Belief, coercion, and the desire to be good

Over on a bass forum that I’m sadly addicted to, there was a big scandal a year or so ago: an already-controversial person ripped several people off, quite publicly, after collecting hundreds of dollars for a “charity”.  An unpleasant reminder of that scandal popped up just the other day, and somebody asked me “if this guy was already known to be a bully and a liar, then why did people send him money?”  I realized this story was a great opportunity to talk about the power of coercion, and people’s willingness—even eagerness—to believe in something good.

In essence, we are all looking for some structure we can cling to when life seems unstable.  Our beliefs give us that structure, they help us shape our world and make sense of it.  We also have a very primal desire to be loved or respected.  If we are given an opportunity to buy in to something that makes us feel more secure, or feel better about ourselves, we will do it. A good salesman (or other manipulator) is an artist at taking advantage of that fact—they will bait, bully, and charm anyone they can into “buying” belief in something, by leveraging our most basic human desires.

In the case of that one charity thief on the forum, many people were willing to ignore his known character flaws and send him money because of several factors:

  • our desire to “be a good person who does the right thing”, either selflessly or for the “warm fuzzy feeling” it gives us;
  • our desire to be perceived as good by our peers;
  • our tendency to go along with the crowd (known as groupthink, mob mentality, jumping on the bandwagon, cultural norms, etc.);
  • our vulnerability to being bullied into agreement.

Everyone has all of those qualities to some degree, some more than others.  Even very skeptical people can get caught up in groupthink with other skeptics, and tend to seek each others’ approval (just like any other group).  Even a very strong-willed person may choose to go along with an authority’s position if their job or family is in jeopardy.  The salesperson, scammer, politician, and preacher all count on these tendencies.

From earliest childhood we are shaped by our parents and their beliefs.  We receive their cultural identity, their religion, and their ideas about how the world works, to such an extent that any differing beliefs may seem “obviously” wrong to us.  This is why physical or emotional abusiveness can be passed from generation to generation—we do what we are accustomed to, and under stress we will usually revert to these early-foundational behaviors and beliefs.  But in spite of all that indoctrination, if you look closely you will see that we believe what we choose to believe.  The adult child of an abusive or alcoholic parent can choose to break that pattern.  An adult can choose to convert to a new religion, or choose (often unconsciously) to practice only the part of their faith that they are comfortable with.  Your political views may seem to you to be based on logic and common sense, but if that was true then every sane person would have the same political views.  In reality it was your choice to go along with someone else’s ideas—you decided to “buy in”.

It could be anything: jobs, abortion, race, consumer goods, you name it—it always comes down to what a person chooses to believe and invest themselves in. The more they invest themselves, the more committed they are to the issue. And the more tempting the bait, the more people are willing to invest.  When that one thief set up his charity, his bait for the cause was so tempting that it didn’t even seem like bait—because he played on all of the vulnerabilities named earlier.  We all want to “do good” and “feel good”, and we want to believe that this time everything is OK.  Everyone responds to different bait though, and sometimes we see the manipulations and pitfalls in time to not get caught in them.

Of course there are real charities too, ones that deserve donations; the trick is figuring out which ones are legit.  Similarly it is reasonable to believe in certain laws of physics, because you can objectively determine their legitimacy, without having to feel good about them.  When in doubt, in any circumstance, ask yourself if your thoughts are being swayed by the human desire to believe in something good.

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