Last night, I read an article in the ASU State Press newspaper from Tuesday, August 25 about Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing who I had been interested in working with in my Ph.D. program because of his fascinating work on the subject of influence and persuasion. (He just "retired," though the article notes he is still working 60 hours a week on his research.) That article noted the phenomenon of "social proof," where people are more likely to do something if they think that other people do it:
Social proof is a simple way for people to decide what actions would be appropriate in a given situation, based off what others like them have done in similar situations, Cialdini said. Those kinds of norms have been very powerful in moving people to conserve energy, recycle and refrain from littering, he said.This morning, I read the following passage in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (p. 63):
Cialdini and his colleagues have recently done research on energy conservation in several hotels in the Phoenix area. The hotel managers allowed Cialdini to place different signs inside hotel rooms and depending on what the signs said, the colleagues were able to significantly increase the willingness of people to hang up their bath towels.
By simply stating that the majority of guests who stay in the hotel hang up their towels at least once during their stay, Cialdini and his colleagues were able to get 28 percent more people to follow that suggestion.
Social psychologists have amply documented that people have a powerful urge to do as their neighbors do. When unwitting subjects are surrounded by confederates of the experimenter who have been paid to do something odd, many or most will go along. They will defy their own eyes and call a long line "short" or vice versa, nonchalantly fill out a questionnaire as smoke pours out of a heating vent, or (in a Candid Camera sketch) suddenly strip down to their underwear for no apparent reason.Here, Pinker is referring to the Asch conformity experiments. He notes that there are two reasons for this kind of imitative behavior, "to benefit from other people's knowledge and judgment" and "the desire to follow the norms of a community."
A few more data points, and then I will do some speculative dot-connecting. In Pascal Boyer's book, Religion Explained, he devotes chapter 8 to answering the question of its title, "Why doctrines, exclusion, and violence?" He argues (pp. 292-296) that fundamentalism arises as a mechanism to increase the cost of defection from a group, in reaction to the cultural diversity of the modern world:
... the modern world is one of strident cultural diversity, where you are constantly made aware that people live in different circumstances, have different values, worship other gods, have different rituals. ... fundamentalists want to return to a (largely mythical) past when local values and identity were taken for granted, when no one was aware that there were other ways of living. (p. 293)This could also explain the creation of distinctly Christian media (music, books, clubs and groups arranged around particular interests offered by megachurches) offered as a substitute for their secular counterparts, as a mechanism to insulate believers from contrary ideas. By keeping the believer in a community that is, at least to some extent, isolated from the broader world, the danger is reduced that a believer will be exposed to alternative views and practices which he might be likely to imitate through peer pressure, social proof, or social conformity.
But now to make a greater leap of speculation. Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has argued that "mirror neurons" or "empathy neurons" play a major role in human (and other primate) imitative behavior that drives learning. Those neurons (if they exist, and there is some doubt) are in the inferior frontal and parietal cortex. Caltech neuroscientist John Allman (who spoke at the Skeptics Society conference on mind, brain, and consciousness in 2005) has argued that spindle cells in the anterior cingulate cortex play a role in sensitivity to social cues, and a deficiency of such cells may be a cause of autism. Perhaps there is a neurological explanation for some kinds of independent thinking that involves a lessened degree of sensitivity to social cues, or a lessened drive to imitation and conformity, that yields doubters and skeptics?
Now, this can't be the whole story--it may be more important that there are other positive drivers of independence and willingness to be an outspoken dissenter, and I suspect that leaders of dissenting groups tend to have a very high degree of sensitivity to social cues in order to be successful in persuasion. Further, once you have some dissenters in the population, they themselves can be exemplars to be imitated by people with high sensitivity to social cues. But the speculation it would be interesting to investigate is: are people who are skeptics about commonly held beliefs in the general population about the supernatural and paranormal measurably different in some critical way, psychologically or neurologically, that makes them less susceptible to such social pressures that provoke imitation and internalization of those views? Are the initial participants in such groups different from later joiners? Could this have anything to do with why organizing skeptics and atheists is like herding cats? Or why there's a high percentage of IT professionals in skepticism? Are skeptics and atheists less emotionally engaged and driven than religious believers? Is there a tendency towards Asperger's among skeptics and atheists? (Disclosure: I scored a 32 on this Asperger Test.)
Religious believers sometimes argue that there is a sensus divinitatis, a human faculty for perceiving God, and Dean Hamer has argued that there's a "God gene." It's possible that there's something to this, but that it's a bit simpler and a more of a matter of susceptibility to social conformity.
(Possibly related posts: "Unconscious decision-making," "The Rise of Pentecostalism and the Economist Religion Wars issue"; "An empirical test of the existence of sensus divinitatis in atheists" at the Secular Outpost.)