Saturday, March 14, 2009

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance Part VI: Informal Logical Fallacy

In a previous post, we discussed confirmation bias: the human tendency to interpret new information in such a way as to (subconsciously) confirm what one already believes, a type of selective thinking.

Within manipulative groups, spiritually abusive churches, and cults, the system of control capitalizes upon this human trait in order to surreptitiously manipulate its membership in order to maintain milieu control. Free flow of information, both within the group and from outside of the group is tightly controlled so that members have no cause to doubt group teachings and to reinforce them in the minds of members. When groups cannot contain information that provokes thought and reveals truth that will challenge the follower, the group will strive to contain the information from permeating throughout the entire group.

Attaching a negative connotation to information or a source of information will discourage members from seriously considering these challenging ideas. Some have already been mentioned here, but I wanted to note the power that connotation has. We’ve already established that information within the manipulative group generally targets one of the aspects of the “self,” either the thoughts, the emotions or the behaviors of a person, in order to establish control of the entire personality or self, thus establishing the group mindset within the follower. I would like to point out that informal logical fallacies tend to be very effective because they target two aspects of the self at one time through appeal to both thought and emotion. These fallacies also prove to be very subtle, and as a general rule, unless you are prepared to spot them, they also prove quite powerful. Knowledge of how these fallacies are employed provides the best defense against the power of the covert manipulation that the fallacies impose.

One more obvious means of discrediting information utilized by manipulative groups includes many variations on “appeals to prejudice.” Information might actually be neutral but points out holes in the group position will stimulate the follower to start thinking independently of the group, requiring problem-solving. The group survives because people who do not want to be burdened with the moral weight of responsibility of thinking for oneself and will adopt group opinion, and problem-solving and analytical thought makes that goal nearly impossible. Appeals to prejudice not only present an argument with some factual information, they also strike directly at strong emotion at the same time. Groups tag neutral information with emotive terms that indicate some degree of moral flaw or turpitude to the information so that people will “get stuck” in the emotion of the association and will not consider the veracity of the argument or the information itself.

One such example of this is the word “secular” itself. Secular refers to that which is not religious, but it is not evil. The profession of plumbing, for example, is not a religious tradition (though I could make quite a few jokes about it which is probably why I tend to use this as an example). Indoor plumbing is neither holy nor profane, but it is something from which all people reap great benefit and blessing. It is not inherently religious, and study of the dynamics and physics of water and pipes have nothing to do with anything religious. Yet the term secular is often associated with that which is evil when discussing religion. For many Christians, use of the term carries a negative connotation and is something that stands in opposition to Christianity in some capacity, depending on the context of the discussion. When one discusses secular humanism, it is expressly an expressly non-Christian worldview, and many manipulators capitalize on the connotation of the term.
Another very obvious example of this type of appeal to prejudice is reductio ad Hitlerum or transference. Considering that Hitler represents one of the most deplorable persons of historical significance in recent history, making reference to Adolf Hitler as a comparable figure to one’s opponent casts the opponent in the worst possible moral and ethical light. The association becomes difficult to overlook, and most people will stop processing information thoughtfully, using problem-solving, for a moment in order to process the emotional connotation. Few people will be able to follow the rest of the argument, because evoking the name of Hitler will draw them into an emotional trap. Most people will shift from an EEG pattern of beta waves at this point and will go directly into an alpha state, becoming highly programmable and open to suggestion. They will cease to think critically and will be more inclined to absorb groupthink and other arguments that they would otherwise reject.
Connotation of this type opens up a distraction for the listener, and these tactics mentioned thus far become “red herrings.” The red herring fallacy describes a broad category of subfallacies that are particularly effective, as they direct the listener away from the essential and significant facts or issues on to trivial or peripheral issues that have no bearing on the true nature of the matter at hand. Hounds will follow a scent when tracking an animal or a person, but if they smell a red herring, the pungent odor will throw them off the trail of scent. People are thrown off the trail of the holes in the argument presented by new information by tagging or attenuating the information with something offensive or peripheral in order to obscure rational thought and evade detection of flaws.
Members of a manipulative group may encounter information that is damning to the group, but if only a small and strategic portion of the information can be tainted with negative connotation, the dissonance created by the challenging information will intensify as a result. Most group members will get caught up in the dissonance of the emotional component so as to impede and inhibit the clear thought of the member. They may comprehend the argument, but the negative connotation will hang over the matter like a thick, dark, disturbing cloud. That will be enough for most members to reject consideration of the information altogether.

In addition to tainting the message itself, groups also usually reinforce rejection of the information by also attacking the source of the information by “killing the messenger.” This usually involves a layering of many different logical fallacies that appeal to both emotion and reason in order to manipulate opinion and ward people away from data that will cause them to think rationally about the new and challenging information. Argumentum ad hominem (“argument against the man”) focus on red herrings of personal information that is peripheral to the information but will also distract the listener from rational, critical thought. The “abusive” subtype draws in personal qualities (“They have brown hair and they laugh too loud”) while the “circumstantial” subtype of ad hominem argument draws experience into the discussion (“Their opinion regarding the assault of a person is irrelevant because they were once assaulted themselves and immigrated from a country with which our country is now at war”).
The next post discusses how these factors can be used to either enhance our worship and faith or can be used to manipulate us.