Mechanical Consistency

“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”
-Sir Joshua Reynolds

Today, I am reading Influence by Robert Cialdini. Its an interesting book, especially for anybody who debates anything online and has noticed peoples’ refusal to be swayed no matter how weak their position is. Here’s a long quote that seemed all to familiar:

‘The Foolish Fortress

There is a second, more perverse attraction of mechanical consistency as well.
Sometimes it is not the effort of hard, cognitive work that makes us shirk thoughtful
activity but the harsh consequences of that activity. Sometimes it is the cursedly clear
and unwelcome set of answers provided by straight thinking that makes us mental
slackers. There are certain disturbing things we simply would rather not realize.
Because it is a preprogrammed and mindless method of responding, automatic
consistency can supply a safe hiding place from troubling realizations. Sealed within the
fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.
One night at an introductory lecture given by the Transcendental Meditation program, I
witnessed an illustration of the way people will hide inside the walls of consistency to
protect themselves from the troublesome consequences of thought. The lecture itself
was presided over by two earnest young men and was designed to recruit new members into the program. The men claimed that the program offered a unique brand of meditation (TM) which would allow us to achieve all manner of desirable things, ranging from simple inner peace to more spectacular abilities— to flyand pass through walls—at the program’s advanced (and more expensive) stages.I had decided to attend the meeting to observe the kind of compliance tactics used in recruitment lectures of this sort and had brought along an interested friend, a university professor whose areas of specialization were statistics and symbolic logic. As the meeting progressed and the lecturers explained the theory behind TM, I noticed my logician friend becoming increasingly restless. Looking more and more pained and shifting about constantly in his seat,he was finally unable to resist. When

the leaders called for questions at the end of the lecture, he raised his hand and gently but surely demolished the presentation we had just heard. In less than two minutes, he pointed out precisely where and why the lecturers’ complex argument was contradictory, illogical, and unsupportable. The effect on the discussion leaders was devastating. After a confused silence, each attempted a weak reply only to halt midway to confer with his partner and finally to admit that my colleague’s points were good ones “requiring further study.”
More interesting to me, though, was the effect upon the rest of the audience. At the end
of the question period, the two recruiters were faced with a crowd of audience members
submitting their $75 down payments for admission to the TM program. Nudging, shrugging, and chuckling to one another as they took in the payments, the recruiters
betrayed signs of giddy bewilderment. After what appeared to have been an
embarrassingly clear collapse of their presentation, the meeting had somehow turned
into a great success, generating mystifyingly high levels of compliance from the
audience. Although more than a bit puzzled, I chalked up the audience response to a failure to understand the logic of my colleague’s arguments. As it turned out, however,
just the reverse was the case.
Outside the lecture room after the meeting, we were approached by three members of
the audience, each of whom had given a down payment immediately after the lecture.
They wanted to know why we had come to the session. We explained, and we asked the
same question of them. One was an aspiring actor who wanted desperately to succeed at
his craft and had come to the meeting to learn if TM would allow him to achieve the
necessary self-control to master the art; the recruiters had assured him that it would. The
second described herself as a severe insomniac who hoped that TM would provide her
with a way to relax and fall asleep easily at night. The third served as unofficial
spokesman. He was failing his college courses,because there didn’t seem to be enough
time to study. He had come to the meeting to find out if TM could help by training him
to need fewer hours of sleep each night; the additional time could then be used for
study. It is interesting to note that the recruiters informed him as well as the insomniac
that Transcendental Meditation techniques could solve their respective, though opposite,
problems. Still thinking that the three must have signed up because they hadn’t understood the points made by my logician friend, I began to question them about aspects of his argument. To my surprise, I found that they had understood his comments quite well; in fact, all too well. It was precisely the cogency of his argument that drove them to signup for the program on the spot. The spokesman put it best: “Well, I wasn’t going to put down any money tonight because I’m really broke right now; I was going to wait
until the next meeting. But when your buddy started talking, I knew I’d better give them
my money now, or I’d go home and start thinking about what he said and never
sign up.”
All at once, things began to make sense. These were people with real problems, and they were desperately searching for a way to solve those problems. They were seekers who, if our discussion leaders were to be believed, had found a potential solution in TM. Driven by their needs, they very much wanted to believe that TM was their answer. Now, in the form of my colleague, intrudes the voice of reason, showing the theory underlying their newfound solution to be unsound. Panic! Something must be done atonce before logic takes its toll and leaves them without hope once again. Quickly, quickly, walls against reason are needed; and it doesn’t matter that the fortress to be erected is a foolish one. “Quick, a hiding place from thought! Here, take this money.Whew, safe in the nick of time. No need to think about the issues any longer.” The decision has been made, and from now on the consistency tape can be played whenever necessary: ‘TM? Certainly I think it will help me; certainly I expect to continue; certainly I believe in TM.

I already put my money down for it, didn’t I?” Ah, the comforts of mindless consistency. “I’ll just rest right here for a while. It’s so much nicer than the worry and strain of that hard, hard search.”
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2 thoughts on “Mechanical Consistency

  1. The frustrating thing about questioning one’s premises is that it sometimes leads one to doubt worldviews that are well-established in one’s mind, or to hold contradictory views on various subjects. It’s nice and comforting to have a consistent and orderly perception of the universe; when a thought comes around that might throw a wrench into the whole works, it’s a pain in the ass.

    I guess it’s why scientific theories turn into dogmatic “consensus” and then into accepted fact despite any evidence that arises in contradiction.

    Sounds like an interesting read.

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