Blame it on the oxytocin — with its magic spell,
Blame it on the oxytocin — that it spins so well,
It begins with just a bit of hype,
But ends with reversion to a type,
Blame it on the oxytocin,
. . .The neuropeptide of in-group bonding, affiliation, self-preservation, and perceived safety.
So much for appropriated lyrics — as Eydie croons about the ‘dance of love’. It’s been a long and relentless search for the why’s. Why did Patty Hearst rob a bank? Why did Charlie Manson’s Helter Skelter vision hold such compelling and homicidal thrall? And why does a significant chunk of US citizenry continue to cling to a narrative with no basis in reality — again with lethal result?
No shortage of explanations on offer. Brainwashing. The Stockholm Syndrome. Cognitive dissonance reduction. Identification with the aggressor. Maybe all of the foregoing!
A recent New Yorker article (What Makes a Cult a Cult, July 12, 2021) had caught my attention. In particular, the author, Zoe Heller’s citations from The Delusions of Crowds (Bernstein, 2021). She quotes as follows:
People do not deploy the powerful human intellect to dispassionately analyze the world (choosing instead) to rationalize how the facts conform to their emotionally derived preconceptions. . . Humans understand the world through narratives (and) however much we flatter ourselves about our individual rationality, a good story, no matter how analytically deficient, . . resonates emotionally, and persuades more than the most dispositive facts or data. (bolding added)
In short, convincing and compelling ‘evidence’ is no match for what we want to believe — no matter how fantastic, far fetched, farcical, and frankly false. We find a narrative — then search for ‘facts’ (alternative and otherwise) to support it.
As I read, I was reminded of Daniel Kahneman’s excellent treatise on thinking, fast and slow. Fast thinking, System 1 as he labels it, is where we spend most of our day — ‘the secret author of many of the choices and judgments (we) make’. As it turns out, this is an efficient and expeditious way to drive the bus; but equally biased and often unsupported by data. . . frequently wrong. System 2, the slow, methodical, fact-checked alternative is ignored and resorted to with grudging resistance. To rework Plato’s aphorism: Don’t confuse me with facts . . . I’m in thrall to my lizard brain.
And just maybe that’s the underlying mechanism by which all those intriguing, psychological (but inferred) ‘explanations’ are driven. It’s less about the Svengali of the moment’s hugely persuasive message, less about restoring a balance to our cognitively conflicted state. And more about flat out safety, more about instinctively, viscerally measuring the options, doing a gut-level cost / benefit analysis — and going with the most available group.
Brain biology (surprise, surprise), with its expanding understanding of neurochemicals and their figural role in the choices we make, has something to say about those elusive ‘why’s’. In (very) reductionist terms, just as Dopamine surges when we feel rewarded, Endorphin release helps us manage and mask pain, Cortisol readies us to deal with threat — so Oxytocin has its signature triggers. Access to a familiar ‘herd’, confirmation that we’re safely ensconced amongst the like-minded, opens that particular sluice. Conversely, distancing from said group, socially, physically is, by and large discomforting — and may lead us to make some pretty counter-intuitive calls.
So when Jim Jones says it’s Kool Aid (it’s always good to hydrate fully before a long, inter-stellar flight); or Tucker Carlson goes on about the risks that attach to Covid vaccinations (I’m always losing my car keys anyway. . . how useful to have them stuck to my upper arm!); or the hours of beyond distressing video of January 6th are framed as a normal tourist day at the Capitol — let’s be charitable. The hundreds to millions of adherents are not stupid or mesmerized or deluded. They’re just loyal. They’ve just checked their respective cortexes (cortices?) at the door and slid down the evolutionary scale to lizard levels. They’re actively grooming the alpha of the moment, ducking the principled, critically thinking risk that attaches to moving away from the crowd and pulling a Liz Cheney or a Mitt Romney. They’re just having a little oxytocin shower — and movin’ to the beat. Bless the Boss(a Nova).