Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs

Early studiers of cults were sur­prised to dis­cover than when cults re­ceive a ma­jor shock—a prophecy fails to come true, a moral flaw of the founder is re­vealed—they of­ten come back stronger than be­fore, with in­creased be­lief and fa­nat­i­cism. The Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses placed Ar­maged­don in 1975, based on Bibli­cal calcu­la­tions; 1975 has come and passed. The Unar­ian cult, still go­ing strong to­day, sur­vived the non­ap­pear­ance of an in­ter­galac­tic spacefleet on Septem­ber 27, 1975.

Why would a group be­lief be­come stronger af­ter en­coun­ter­ing crush­ing coun­terev­i­dence?

The con­ven­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tion of this phe­nomenon is based on cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. When peo­ple have taken “ir­re­vo­ca­ble” ac­tions in the ser­vice of a be­lief—given away all their prop­erty in an­ti­ci­pa­tion of the saucers land­ing—they can­not pos­si­bly ad­mit they were mis­taken. The challenge to their be­lief pre­sents an im­mense cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance; they must find re­in­forc­ing thoughts to counter the shock, and so be­come more fa­nat­i­cal. In this in­ter­pre­ta­tion, the in­creased group fa­nat­i­cism is the re­sult of in­creased in­di­vi­d­ual fa­nat­i­cism.

I was look­ing at a Java ap­plet which demon­strates the use of evap­o­ra­tive cool­ing to form a Bose-Ein­stein con­den­sate, when it oc­curred to me that an­other force en­tirely might op­er­ate to in­crease fa­nat­i­cism. Eva­po­ra­tive cool­ing sets up a po­ten­tial en­ergy bar­rier around a col­lec­tion of hot atoms. Ther­mal en­ergy is es­sen­tially statis­ti­cal in na­ture—not all atoms are mov­ing at the ex­act same speed. The ki­netic en­ergy of any given atom varies as the atoms col­lide with each other. If you set up a po­ten­tial en­ergy bar­rier that’s just a lit­tle higher than the av­er­age ther­mal en­ergy, the work­ings of chance will give an oc­ca­sional atom a ki­netic en­ergy high enough to es­cape the trap. When an un­usu­ally fast atom es­capes, it takes with it an un­usu­ally large amount of ki­netic en­ergy, and the av­er­age en­ergy de­creases. The group be­comes sub­stan­tially cooler than the po­ten­tial en­ergy bar­rier around it.

In Fest­inger, Riecken, and Schachter’s clas­sic When Prophecy Fails, one of the cult mem­bers walked out the door im­me­di­ately af­ter the fly­ing saucer failed to land. Who gets fed up and leaves first? An av­er­age cult mem­ber? Or a rel­a­tively skep­ti­cal mem­ber, who pre­vi­ously might have been act­ing as a voice of mod­er­a­tion, a brake on the more fa­natic mem­bers?

After the mem­bers with the high­est ki­netic en­ergy es­cape, the re­main­ing dis­cus­sions will be be­tween the ex­treme fa­nat­ics on one end and the slightly less ex­treme fa­nat­ics on the other end, with the group con­sen­sus some­where in the “mid­dle.”

And what would be the anal­ogy to col­laps­ing to form a Bose-Ein­stein con­den­sate? Well, there’s no real need to stretch the anal­ogy that far. But you may re­call that I used a fis­sion chain re­ac­tion anal­ogy for the af­fec­tive death spiral; when a group ejects all its voices of mod­er­a­tion, then all the peo­ple en­courag­ing each other, and sup­press­ing dis­sents, may in­ter­nally in­crease in av­er­age fa­nat­i­cism.1

When Ayn Rand’s long-run­ning af­fair with Nathaniel Bran­den was re­vealed to the Ob­jec­tivist mem­ber­ship, a sub­stan­tial frac­tion of the Ob­jec­tivist mem­ber­ship broke off and fol­lowed Bran­den into es­pous­ing an “open sys­tem” of Ob­jec­tivism not bound so tightly to Ayn Rand. Who stayed with Ayn Rand even af­ter the scan­dal broke? The ones who re­ally, re­ally be­lieved in her—and per­haps some of the un­de­cid­eds, who, af­ter the voices of mod­er­a­tion left, heard ar­gu­ments from only one side. This may ac­count for how the Ayn Rand In­sti­tute is (re­port­edly) more fa­nat­i­cal af­ter the breakup than the origi­nal core group of Ob­jec­tivists un­der Bran­den and Rand.

A few years back, I was on a tran­shu­man­ist mailing list where a small group es­pous­ing “so­cial demo­cratic tran­shu­man­ism” vit­ri­oli­cally in­sulted ev­ery liber­tar­ian on the list. Most liber­tar­i­ans left the mailing list; most of the oth­ers gave up on post­ing. As a re­sult, the re­main­ing group shifted sub­stan­tially to the left. Was this de­liber­ate? Prob­a­bly not, be­cause I don’t think the per­pe­tra­tors knew that much psy­chol­ogy.2 At most, they might have thought to make them­selves “big­ger fish in a smaller pond.”

This is one rea­son why it’s im­por­tant to be prej­u­diced in fa­vor of tol­er­at­ing dis­sent. Wait un­til sub­stan­tially af­ter it seems to you jus­tified in eject­ing a mem­ber from the group, be­fore ac­tu­ally eject­ing. If you get rid of the old out­liers, the group po­si­tion will shift, and some­one else will be­come the odd­ball. If you eject them too, you’re well on the way to be­com­ing a Bose-Ein­stein con­den­sate and, er, ex­plod­ing.

The flip side: Thomas Kuhn be­lieved that a sci­ence has to be­come a “paradigm,” with a shared tech­ni­cal lan­guage that ex­cludes out­siders, be­fore it can get any real work done. In the for­ma­tive stages of a sci­ence, ac­cord­ing to Kuhn, the ad­her­ents go to great pains to make their work com­pre­hen­si­ble to out­side aca­demics. But (ac­cord­ing to Kuhn) a sci­ence can only make real progress as a tech­ni­cal dis­ci­pline once it aban­dons the re­quire­ment of out­side ac­cessibil­ity, and sci­en­tists work­ing in the paradigm as­sume fa­mil­iar­ity with large cores of tech­ni­cal ma­te­rial in their com­mu­ni­ca­tions. This sounds cyn­i­cal, rel­a­tive to what is usu­ally said about pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of sci­ence, but I can definitely see a core of truth here.3

1No ther­mo­dy­namic anal­ogy here, un­less some­one de­vel­ops a nu­clear weapon that ex­plodes when it gets cold.

2For that mat­ter, I can’t re­call see­ing the evap­o­ra­tive cool­ing anal­ogy el­se­where, though that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been noted be­fore.

3My own the­ory of In­ter­net mod­er­a­tion is that you have to be will­ing to ex­clude trolls and spam to get a con­ver­sa­tion go­ing. You must even be will­ing to ex­clude kindly but tech­ni­cally un­in­formed folks from tech­ni­cal mailing lists if you want to get any work done. A gen­uinely open con­ver­sa­tion on the In­ter­net de­gen­er­ates fast.

It’s the ar­tic­u­late trolls that you should be wary of eject­ing, on this the­ory—they serve the hid­den func­tion of le­gi­t­imiz­ing less ex­treme dis­agree­ments. But you should not have so many ar­tic­u­late trolls that they be­gin ar­gu­ing with each other, or be­gin to dom­i­nate con­ver­sa­tions. If you have one per­son around who is the fa­mous Guy Who Disagrees With Every­thing, any­one with a more rea­son­able, more mod­er­ate dis­agree­ment won’t look like the sole nail stick­ing out. This the­ory of In­ter­net mod­er­a­tion may not have served me too well in prac­tice, so take it with a grain of salt.