How Can A Society Support An Ideology The Majority Doesn’t Believe In?

When Steven Pinker named predation, dominance, revenge, sadism and ideology as the five roots of violence (in his book on the decline of human violence) – I immediately became interested. Especially as he wrote that the cause of ideological violence is not any particular part of the human brain – but is distributed across many people.

“The fifth and most consequential cause of violence is ideology, in which true believers weave a collection of motives into a creed and recruit other people to carry out its destructive goals. An ideology cannot be identified with a part of the brain or even with a whole brain, because it is distributed across the brains of many people.

…the really big body counts in history pile up when a large number of people carry out a motive that transcends any one of them: an ideology. Like predatory or instrumental violence, ideological violence is a means to an end. But with an ideology, the end is idealistic: a conception of the greater good.”

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

When the world is falling under the spell of nationalist populism, and the only spirited opposition are basic income-worshippers – the question of how murderous ideologies spread and promote aggression becomes very interesting.


How can entire societies fall under the spell of an ideology they don’t actually believe in?

With these two monstrous ideas battling for triumph, it is perhaps time to see how support for ideologies spread – especially the ones the majority of people would not support.

“Can the propagation of conformity through social networks actually lead people to sign on to ideologies they don’t find compelling and carry out acts they think are downright wrong?”

Pinker offers a few insights about the environment and the key ingredients that are most conducive for such an ideology to take hold and grip an entire society:

The role of conformity

Some argue that they only source of human evil can be found in our inclination to conform. Pinker adds that – like so many things – conformity has an individual advantage as well as a negative social outcome. It is rational for an individual to conform in certain cases in order to skip learning everything at his or her own individual cost.

Why do people so often impersonate sheep? It’s not that conformity is inherently irrational. Many heads are better than one, and it’s usually wiser to trust the hard-won wisdom of millions of people in one’s culture than to think that one is a genius who can figure everything out from scratch.
But sometimes the advantage of conformity to each individual can lead to pathologies in the group as a whole, Pinker adds. Especially when the many conforming individuals converge and end up lending an undue influence to something undeserving – or even outright evil. “Whether you call it herd behavior, the cultural echo chamber, the rich get richer, or the Matthew Effect, our tendency to go with the crowd can lead to an outcome that is collectively undesirable.” Like when the already most popular song gets even more attention because listeners keep piling on – explaining why so many mediocre songs can become hugely popular.
An avalanche effect of giving to those who already have can, for instance, benefit a populist whose only “merit” is that he is already listened to by so many. Eventually, we may end up concluding that whatever he is saying must be important somehow.

How echo chambers get more extreme in their views

“If you’re in some sort of a group that defines itself by its opinions, then people will get more and more polarised over time.”

It is logical if we thing about it, because it would be really weird to participate in an opinion-based group only in order to question the group opinion. But in the long run even skeptical opinions get drowned out in such groups – that would otherwise refine and benefit the opinion the group upholds.

It happens because individuals will always try to conform to what the group mandates. Many join not because they wholeheartedly believe in everything the group says, but because they git hooked and sucked in by one or few elements of the group’s credo. The rest then is either voluntarily accepted or enforced – but raising skeptical voices about the group’s credo is never a good strategy to make friends and gain influence and social standing within a group.

Such groups then become powerful echo chambers repeating the most outrageous examples of the opponent group’s views and behaviour – as well as urban legends and slightly biased and often made up accounts of victims of the opponent group. People within the group will try to get social approval from other members of the group – whether it takes a lie or an adjustment of one’s own views. This quickly becomes an escalating game where they’ll play to the standard that they’re supposed to live up to – and then they take it further because they reason that more extreme endorsement of the group view gets them more approval. This is how the norms of the group shift over time.

This is why the extremes of each group justify one another’s existence. Just observe how red pill meninists keep bashing the most outrageous extremes of feminist writing and behaviour.

The pluralistic paradox, or false conformity

We talk about the pluralistic paradox (false conformity) when people endorse a practice or opinion they don’t hold just because they mistakenly think that everyone else favours it. The same even applies to facts – as experiments have repeatedly shown. People may even endorse a falsehood, simply because others have endorsed them before them.
But as “the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes makes clear, all it takes is one little boy to break the spiral of silence, and a false consensus will implode. Once the emperor’s nakedness became common knowledge, pluralistic ignorance was no longer possible.”

This is when enforcement of these ideas comes to the rescue. In the next post…

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* All quotes are from Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined – unless otherwise stated

8 thoughts on “How Can A Society Support An Ideology The Majority Doesn’t Believe In?

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  3. The emperors new clothes is a wildly optimistic tale. Do you think there were no whistleblowers during Hitlers ascension to power? There were, and they were the first to be killed. Ideology is powerfull because many want desperatly to believe in it – as in Hungary today.


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  5. I’ve been wondering about ideological possession a lot these days for we stand so near the edge that it only takes a good demagogue to kindle the fire and we all burn in it.

    I believe conformity does not answer the question. Or to be more precise, the prevalence of conformity (among other things, of course) is implied in the spread of an ideology, and the true questions are 1) what causes conformity and 2) what to do about it.

    I believe conformity to the extreme feeds on an underdeveloped personality that remained overly agreeable. (The causes of this are somewhat irrelevant. They are relevant if we want to focus on prevention, but honestly, I believe the ship of prevention sailed long ago and we do not have that kind of time anymore. Nevertheless, it is to be found – in my opiniont – in the person’s relationship with authority early on.)

    Agreeableness brings about the lack of assertiveness, which then brings about negative social and economic consequences, which then brings about resentment, and resentment is the fuel and lifeblood of a possessive ideology.

    In other words, when people did not integrate what Jung called the shadow, the highly dark aspects of one’s self, they are tossed around in social environments until an ideological wave sweeps them up, giving validity to their resentment and a means to take vengeance.

    Sadly there is no simple solution for such a problem. I mean, it is hard enough to face and integrate your own shadow, but to have a whole nation do it is damn near an impossible task. The closest I have to an answer – apart from a truly titanic intellectual effort and a cultural revolution (god, this phrase too is corrupted) – is art, bypassing the conscious mental blocks of people with mythological tales.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Couldn’t agree more. You must have come across Gladwell’s praise of diagreeableness for innovation and ultimately, entrepreneurial thinking. The same also applies for disagreeable individuals and the crucial role they play in society – and the maintenance of sanity and liberty.

      The emperor’s new clothes is a misleading tale in a sense that the disagreeable person, the whistleblower, is a child. So we all go “Awww” and put it down to a child’s “innocence”. Now call me old-fashioned, but I see nothing virtuous in a child’s “innocence”. Someone who hasn’t been tempted could not have been proven virtuous.

      In fact, what made the child the only sane person in the room is not it’s presumed innocence, nor virtue. It is his incomplete indoctrination. The child’s indoctrination into society’s blind values (such as conformity to whatever others appear to think and see) was incomplete – therefore the child was unable to see the collective delusion that was not even there. A few years later he no doubt would have been better prepared to participate in society. Very agreeably.


    • Regarding incorporating the possibility of a “shadow” – it is inherently an individual genre. Damage can be done by groups, collectives and societies – prevention will always be performed by individuals who dared to see things for what they are – rather than what they were supposed to be. You can’t make someone else to embrace his individuality (especially it means embracing his own idiosyncrasies and “shadow” – both scary and go against conformity) But you can always pressurize someone to lose their individuality.


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