is placed in a state of cognitive dissonance, they will engage in some thought or behavior that will sooth the discomfort, such as warp their beliefs to fit their behaviors, ot ignore information that does not support their beliefs.

My first comment in regards to this episode of cognitive dissonance, is that young children could not have constructed such a belief as elaborate as these individuals did in 1956. This is due to a number of factors: the fact that children normally have little knowledge of extra-terrestrial bodies, extra-terrestrial intelligence, and the phenomenon of automatic writing, and the fact that children don't physically own anything, and therefore investment in any one particular belief can not be measured in terms of what the child has "given up," (but it can be measured, my next post will be about this). Often if children do seem to have inordinate amounts of knowledge about such things, less skeptical adults see them as "Indigos," "Star Children," and other such entities, and more skeptical adults are right to point out the proliferation of children's educational media for the early appearance of such leaps of cognitive reasoning. It takes a lot for a young child to recognize the permanence of the Earth, once a child is capable of doing that, they will broaden their cognitive sphere to that of the cosmos, as this adult cult was capable of doing.

The point is, often when adults make conclusions about a child's "fantastical beliefs" it is usually to belittle the child's grasp on "reality" and reaffirm the adult in their ability to "perceive the optimal." Clearly though, with the number of unverifiable beliefs that adults hold at any one time, adults are no better perceivers of the optimal than children, it's just adults have a larger "sphere" in which they can draw resources from when perceiving and practicing meta-cognition. To be fair to both developmental stages, (and all those in between), the beliefs described above about the cult represent only a small fraction, a fringe, in a larger majority. The majority of individuals, presumably, do not believe such radical beliefs. But one does not need to be fringe, a cultist, paranoid, or schizophrenic, to be hold beliefs that could be termed "irrational beliefs." Even some of the most scientific and rational minds have held beliefs that can't be objectively tested.

Beliefs lead to the amazing diversity of the human imagination, much of human culture, lore, and myth. The human race would not be as socially cohesive without these shared traditions. The point is to not diminish the importance of irrational beliefs but to understand the difference between what is fact and what is fiction, and the larger gray area in between that the human mind, for all it's abilities, has not been able to perceive yet. Most importantly, this notion of adults having the ability to perceive the optimum should be dismissed, it is simple arrogance on the part of one adult over another, and adult over child. Instead, human cognitive development should be interpreted as a summation of the resources physically and mentally available to the individual at each stage of development, along the lines of a continuum, the likes of which Piaget only hinted at: that the adult is in fact not in a sage of "cognitive competence."

If this is so, the theory would go, than adults couldn't design a test to verify whether or not adults are cognitively competent, because to do so would require knowledge about the universe and higher functions of the mind that human beings have not accessed yet. It would be the equivalent of children testing themselves on knowledge and cognitive functioning that only through proper biological and psychological development could have access to. If this is true, than it poses a problem scientifically, and ironically, must be taken on its own terms.

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