Harold Camping is not the first cult leader to forecast the end of the world. It's fortunate that Camping and followers of Family Radio International are not at the stage of fanaticism that had Marshall Applegate persuading Heaven's Gate followers to commit mass suicide when his prediction of the Rapture proved false.
While millions scoff at the gullibility of Camping's adherents, cultish responses to charismatic speakers are a norm in human behavior. There is an instinctual acceptance of the supernatural, often labeled religion.
Science writer Michael Brooks offers that people are primed to accept religion as explaining the world. It's the default setting for the mind ("Natural born believers," New Scientist, Feb. 7, 2009).
"The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect, which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even when there is none," Brooks says.
He cites a study by Jennifer Whitson (University of Texas) and Austin and Adam Galinsky (Northwestern University) published in Science (vol 322, p 1115) that found: "The subjects who sensed a loss of control were more likely to see patterns where there were none . . . when we feel a lack of control we fall back on superstitious ways of thinking. That would explain why religion enjoys a revival during hard times."
Psychologist David Pizarro discusses the phenomenon of "apophenia," a tendency of the brain to find relationships based on superstition - such as an athlete wearing the same socks while winning ("Everyday apophenia," Edge world question 2011, www.edge.org).
"The human brain is an amazing pattern-detecting machine. We possess a variety of mechanisms that allow us to uncover hidden relationships between objects, events and people. Without these, the sea of data hitting our senses would surely appear random and chaotic. But when our pattern-detecting systems misfire, they tend to err in the direction of perceiving patterns where none exist," Pizarro notes.
In the same Edge collection, New York University psychology and linguistics professor Gary Marcus suggests misfires result because the mind is sensitive to context; it remembers better when the subject is in a familiar setting such as the name of a classmate on campus ("Cognitive humility," Edge world question 2011).
"Perhaps the most dire consequence is that human beings tend almost invariably to be better at remembering evidence that is consistent with their beliefs than evidence that might disconfirm them. When two people disagree, it is often because their prior beliefs lead them to remember (or focus on) different bits of evidence."
Confirmation bias results because people are prone to not consider alternatives to their beliefs, Marcus says.
Combining philosophy with psychology, Hugo Mercier (University of Pennsylvania) and Dan Sperber (Central European University) offer "argumentative theory" as explaining why people "distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist" ("Why do humans reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory," Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 34, June 26, 2010).
"People who have an opinion to defend don't really evaluate the arguments of their interlocutors in a search for genuine information, but rather consider them from the start as counterarguments to be rebutted," Mercier/Sperber say.
With proliferation of ideologically driven media, factions in society are more easily cultivated into cultish movements of individuals unwilling to objectively evaluate opposing views. As labor philosopher Eric Hoffer noted: "All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and there is no truth or certitude outside it" ("The True Believer," 1951, Harper & Brothers).
As holders of absolute truth, there is only a little difference between Family Radio International and al-Qaida.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at email@example.com. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.