This Article Won’t Change Your Mind

“I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘She’s totally lying.’ At the same time, I remember something in my mind saying, ‘And that doesn’t matter.’” For Daniel Shaw, believing the words of the guru he had spent years devoted to wasn’t blind faith exactly. It was something he chose. “I remember actually consciously making that choice.”

There are facts, and there are beliefs, and there are things you want so badly to believe that they become as facts to you.

Back in 1980, Shaw had arrived at a Siddha Yoga meditation center in upstate New York during what he says was a “very vulnerable point in my life.” He’d had trouble with relationships, and at work, and none of the therapies he’d tried really seemed to help. But with Siddha Yoga, “my experiences were so good and meditation felt so beneficial [that] I really walked into it more and more deeply. At one point, I felt that I had found my life’s calling.” So, in 1985, he saved up money and flew to India to join the staff of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the spiritual leader of the organization, which had tens of thousands of followers. Shaw rose through the ranks, and spent a lot of time traveling for the organization, sometimes with Gurumayi, sometimes checking up on centers around the U.S.

But in 1994, Siddha Yoga became the subject of an exposé in The New YorkerThe article by Lis Harris detailed allegations of sexual abuse against Gurumayi’s predecessor, as well as accusations that Gurumayi forcibly ousted her own brother, Nityananda, from the organization. Shaw says he was already hearing “whispers” of sexual abuse when he joined in the 80s, but “I chose to decide that they couldn’t be true.” One day shortly after he flew to India, Shaw and the other staff members had gathered for a meeting, and Gurumayi had explained that her brother and popular co-leader was leaving the organization voluntarily. That was when Shaw realized he was being lied to. And when he decided it didn’t matter—“because she’s still the guru, and she’s still only doing everything for the best reasons. So it doesn’t matter that she’s lying.’” (For her part, Gurumayi has denied banishing her brother, and Siddha Yoga is still going strong. Gurumayi, though unnamed, is presumed to be the featured guru in Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love.)

But that was then. Shaw eventually found his way out of Siddha Yoga and became a psychotherapist. These days, he dedicates part of his practice to working with former cult members and family members of people in cults.

The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,” Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. “Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.”

This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as “motivated reasoning.” Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

It starts at the borders of attention—what people even allow to breach their bubbles. In a 1967 study, researchers had undergrads listen to some pre-recorded speeches, with a catch—the speeches were pretty staticky. But, the participants could press a button that reduced the static for a few seconds if they wanted to get a clearer listen. Sometimes the speeches were about smoking—either linking it to cancer, or disputing that link—and sometimes it was a speech attacking Christianity. Students who smoked were very eager to tune in to the speech that suggested cigarettes might not cause cancer, whereas nonsmokers were more likely to slam on the button for the antismoking speech. Similarly, the more-frequent churchgoers were happy to let the anti-Christian speech dissolve into static while the less religious would give the button a few presses.

learn more

Chris Alexakis