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How to Understand “True Believers”

Human nature fuels mass movements, not the facts

In 1951, Princeton’s All-American tailback, Dick Kazmeier, landed on the cover of Time Magazine. The issue coincided with a football game between the undefeated Tigers and Dartmouth. From the opening kick-off to the final play, it was a rough, dirty game. Several players left due to injury, including Kazmier with a broken nose and mild concussion.

Observers from both sides said they had never seen such a disgusting exhibition of so-called “sport.” Both teams were guilty, yet the blame was a matter of intense debate. Fans from each side saw the same game through a different lens.

Two professors, Hadley Cantril of Princeton and Albert Hastorf of Dartmouth, used the event to study tribal psychology. When they showed students from each school game footage, the divisions were sharp. On average, Princeton students saw Dartmouth commit 9.8 penalties. Looking at the same film, Dartmouth saw its team only commit 4.3. Cantril and Hastorf’s classic study was the first to back the theory of tribal psychology with data. Their findings highlighted how tribal identities result in people having different attitudes concerning the same “thing.”

They added,

As humans, we assign meaning to things based not just on reality but on our specific points of view. They are informed by personal situations, our circle of contacts, and perhaps more significant than ever, the media. The splintering of media-generated perspective creates gaps in our ability to make sense of complex events. This is obviously not good. The absence of confidence in institutional perspective creates a breeding ground for go-it-your-own-way meaning-making, conspiracy theories, and fear-mongering.

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This brings us to the crisis in America. Instead of analyzing how we got here, we might want to analyze why — and why it’s so hard to get a clear picture of what’s going on.

A great place to start is Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book True Believer. Using historical examples and social science, Hoffer explains why mass movements arise and the types of personalities likely to lead and join them.

The psychology is timeless and politically agnostic — ranging from cultural, to ideological, to religious goals. That said, there is a clear connection between Hoffer’s perspective and actions taken in Washington and state capitols this weekend. Here are relevant quotes in the context of questions we should better understand:

  • On why people join movements: “It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life.”
  • On why movements overlook the truth: “Orchestrators of mass movements strive to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world.”
  • On why revolutionary spirit manifests in uprisings: “A rising movement is all change and experiment — open to new views and techniques from all quarters.”
  • On why media have a hard time covering the current moment: “There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization.”
  • On why discord is so searing now: “Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.”
  • On why events in Washington caught many by surprise: “A pleasant existence blinds us to the possibilities of drastic change. We cling to what we call our common sense, our practical point of view. Actually, these are but names for an all-absorbing familiarity with things as they are.”
  • On why we need to dig beneath the surface to come to find common ground: “The tangibility of a pleasant and secure existence is such that it makes other realities, however imminent, seem vague and visionary.”

For centuries — around the world and across political divides — mass movements have been born of similar circumstances and common psychology. There is no excuse for violence or hatred. But a better understanding of the origins and momentum behind mass movements and their participants could help us recognize them as they start and prevent them from escalating toward dangerous territory in the future.

If nothing else, deeper digging into works like Hoffer’s offers wisdom into better understanding each other. An uprising of understanding might help accelerate positive change and reconciliation.

Chief Innovation Officer, Weber Shandwick

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