This post has arisen from two incentives. The old ‘gem’ of the global warming debate and the perception about artificial sweeteners, the topics of the last two posts.
It concerns the way people formulate their beliefs, the way they perceive what they see and hear and why different people arrive at different conclusions based on the same information. Also, in particular, people’s automatic, willing acceptance of information from persons of authority even in cases where the information is blatantly incorrect.
To explain what I am trying to say, I quote from the relevant part of the ‘artificial sweetener’ post: [The last para is directly related to the sweetener topic but left in because it is a good example].
But there is a segment of the population who will follow the rule of ‘Authority’, or just perceived authority, even when it becomes obvious that this authority doesn’t have their best interests at heart. This segment is what Bob Altemeyer called ‘The Authoritarians‘, also referred to as Authoritarian Followers, who hold the unfortunate characteristic of blindly believing official authority. From Bob:
They [Authoritarians] are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use lots of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites. But they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. They are blind to themselves, ethnocentric and prejudiced, and as close-minded as they are narrow-minded. I think we all know people like this. I have an aunt who gets very upset whenever someone expresses an opinion that falls outside of right-leaning political ideology. Bob has found from his extensive studies on the subject that the authoritarian follower contingent makes up roughly 50% of the population.
And it’s not just people who aren’t that smart or fall in with right-wing authoritarian groups. Authoritarian followers can be quite intelligent, of any political ideology or lack thereof; same goes for religion, race or socioeconomic status. They just happen to succumb to what is popular over what they evaluate as morally or factually correct based on their own psychology. To them, what is morally or factually correct is what has been deemed so by the authorities. You can see its effects in multiple fields, including science, academia, nutrition, government policy, you name it. New approaches or theories, rather than being embraced, explored and evaluated are ignored outright in favour of the status quo. What is unpopular is mocked or ignored.
It appears that authoritarian followers have only internal value, or rather an instinct: they view the world in terms of “us” (the good and virtuous “in-group” where they themselves belong) and “them” (the evil “out-group”, on which negative stereotypes are projected). In a sense, they operate straight out of their reptilian brain, which is concerned with basic goals: survival, establishing home territory, and social dominance. This agrees with the ideas of psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski, who linked the inability to develop an “authentic hierarchy of values” to a low level of emotional development.
To create and maintain a cohesive picture of “us” vs “them”, the authoritarian personality is constantly molding the facts into its beliefs of what reality should be. This is highly subjective thinking.In the health realm this ends up polarizing the “what the mainstream doctors are saying” and what the “nutjobs on the internet are saying” groups. No polarization like this actually exists, as you have a wide range of opinions and positions coming from both doctors and alternative medical practitioners, as well as health journalists of every stripe. But, to a brain that functions on the level of survival, territory and social dominance, what is actually said is less important than what the group deems to be acceptable. Identifying with the outgroup, or even questioning the ingroup, is seen as dangerous, at least on a subconscious level, and is therefore not acceptable.
Now it’s important to emphasize here that being an authoritarian follower is not “bad”. These people are not evil. It’s just a segment of the population that happens to be less emotionally evolved, for lack of a better term (see Dabrowski’s studies of human development for more on this). In the same way you wouldn’t get all huffy and superior over someone who is less intelligent than you, it does no good to take this position here.
The article continues:
The authoritarian mind doesn’t simply adjust reality to its beliefs; subconsciously, it also adjusts ITSELF to the most apparent currents of the objective reality around it. Because of this, the authoritarians are conformists and conventional thinkers. This has been shown repeatedly in research, notably by Milgram. Following his thought, conformity can be linked to respect for the power of authority, including that of consensus. Robert Altmeyer made another profound observation. Since authoritarians have no genuine internal convictions, they simply lack basic individuality and sense of identity:
[..] I also discovered that if you ask subjects to rank the importance of various values in life, authoritarian followers place “being normal” substantially higher than most people do. It’s almost as though they want to disappear as individuals into the vast vat of Ordinaries. [..]
They are quite capable of adhering to the beliefs emphasized by their in-groups when these conflict with what is held by society as a whole. Nevertheless, they do get tugged by what they think everybody else is saying and doing. [..]
[…] The authoritarian followers are easily swayed by psychopathic leaders – highly authoritarian dominant people, devoid of empathy. So in other words, even if you slapped the cold hard facts on artificial sweeteners into the face of an authoritarian follower, as I have done more than once, they likely wouldn’t budge an inch on their position if their perceived authority hadn’t deemed it necessary to do so. As long as you see these sweeteners on every table in every restaurant in the western world and diet sodas remain on the menu and line every grocery store shelf, then the ‘authority’ still obviously perceives them as acceptable.
I believe that it is not entirely unfair to suggest that more often than not, those speaking from a position of authority, are more likely to be making questionable claims because they are ‘pushing a barrow’ and are certainly agenda driven. They often would have to fully realize that they are themselves are disseminating questionable information.
The ‘listener’ can be impartial from a technical point of view but if believing the speaker is the ‘oracle’ he/she is not going to bring their own discernment into play. Therefore, this article has much to offer in making readers aware of the pitfalls and reasons why.
- Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, and the Human Prefrontal Cortex. (drvitelli.typepad.com)