There is a condition called Mass Hysteria. It occurs when a large segment of a population shares a delusion. While it may sound like a Salem Witch story from the 1690’s, in the 1990’s one example of Mass Hysteria travelled the world and did heavy damage to many communities.
As hard as it may be to believe, in many similar cases around the world, communities would begin to get swept up in the belief that there was a growing, baby-sacrificing, blood-drinking, ritualistic, devil-worshipping group taking over their towns.
There never was any actual evidence of any such groups. And there was lots of missing evidence that should have been easy to find if the stories were true. But even after everyone involved was exonerated, there are still many people today who continue to believe these stories.
Our brain’s resistance to changing it’s mind is a powerful thing. Consider the fact that the people who continue to believe the stories do this even though the children who told them have openly admitted they were just the wild tales of children who were loving all of the attention.
Think about it. Totally normal towns with people that like and trust each other enough that no one locks their doors. Then, within months, Mass Hysteria has half of them believing their town is about to be attacked by an army of devil worshippers. Even worse, they hate anyone who doesn’t believe that.
Now let us consider the divisions we currently see all over society. While most individuals are peace-loving and decent, in groups, people’s beliefs and ideas about the world can lather up to the point where they can appear to turn others into near-demons, bent on the destruction of society.
If we see others in that hysterical way, we can then justify actions that would otherwise be considered entirely unacceptable. Sound familiar?
If we’ve been really observant, we may have noticed a bit of polarization lately. And regardless of the issue or the group, what’s common to all of the conflicts is that they are often not furthering the struggle for a better answer for all people, they are merely rejections of other people.
This is not to suggest change isn’t called for. Like earthquakes, in many cases these fractures were required to reduce overdue tensions. But at some point, things must settle and move forward, so it’s far better for humanity if the act of settling is cultivated as a social skill.
The first thing we need to do is recognize the innocence of ourselves and others. Just like we’ll all fall for various magicians, optical illusions and con artists, we all unavoidably fall prey to things like Confirmation bias, Cognitive dissonance, Dunning-Kruger, The Availability Heuristic, and particularly, Anchoring bias.
Those things all essentially mean that our brain resists learning any idea that conflicts with a previous belief. That is why, as the saying goes, growth only happens outside of our comfort zone.
It makes biological sense in that, if the brain is rewiring itself in a contradictory way, that may feel awkward. To our brains, changing something like a political or social view is not unlike going to another country and having to learn to drive on the other side of the road. Our brain can make the adaptation. But especially at the start, it’s quite likely to be quite uncomfortable.
This prompts the question; who established what was comfortable in the first place? And for most people, the people that raised us impart most of our lessons about the shape and meaning in the world.
Without knowing it, we essentially learn to think like those that raised us, or we take the exact opposite of views of those that raised us. But either way, we need a lot of time and experience before we start to recognize options other than those created by our caregiver’s sense of reality.
Unless we become conscious of our freedom of thought, it’s easy to see that the biases of our parents would then unconsciously become our own. And we’ll do that without ever realizing that those are actually not ‘our’ views in the sense that we chose them.
We don’t see our beliefs as being chosen from a list, we see those opinions as being reality itself.
Until we become conscious, we are using our brain with parental pre-wiring for everything from food choices, to how we walk, to political choices etc. etc. etc. And we copy all of that without our knowledge, or the knowledge of the person or people who did the pre-wiring for us.
It’s all just imitation of those we respect. And that makes sense too. After all, who else would we emulate if we were smart?
The trick is, we have to get smart enough to get humble enough to realize that smart people aren’t the ones that never get things wrong. The smart people are the ones that know they get stuff wrong, so they have methods to watch for their errors.
Until we are actively watching for our own honest mistakes and miscalculations, and the mistakes and miscalculations made by people we like and respect, we should not see ourselves as wise because then we have no defence against things like Mass Hysteria, which is what things like modern political belief have become.
Clearly we are all wrong sometimes. Clearly we need to give others room to be wrong sometimes too. It’s only reasonable, otherwise our standard is perfection. And until we can live up to that standard, we have no business applying it to others.
If we’re holding others to impossible standards, where all we watch for is their mistakes, then they are not the issue, we are. If that’s our practice, then our egos are strictly invested in winning egotistical arguments, not on solving problems.
Human wisdom is not achieved by avoiding mistakes, wisdom is having the humility to be able to spot our mistakes and the mistakes of those we respect, and then take the appropriate action to deal with them. But we cannot do that unless we have become conscious enough to defend ourselves from ideas that are often nothing more than Mass Hysteria.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.