Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The seekers effect: why we keep seeking growth at all costs

Already in 1972, the classic study "The Limits to Growth" had shown that economic growth could not last forever (above: the "base case" scenario from the study). Even without complex calculations, it should be clear from simple physics that infinite growth is not possible in a finite world. Yet, politicians, leaders, economists, decision makers and the like are all pushing for growth, growth, and more growth. In an earlier post, I tried to find rational reasons for this attitude, but I tend to think that it can be better explained in terms of the "Seekers effect." The term comes from the name of an esoteric sect, the "Seekers" active in the 1950s who believed to have been alerted by aliens of the incoming end of the world.

If you are trained in science or engineering, you probably think that your views should be based on the available data and that, if better data become available, then you should change your views. You may think that this is the obvious way to behave, but think twice. Most likely, you are part of a minority; possibly a tiny minority. By far, most people seem to act on a different set of principles. They will normally stick to their opinion no matter what the data say. And if new data contradict a previous held opinion, the hell with the new data. It is something that we could call the "Seekers effect."

The Seekers were an esoteric sect active in the 1950s. A summary of their story is told by Chris Money in an article titled "The science of why we don't believe in science." In short, the Seekers had gathered around a lady named Dorothy Martin who was claiming  to be receiving telepathic messages from aliens. She had been told that a major cataclysmic event would take place on a specific date: December 21, 1954. Most of humankind would be destroyed; but the Seekers themselves would be taken to safety on an alien spaceship landing on that day.

The special element that makes the Seekers a paradigm in human behavior is that they had been infiltrated by a group of social psychologists, led by Leon Festinger, who watched them until and after the fated date when, obviously, no catastrophe occurred. In Festinger's 1956 book "When Prophecy Fails" we can read how the seekers reacted to the failure of their leader's prophecy. Their first reaction, of course, was of dismay. But that didn't last long. In a few days, the Seekers had closed ranks and restructured their beliefs: their prophet, ms. Martin had not been wrong at all; the aliens had decided to spare humankind as the result of the faith of the Seekers! The most interesting twist in this story is that not only the seekers didn't accept that their prophecies were wrong; they stepped up efforts to recruit new followers and to convince everyone of their ideas. Eventually, the were ridiculed so much that they disappeared, but that took a few years.

The story of the Seekers is one of the best studied of what is called "motivated reasoning"; that is the tendency of twisting facts and logic in order keep one's beloved worldview. Money says that:

We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about... we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.

Motivated reasoning is very common. Today, you don't need to infiltrate any esoteric sect to see it at work: you can see dramas similar to the one of the Seekers unfolding on discussion sites and on Facebook. A recent case in point is that of the "E-Cat", the fabulous nuclear device that should have brought us eternal prosperity. Give a look to some of the sites of the believers and you'll see that, despite the accumulation of proof that the E-Cat is nothing but a glorified teapot, the believers are unmoved in their stance. Not just that, but are also doubling up their efforts to convince everyone that their teapot is, really, a nuclear reactor.

Most of the discussions that take place on the Web, say, on climate, energy, peak oil and the like, are not based on data or logic; have you ever seen anyone changing his/her opinion in one of these discussions? Maybe it happens, sometimes, but it is almost a miraculous event.

The same motivated reasoning seems to be at work on economic growth. It takes place mostly on the media, rather than on the web, but the psychological factors at play seem to be the same. So, it is growth, growth and more growth; it is always the same concept, repeated over and over in the media. Yet, there is no rational reason (even though I tried to find one) for choosing growth over every other possible strategy. It is our tendency to stick to our previous beliefs. In the past, we put so much effort in the belief that growth can cure all ills, that now we cannot back up without losing face. It is the Seekers effect.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)