A Summary Of How Denial Works

I am pulling together my notes on this topic, and am trying to synthesize them into a set of working principles that is short and simple enough for me to remember. I would be grateful to anyone who cares to read this and tell me if they can think of any areas of research that are inconsistent with what I have put together. I will spare you the 150 pages of notes.

All the best,


The empirical and theoretical research produced by sociology, social psychology and psychology (as summarized above) can be synthesized into a description of a few features of human behavior that Mormonism is well suited to take advantage of. These can be stated as follows:

· Our perceptive faculties and brains do not primarily record objective information. They rather function in a manner consistent with what evolutionary theory indicates to be our most basic objectives – they help us to maximize our probability of survival and reproduction. Hence, we have an astonishing ability to more or less accurately perceive those aspects of reality that seem to increase the probability of our accomplishing those two objectives, and to suppress those aspects of reality that seem to hinder us in that regard.

· Our evolutionary imperative mandates many forms of relatively accurate perception, some of the most interesting of which are summarized in the heuristics research, and two overriding types of misperception which are as follows:

o The first type of misperception relates to the importance of the group historically to our individual survival and prosperity. I will call this “group induced misperception”. It causes us to largely accept as “real” what we perceive to be important to the group’s survival and prosperity and to suppress information that we perceive to threaten the group. Think, for example, of Bourdieu’s “misrecognition” concept and the authority bias research. Most of the bias research can be explained by this concept as well.

o The second type of misperception is caused by our need to feel secure within the group as individuals. For example, if our contribution v. our cost to the group does not meet some minimal standard, we may be pushed out and when our instincts were formed by evolution this likely often meant death. And the greater our status within the group, the greater our security and reproductive opportunity will tend to be. While this was likely true when our instincts were formed, it is still true in different ways now. I will call this second type of misperception “ego induced misperception”. Think, for example, of the justification bias research.

· Our inherited beliefs are the cumulative effect of the our group’s historic perceptions, which evolved for the practical purposes just noted and are almost certain to be inaccurate to a significant extent. See the information above regarding social context and “premises”.

· We will be slower to accept accurate information that conflicts with an inaccurate belief we hold than would a similarly educated and intelligent person who was not burdened by our inaccurate belief. This is likely in part because our brains format around our inherited beliefs. However, we behave this way with regard to inherited beliefs as well beliefs formed on a deliberatively rational basis in adulthood. This feature of our psychology likely evolved as a result of the importance of inherited beliefs to group stability and the likelihood that wisdom passed on to us by our elders of a more practical sort would be on balance adaptive. The confirmation bias research bears this out. This is one of the most pervasive and harmful cognitive biases.

· Emotion is largely driven by the older structures within the brain’s core, while deliberative reason of the type used in the scientific method is largely driven by structures that evolved more recently and are in the cerebral cortex. The older, cruder brain structures tend to overcome the more recent rational structures when they are pitted against each other. See the information above related to reason v. emotion.

· The more heavily we are influenced by emotion as opposed to reason (“ecological rationality” as opposed to “deliberative rationality”), the greater our tendency to misperceive. This increases the probability that we will act in accordance with our evolutionary imperative when confronted with evidence, whether accurate or inaccurate, that could threaten our group or our place in it. See, for example, the information above regarding taboos, ecological rationality, reason v. emotion, and value structures.

· We tend to equate strong feelings with “knowing”. This enhances our tendency to be certain of whatever moves us most deeply from an emotional point of view, whether it related to fear or desire, and so strengthens the tendencies already noted.

· Powerful emotional experiences, often characterized as “spiritual experiences”, result from both normal brain functioning and brain dysfunction. They are sometimes the result of solitary contemplation or other individual experience, and sometimes the result of group interaction of various sorts. These experiences are human universals and are both rationally and irrationally used in most human groups to support their foundational beliefs. See the information above related to spiritual experience and the emotion of elation.

· We are not as affected by emotion when examining the experience of other individuals or groups as we are when attempting to understand our own experience, and hence are able to see irrational behavior in others that we cannot see in ourselves. See the information above related to the pattern of insider belief and outsider rejection.

· Human tendencies evolve because they are on balance adaptive at the time of evolution. Hence, a tendency like the authority bias may have been adaptive on balance, but in some cases maladaptive. This would be particularly so from the perspective of many individuals within the group since the authority bias likely evolved to strengthen groups, and so only indirectly to benefit individual members of groups. And yet individual members of the group would be subject to it whether it was adaptive for them or not. Individuals who become aware of this can now often leave groups that work contrary to their particular interest, but should be expected to instinctively fear doing so for the reasons indicated.

· Human culture changes much more quickly than human biology. So human tendencies that evolved because they were at one time adaptive on balance (such as the authority bias) may persist after they are less adaptive on balance or even maladaptive. The declining importance of adherence to the dictates of certain kinds of small group authority makes the authority bias a likely an example of this. This explains why entire groups are instinctively held together when the costs them impose on their members is far greater than the collective benefits the members receive. Jonestown is likely an example of such a group.

Let’s now condense these principles by another order of magnitude to see if we can get a “take away” concept that is concise enough to be remembered.

· The human capacity to perceive evolved to make it more likely that we would survive and propagate in our physical and social environment (our “evolutionary environment”) at the time we evolved. In our evolutionary environment the well-being of our dominant, small social group and our security within it were far more important to our survival and reproductive opportunities than is now generally the case. Therefore, both in our evolutionary environment and now, when we are confronted with information that might threaten one of our group’s foundational values and hence threaten our group, we tend to misperceive the information so that it is not threatening. The same is true with regard to information that might threaten our place within the group.

· We are more likely to misperceive when under the influence of our emotions. Our emotions tend to flare when our group’s foundational values or our place in the group are threatened. However, we tend to rational when examining the foundational values of other groups, and so can spot their irrationality. The obvious irrationality of other groups coupled with our inability to perceive our own irrationality strengthens our group. And particularly powerful emotional experiences, often characterized as “spiritual experiences”, are human universals. These are used in most human groups to support their foundational beliefs.

That is short enough that it will do the trick for me.

So, how does Mormonism use these attributes of human behavior to strengthen itself?

· Mormonism emphasizes the possibility of knowing impossible to know and deeply comforting things with certainty, thus taking advantage of the human dislike of dissonance, bias toward certainty and fear of death and social instability.

· Mormonism emphasizes emotional feeling as a form of knowledge that should take precedence over “rational” or “intellectual” knowledge whenever there is a conflict, and encourages both group and individual behavour that will increase the likelihood of powerful emotional experiences. This supercharges the irrational effect emotion has within the Mormon community.

· Mormonism maintains control over as many of life’s experiences as possible that tend to produce positive emotions, and takes as much credit as possible for those feelings. These feelings are then used as evidence that Mormonism’s truth claims are “true”.

· Among Mormonism’s inherited beliefs we find a few that raise the fear and desire stakes, thus intensifying an already powerful authority bias and making Mormons more prone to the irrational effect of emotion. The most significant of these is that only those obedient to Mormon authority will be reunited after death in the Celestial Kingdom with their families in a state of unimaginable joy. This concept’s most pervasive influence comes from its making complete obedience to Mormon authority a condition to family life after death. This means that any strong taboo set up by Mormon leaders will evoke the fear response, which will impair reason. For the last several decades one of Mormonism strongest taboos has been against reading or talking about information that questions Mormon authority, regardless of the information’s academic merit. Hence, the first hurdle most Mormons must get over when faced with information that questions the Mormon belief system is an irrationality inducing fear response caused by themere idea that one might look at such information. If that can be overcome, the fear response that in most groups would be caused by seriously considering information that questions foundation group values must then be dealt with.

· Mormonism monopolizes its members’ time and suppresses information that conflicts with Mormon belief, thus slowing the manner in which cognitive dissonance of various types will build within the Mormon population, and the opportunity reason will have to calm emotion and so overcome emotional irrationality. Importantly, it is taboo to read or talk about anything that questions Mormon authority. The mere appearance of this information is therefore enough to evoke a strong fear response in most Mormons, and so impair their rational faculties.

· Mormonism uses a host of group and individual rituals that are likely to amplify the effect of various biases and cause both group and ego induced misperception so as to strengthen the Mormon group. The emphasis on constant vocal affirmation of Mormon belief through public or semi-public scripture reading, praying and testimony bearing of various types is central to this.

What that is far from complete, it is good enough for present purposes.

When we add all of the above factors us, we should not be surprised that it is excruciatingly difficult for the typical faithful Mormon to look any information in the eye that questions the legitimacy of the beliefs on which his life is based.

So, we should not be surprised that it takes many of us until mid-life to “wake up”. And, we should not be surprised that many of our family and friends will never wake up. In fact, we should expect those who wake up to be in the minority. The force of denial within a heavily conditioned, socially tight community like most Mormon communities should be expected to be powerful.

On the basis of the foregoing, I feel justified to conclude that under the influence of the powerful personal experiences and social conditioning I have noted, the socially relative becomes more real than every day waking reality for many religious believers, including many Mormons, creating barriers to the kind of understanding across religious and other cultural lines that is becoming increasingly important in our shrinking world. The amounts to the denial of many kinds of highly probable reality, and explains to me both my own experience, and those of believers within many other traditions.

In sum, we should expect Mormons who have been fully conditioned by their community to be highly resistant to any information that challenges their beliefs. And, if for some reason a faithful Mormon is put in a position where the certainty he has felt that the Mormon worldview is “true” collapses, we should expect that to be a trauma on par with losing a close family member to death.

Leave a Reply