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Beware the Lure of the Idea Cult

We think of cults as fringe groups, with bizarre beliefs and (usually) a charismatic leader. We know them as brainwashing operations, oppressively controlling its members.

But there is another kind of cult that is more subtle but far more pervasive and persuasive, and has the potential for great harm. The idea cult.

The dictionary definition of cult is “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Idea cults, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant in his phenomenal book Think Again, are “groups that stir up a batch of oversimplified intellectual Kool-Aid and recruit followers to serve it widely.”

Grant says that anyone who challenges the idea or calls for nuance or complexity is prosecuted by the cult.

Idea cults are often found around political ideologies, economic philosophies and social issues. (Of course, not all philosophies or social viewpoints achieve idea cult status.)

You can recognize idea cults by the following traits:

- a popular opinion or philosophy that has obvious flaws, double-standards or hypocrisy.

- Even after an idea has been thoroughly debunked, the idea cult and its followers trudge on.

- The negative effects and consequences are hidden or ignored.

- Proponents evangelize and recruit believers.

- An emotional hook - often fear - is used to generate sympathy and interest. Simplistic slogans and taglines are also used.

- Anyone who disagrees with the idea or presents contrary evidence is derided and often labeled as ignorant, malicious, or even evil.

Idea cults can happen organically but are usually created deliberately in order to achieve a goal. The real goal is usually hidden, which creates hypocrisy when the stated goal conflicts with the real goal. (In politics, the primary goal of the major parties is to gain and keep power, but you won't find that in their platform statements.) The instigators are often people at high levels of influence who have mastered the art of persuasion.

Most of us have been in idea cults, usually with no awareness that we are so irrationally bonded to a belief. So how do we know if we are in an idea cult?

Think about an issue, topic, or idea that you feel strongly about and advocate for. Ask yourself how you feel about someone who disagrees with you on that issue. Could you be friends with that person?

Grant says consider whether or not you would accept the results of a study (that would support or refute the idea) based on the methods - without knowing what the conclusion will be. He also notes that it is important to remember that no action or behavior is always effective and that all cures have unintended consequences.

Finally, it’s important to actively seek opposing arguments and viewpoints. Otherwise, you are only likely to be exposed to supporting information - confirmation bias at work.

The goal is to improve self-awareness and your ability to think clearly, critically, and with an open mind.

Think well - live well.

- Steve Haffner, mind performance strategist

Want to learn more about improving your decision making and performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions


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