Human beings are cultural animals. As individuals, we acquire knowledge from other people. People who interact tend to synchronize their beliefs and behaviors. Conformity has many advantages. It makes knowledge acquisition faster and easier. It enables communication and cooperation. However, conformity can generate social delusions.
A social delusion is a belief that is its own inductive basis. People believe it just because other people believe it. Groups often generate delusions, due to conformity. This is commonly called “groupthink”.
Suppose that X is a social delusion, believed by a group G. Each member of G believes X because the other members of G believe X. New members of G will acquire the delusion from existing members. Everyone is just conforming to everyone else, and no one has any independent reason for the belief.
Religion is an example of a social delusion. There is no evidentiary basis for religion other than religion itself. People believe a religion just because other people believe it.
Once a social delusion becomes widespread in a group, it can be very difficult to dislodge. Social validation makes the believers very confident in the belief. Those who question or reject it might be ostracized.
Conformity can create a tragedy of the commons, in which individuals amplify a group delusion to avoid being ostracized, leading to mass insanity. Social delusions can create social cohesion, but they can also be socially destructive. Social delusions are a type of collective irrationality.
Social delusions can be the basis for group identity. People can organize into groups around social delusions. Each group is defined by its own delusion. The group provides its members with a comforting delusion, and the members work together to perpetuate that delusion. It’s collaborative self-deception. The delusion typically involves a claim of moral and intellectual superiority. The people in the circle are wise and good. Those on the outside are foolish or wicked.
Ideologies are social delusions that appeal to specific types of people, such as childless women, celibate men, ethnic minorities, etc. An ideology gives its members a group identity, a claim to moral superiority, and a claim to intellectual superiority. The members are a special group of good, intelligent people who have seen through the “grand deception” (e.g. “the Matrix”) to the truth that they are oppressed. They are motivated to signal the ideology to others, to establish their claims to moral and intellectual superiority, and to work toward the utopia promised by the ideology.
Imagine that you are struggling in life, facing obstacles, falling behind, etc. It would be difficult to get out of your troubles, and you might fail. In your depressed state, you meet a group of people who are in the same situation as you, and who tell you that your troubles are not your fault. They are the fault of the corrupt system! Your failure is actually a virtue. It is evidence of your moral superiority. You are a noble victim, not a loser. You are above the lesser people who succeed in the system that is rigged against you. The winners are evil or ignorant. There is no need to work hard to improve your life. That would be playing into the oppressive system. It is the system that needs to be fixed, not you.
The people in this group spend their time exchanging cherry-picked evidence about the oppressive system, evidence that fits their ideological narrative. Of course, this evidence is misleading. It is a biased sample selected to confirm the ideology. But it creates the illusion that you are still in contact with reality. How could outsiders not see what you see? They must be ignorant or evil.
Social delusions can be addictive. As social animals, we crave social acceptance, approval and status. Agreeing with a group delusion is a low-cost way to get acceptance, approval and status. Conversely, rejecting a group delusion can have real social costs. It can get you fired, shunned, or even killed.
Social delusions are a major cause of individual and social irrationality. To be rational, an individual has to avoid believing such delusions, although he may have to go along with them to succeed within a group. To be rational, a society has to prevent itself from developing harmful social delusions. It has to solve the memetic tragedy of the commons.