UN peace-keeper in Liberia

Facing Darkness with “Bigly” Persuasion

Not having traveled to a country in the middle of a medical crisis, I can only imagine the horror and heartbreak. Yet, through our movie this month, Facing Darkness (Rasco, 2017), we can have first-hand experience with the 2014 crisis in Liberia when the Ebola virus was rampant. Members of a US medical team become infected over the course of the movie.

In 2019, Africans in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are facing similar crises. And, because of their cultural experiences, locals are suspicious about the motives of aid workers, thus resist taking action that would help to contain the disease. In a mass delusion, their minds work against them, just like all of our minds do, to avoid changing what they have come to believe. Masters of persuasion understand this.

People Believe What They Want to Believe

People believe what they want to believe—a mind primed with a worldview shapes its own perceived reality.

It was René Descartes who wrote in Discourse of the Method (Descartes & Cress, 1988), “Je pense, donc je suis” (English: “I think, therefore I am,” or “I am thinking, therefore I exist”). To be human is to think, thus to have a worldview. Every human being breathing on Planet Earth today has a worldview from which to interpret life.

Three well-known concepts help us to understand the undeniable fact of human nature—that people believe what they want to believe according to their worldviews. Scott Adams describes these concepts in his book, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter (2017).1

And, we have mentioned these and related concepts in our earlier articles, e.g., “confirmation bias” in Gasland (2010), “cognitive dissonance” and “selective exposure theory” in Battleship Potemkin (1925), “groupthink” and “herd mentality” in The Witness (2015), and “brainwashing” in Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2001).

Adams’ descriptions and examples are paraphrased below:

Confirmation Bias

“Confirmation bias” is the human tendency to irrationally believe that new information supports an existing worldview even when it doesn’t.

It is a natural human reflex to interpret new information as supportive of the opinion one already holds. Opposing sides—Liberals and Conservatives for instance—see different realities based on the same set of reported facts.

Let’s first consider the Robert Mueller investigation, which at the time of this writing has found no evidence of President Trump’s colluding with Russia.

Liberals tend to believe that there is so much smoke in Russia-related allegations that there has to be a fire somewhere. Conservatives, or “Trump supporters” if you will, believe that lack of evidence automatically proves innocence. Adams points out why both positions are flawed in logic.

Confirmation bias was evident in the recent Supreme Court Justice nomination hearings, in which Liberals and Conservatives had opposite responses to Christine Blasey Ford’s and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s testimonies, despite both groups hearing each of the testimonies simultaneously.

Cognitive Dissonance

“Cognitive dissonance” is a condition of mind in which evidence conflicts with a person’s worldview to such a degree that the person spontaneously generates an illusion to rationalize the incongruity.

This broad concept involves bending the truth to make it fit one’s  self-image. For example, consider cigarette smokers, alcoholics, and drug users who rationalize their unhealthy habits by citing firsthand knowledge of people who smoked, drank, and used, yet lived to ripe old ages.

Of course, many alcoholics, smokers, and drug users are intelligent people who do not see themselves as stupid or powerless to addiction. Cognitive dissonance allows them to maintain an illusion of self-control while continuing dangerous habits.

Benjamin Franklin quoteThe two actresses recently arrested in the college cheating scandal likely excused themselves with the knowledge that plenty of other people were bribing their children into elite colleges as well.

Neither Lori Loughlin nor Felicity Huffman may see themselves as criminals who break the law, because their shared illusion allows them to think only that they are helping their children. This conveniently dislodges reality, and expels thoughts of unfair denials to deserving college applicants.

Cognitive dissonance may be the culprit in greed and narcissism, and it was likely rampant among Ken Lay’s circles at Enron (Movies on Chatham screened and critiqued Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) in December 2017).

Scott Adams observed cognitive dissonance in individuals, companies, and on a national scale, after the 2016 US Presidential Election. A year before the election, Adams, a persuasion expert, publicly recognized Donald Trump’s mastery of persuasion skills. Adams then staked his reputation on a one-year-in-advance prediction that Trump would not only rise above the cluster of Republican hopefuls, but that he would go on to win the Primary Election.

Cartoon about cognitive dissonance
Photo/Sipress

And sure enough, Trump’s win set off a “cluster bomb” of cognitive dissonance the likes of which history rarely sees. To untrained observers—voters and pundits alike—the public reaction looked like a combination of anger, disappointment, fear, and shock. But to trained persuaders, it was a front-row seat to a show of cognitive dissonance so pure and so deep that it was, frankly, beautiful.

Most people couldn’t appreciate the show. What they saw instead was an endless stream of after-the-fact “reasons” to explain their new reality in which someone like Trump could get elected.

CNN listed 24 different theories from pundits to explain why Trump won (Krieg, 2016). Many of the explanations sound quite reasonable, but the credibility of the explanations is unrelated to spotting cognitive dissonance.

What’s most telling is not the quality of the explanation, but how many of them there are. If you have a situation that can be explained with one reasonable explanation, that reason might be close to reality. But having lots of different explanations—no matter how reasonable they sound after-the-fact—means that people are trying to make sense of their observations, and they are generating illusions to do it.

And nowhere in the list of explanations for Trump’s win do pundits and pollsters blame themselves for telling Clinton supporters her win was assured. I have to agree with Adams that the media’s confidence in her win likely caused some people to skip voting (Adams, 2017, pp 52-53).

Mass Delusion

“Mass delusion” is more common than you may think. The Salem Witch Trials in the 1600’s is a famous example, yet mass delusions happen all the time. Adams gives examples.

Millions believed former President Barack Obama was an African-born Muslim. A different set of millions believed that newly elected President Donald Trump was the next Hitler who would round up immigrants into concentration camps. Dual mass delusion occurs among clashing worldviews of Trump supporters and Clinton supporters as each perceives the other to be lying.

Easy to fool peopleAdams also describes the polarizing topic of climate change as a mass delusion. The Dot-Com bubble is another kind of mass delusion, where masses perceived value to exist in money-losing start-ups. Anti-vaxxers are under a mass delusion that vaccines cause autism despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Chalk these up to human nature: confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and mass delusion. Confirmation bias is fuel for mass delusion, and cognitive dissonance is the manifestation. Evidence of these intertwining concepts exists and is the same across the board for all races and cultures.

Human Nature in All of Its Deadly Force is Raging in the Congo

Evidence certainly exists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an Ebola outbreak, ongoing since August, is the second deadliest since the aggressive virus was identified in 1976. As of the end of February 2019, 553 people have died (The New York Times, 2018).

This Ebola outbreak is a local crisis that has the potential to go global. Healthcare and aid providers are frantically working to halt the spread, but they face obstacles; deep mistrust among locals is chief among them.

Violence in the streets
Violence in the streets

The people in the villages scattered across the eastern part of the Congo have worldviews that stem from their life experiences. Violence is a way of life as citizens are routinely brutalized by armed groups and government forces, who are accused of exacting illegal taxes, and raping and killing citizens with impunity (Ross, 2019). To protect themselves from the barbarism, villagers rely on militias, “Mai Mai”, to protect them from marauding soldiers (“Trek into Congo Forest”, 2018).

Understandably, there is deep mistrust of all outsiders, but especially those who come barging in with protective gear and medical instruments. When a two-week-old baby infected with Ebola was being taken away to receive treatment, the baby’s grandmother came out waving a machete with threats to kill the authorities.

Healthcare worker measuring body temperature
Healthcare worker measuring body temperature

Locals truly believe that Ebola was brought in by outsiders to eradicate them. With that worldview, it is not a stretch for them to believe as well, the persistent rumor spread by corrupt politicians in the midst of a national election. That the thermo-guns used for measuring body temperature are actually weapons to steal their votes.

Recently, on February 25, 2019, an Ebola treatment center was attacked by armed assailants. It was lit on fire during a gun battle between security forces and attackers. and four Ebola patients escaped in the midst of the chaos.

This was the second attack; a nurse was killed in the first attack at another Ebola treatment center in a nearby town. Villagers believe that death is guaranteed in the treatment centers, so they flee, which proliferates the spread of Ebola (Ross, 2019).

Violence, rather than exposure to the virus, is foremost on healthcare providers’ minds when they plan excursions to villages to treat people infected with Ebola. According to vaccinologist Dr. Kasereka Bernardin (The New York Times, 2018), “We’re scared of the Mai-Mai, . . . We’re afraid  they might kill us.”

The challenge is to balance security with the necessity to contain the aggressive virus before it spreads to Goma, the regional capital with its international outlets.

Citizens of the Congo are intelligent—no more or less smart than you and I. They have worldviews, just as you and I do; therefore, they are susceptible to the nuances of human nature.

Their belief that foreigners introduced the deadly virus to kill them, and are currently stealing votes with temperature thermo-guns are certainly mass delusions resulting from their confirmation bias against outsiders.

Members of the militia who perpetuate violence against healthcare providers are not all psychopathic killers. With a worldview that foreigners are killing them with a virus, cognitive dissonance justifies their ferocities. The militia believes it is proactively protecting their own.

Healthcare Workers Must Be Persuaders

Before using their skills in bio-medicine or epidemiology, healthcare workers must be diplomats who persuade for their lives. Hundreds, thousands, and possibly millions of lives depend on their ability to persuade the militia to open up territory, and to guarantee safe passage for healthcare workers to combat the rapidly spreading Ebola virus.

Persuasion is a delicate skill because minds are not easily changed. People cling to their worldviews, and rarely, if ever, change their minds. It takes a master persuader to accomplish this.

It can be a risky business. Acts of violence erupt in unpredictable bursts, with civilians often bearing the brunt. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, a notorious rebel group hacked to death a dozen civilians for no apparent reason, and killed an additional 17 soldiers who tried to retrieve the bodies. Just a day ago, another four civilians were killed in a separate attack. Dr. Shako says he picks his words carefully when approaching the militia leaders, who are wary of government ruses. ‘One little misplaced word and you can unravel everything,’ he said, adding that he tells them, ‘the virus, the enemy, is stronger than us.’

In addition to scientists, health care workers, and others, would it not be a good idea to bring along a master persuader, someone like Scott Adams? Masters of these unique skills could overcome confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and mass delusion to convince villagers and militia in the Congo that everybody has the same goal—the eradication of Ebola.

Footnote

1 Adams is a cartoonist, the creator of Dilbert, a popular comic strip that is satirical of 9-5 office environments. He is also a trained hypnotist and an expert in persuasion skills.

Glossary

Cognitive dissonance

A theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how the human brain strives for internal consistency. A person experiencing inconsistency in thought or belief system may become psychologically uncomfortable. Thus, that person is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance occurring, and actively avoids situations and information likely to increase the discomfort.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias, also known as the theory of selective exposure, refers to seeking or interpreting evidence that is partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand. Confirmation bias refers usually to unwitting selectivity in the acquisition and use of evidence, not intentional mistreatment of evidence (Nickerson, 1998).

Mass delusion

Mass delusion (collective delusion or mass hysteria) is typified as the spontaneous, rapid spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a population, temporarily affecting a particular region, culture, or country. Collective delusion most commonly falls within the domain of sociologists in the sub-field of collective behavior, and psychologists specializing in social psychology. Mass hysteria is most commonly studied by psychiatrists and physicians (Bartholomew & Goode, 2000).

REFERENCES

Adams, S. (2017). Win bigly: Persuasion in a world where facts don’t matter. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

Bartholomew, R., & Goode, E. (2000, May/Jun). Mass delusions and hysterias: Highlights from the past millennium. Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved from https://www.csicop.org/si/show/mass_delusions_and_hysterias_highlights_from_the_past_millennium

Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. (2019, Jan 24). Scientists discover Ebola virus in West African bat. Science Daily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190124095156.htm

Descartes, R., & Cress, D. (1988/1637). Discourse on the method for rightly conducting one’s reason and for seeking truth in the sciences. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Krieg, G. (2016). How did Trump win? Here are 24 theories.

Nickerson, R. (1998, Jun). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.2.2.175

Rasco, A. (Director). (2017). Facing darkness [MOTION PICTURE]. USA: Samaritan’s Purse.

Ross, A. (2019, Feb 27). Congo Ebola center set on fire after armed attack. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-ebola-congo-violence/congo-ebola-center-set-on-fire-after-armed-attack-idUSKCN1QG2KR

The New York Times. (2018, Dec 27). To stop a new Ebola outbreak in Congo, four health workers put their lives on the line. The Indian Express. Retrieved from https://indianexpress.com/article/world/to-stop-a-new-ebola-outbreak-they-put-in-their-lives-on-the-line-5511267

Trek into Congo forest reveals an Ebola crisis fueled by violence. (2018, Dec 26). dailymedicaltips24. Retrieved from https://www.dailymedicaltips24.com/trek-into-congo-forest-reveals-an-ebola-crisis-fueled-by-violence/

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