Translation of "Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs "

Eliezer Yudkowsky, “Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs ”, public translation into Chinese (simplified) from English More about this translation.

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Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs

Early studiers of cults were surprised to discover than when cults receive a major shock—a prophecy fails to come true, a moral flaw of the founder is revealed—they often come back stronger than before, with increased belief and fanaticism. The Jehovah's Witnesses placed Armageddon in 1975, based on Biblical calculations; 1975 has come and passed. The Unarian cult, still going strong today, survived the nonappearance of an intergalactic spacefleet on September 27, 1975. (The Wikipedia article on Unarianism mentions a failed prophecy in 2001, but makes no mention of the earlier failure in 1975, interestingly enough.)

Why would a group belief become stronger after encountering crushing counterevidence?

The conventional interpretation of this phenomenon is based on cognitive dissonance. When people have taken "irrevocable" actions in the service of a belief—given away all their property in anticipation of the saucers landing—they cannot possibly admit they were mistaken. The challenge to their belief presents an immense cognitive dissonance; they must find reinforcing thoughts to counter the shock, and so become more fanatical. In this interpretation, the increased group fanaticism is the result of increased individual fanaticism.

I was looking at a Java applet which demonstrates the use of evaporative cooling to form a Bose-Einstein condensate, when it occurred to me that another force entirely might operate to increase fanaticism. Evaporative cooling sets up a potential energy barrier around a collection of hot atoms. Thermal energy is essentially statistical in nature—not all atoms are moving at the exact same speed. The kinetic energy of any given atom varies as the atoms collide with each other. If you set up a potential energy barrier that's just a little higher than the average thermal energy, the workings of chance will give an occasional atom a kinetic energy high enough to escape the trap. When an unusually fast atom escapes, it takes with an unusually large amount of kinetic energy, and the average energy decreases. The group becomes substantially cooler than the potential energy barrier around it. Playing with the Java applet may make this clearer.

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