The Truth Shall Make You Freak

Reality is too terrifying. Myth is too dangerous.

Posted Sep 16, 2019

You’ve been slogging toward your goal for years. Now you’re getting credible word that you’re going the wrong way. You should turn around.

No way are you going to retreat. All those miles, all the sacrifices you made to get this far. There must be something wrong with those people trying to turn you back. They’re jealous, mean, fake, whatever. You’re marching on, loyal to your campaign.

Here’s a test of your introspective honesty: Have you ever felt like that—like marching on not because your prospects are good, but because you’ve invested so much already?

If your answer is no, you’re probably kidding yourself.

We’re all tempted to dismiss discouragement. We speedread and discount those who challenge our commitments. We look for reasons why we don’t have to listen to them, why we needn’t give up on our big commitment.

Behavioral economists call it the sunk-cost fallacy, the false assumption that you should throw good money after bad, as though past investment demands future investment when really, as economists say, “sunk costs are sunk.” Whether you continue or quit, you can’t have a past investment back, so ignore what you’ve invested.

At every point, all that matters is the best option for moving forward. What you’ve already invested is irrelevant. The sunk cost fallacy is regarded as a cognitive bias, but it’s not just a failure of rationality. It’s highly motivated. If we give up, we grieve the investment we’ve made with nothing to show for it.

We grieve our failure of intuition, too. Having bet wrong, we’re not going to trust our intuition for a while after. When you bail on a bet, you have to be sad for a while, but not just that. You also have to be disoriented. Your gut intuition ties itself in knots trying to reassert itself after it steered you wrong.

I’ve recently cozied up to some people who have lived or are living this large. One, a woman who, on the road to financial success, was coerced into a sharp turn toward religious salvation at the hands of a psychopathic prophet. Within a few years, she was suicidal, housed by her prophet in a halfway house for men coming out of jail, serving as a sex slave receiving instructions on who to sleep with by her prophet.

She had doubled down over and over on her bet that she was on the path to celestial success. The higher she climbed, the farther she would fall if she stopped believing.

Finally, the evidence was inescapable and she found a way to escape. She left and slowly got her bearings. She now works with another religious sect serving as a go-between, helping current members think through their options.

I recently visited her within the sect she serves, the FLDS community in Hildale, Utah. Despite their prophet’s incarceration and its exotic lifestyle, it is in many ways admirable, with communitarian practices lost in mainstream culture. In other ways, it’s a faith-fueled cult running straight toward a brick wall.

My visit confused me beautifully (I’m intellectually bi-curious. My best insights come from being confused, from noticing an inconsistency, a way in which I or others are talking out both sides of our mouths).

I asked community members about rumors that challenged their commitment. They politely but systematically swatted each challenge away as fake news. People who left the sect were flawed. Their now-imprisoned “prophet” did nothing wrong. Challengers are just uninformed or out to defeat the sect.

I have written lots about how a habit of automatically dismissing all challengers is a key symptom of cultish, even evil, behavior. And yet being with these people, impressed as I was by her sect’s communitarian practices, reminded me of the virtue of such systematic dismissiveness. There’s something to be said for “Shut up. It’s our plan, and we’re sticking with it.”

Stubborn faith in a tribal narrative is necessary for cultural cohesion, committing to faith in some unifying myth and actively ignoring its contradictions. For cultural cohesion in marriage, business, or a spiritual community, there’s a place for just shutting up and sticking to the path. Groupthink both hurts and herds us.

I grew up in almost the exact opposite of the FLDS culture, perhaps one that’s no less exotic — one that bought fully into “the truth shall set you free," ignoring the way that the truth also makes us freak. 

In the 1970s, my family embraced humanistic psychology and the encounter group movement. In our family’s interpretation of it, the secret to harmony was sharing your uncensored, honest feelings and opinions, no matter how controversial or different from other people’s beliefs.

That movement didn’t turn out well. You open all the cans of worms, and what do you get? A household strewed with cans of worms, landmines to trip over everywhere. We ended up processing too much. The successful marriages I see today do a lot of grinning and bearing it, partners biting their tongues and letting stuff slide.

So I’m torn, especially these days as global pressures argue for greater unity. Anything goes; democracy and capitalism aren’t working as well as we hoped, and yet neither is authoritarian leadership and their flocks of followers of unrealistic myths. Politically, the question plays out as culture wars, some arguing that we need to retreat to old myths, and others, like me, arguing that we need to plow forward toward greater critical thinking skills and self-expression for all.

I have research colleagues who believe the solution is for everyone to just wake up and embrace scientific reality. Ironically, I don’t think that’s realistic.

I have to be realistic about how unrealistic humans have to be. I think facing reality could make our heads explode. There’s no evidence that humans could en masse give up the ghost, the supernatural miracle magic that affords us comfort and cohesion.

And yet the alternative, living the myths that provide cultural cohesion isn’t promising either. I got a taste of that talking to these people who surrendered their will to a myth that forces them to deny dangerous aspects of their reality.

In sum, reality is too boring and terrifying to embrace. Fantasy is too alluring and dangerous to guide us to survival.

The culture wars — the free-for-all democratic self-expression of my culture vs. the blind faith in unifying myths of other cultures — I see it like this:

We're like rubber; they're like glue.

We're chaotic, and they're screwed too.