Sometimes The Side Effects Are Intended

Individual monomania is rarely a social problem. One person who is obsessed with butterflies or with a particular celebrity, or who sees everything in sexual, economic, or religious terms, is just an eccentric, although sometimes a tiresome one. The monomaniac may suffer a constricted range of emotions and experiences, but she usually imposes no costs on others (although there are cases of celebrity stalkers and lone-wolf terrorists). It is collective or group monomanias that are more worrisome for liberal societies because they create many negative externalities: They cause large numbers of people to behave in ways that are harmful and unjust to others. I’ll focus on two specific group-level effects of monomanias: making groups illiberal and making groups stupid.

1) Monomania makes groups illiberal.

The word “liberal” is a shape-shifting term in political discourse, but if we free it from the idiosyncratically American idea that “liberal” means “left” and focus on its core link to liberty, then dictionary definitions line up with common sense. Oxford Languages defines the adjective “liberal” as:

1. willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.

2. relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.

In theory, one could be a liberal monomaniac—obsessed with a celebrity or an intellectual paradigm but perfectly willing to let everyone else have their own obsessions, or no obsessions. But moral and political monomaniacs generally travel in self-policing groups, and these groups are rarely liberal according to either of the two Oxford definitions. If you and your friends believe that everything is about power, and that the world is divided into the powerful people (who oppress others) and the powerless (who are oppressed), then you have a moral obligation to do something about it—all the time.

In monomaniacal groups, the prestige economy rewards those who are most committed to the object of devotion, which has two major illiberal effects. The first is the “expansion imperative”—the pressure to apply the one true lens ever more widely. For example, one can gain points by interpreting glacier research and dog parks as manifestations of power structures. The insistence that the lens applies everywhere means that the preferred remedies must be implemented everywhere. This expansion imperative can explain the otherwise astonishing statement on page 18 of Ibram Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist”:

There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.

In other words, if a high school teaches chemistry without discussing race, it is not “nonracist,” it is racist. True believers exert pressure on the leadership of the school to bring race into every part of the curriculum, and anyone who expresses doubt or raises concerns risks being publicly shamed and possibly fired. Monomanics sometimes demand that their focal value be installed as the telos of every organization.

This brings us to the second major illiberal effect: the incentivization of intimidation and cruelty. Within a group of people competing for prestige on adherence to a belief, one can often gain points by publicly attacking outsiders.

…2) Monomania makes groups stupid.

In a 2009 TEDx talk titled “Be suspicious of simple stories” the economist Tyler Cowen warned that stories impose a structure on events that distorts them and blinds us to the distortion. He was particularly concerned about moralistic stories that divide the world into good and evil. He proposed that “as a simple rule of thumb, just imagine that every time you’re telling a good versus evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.”

As a social psychologist who studies moral judgment and motivated reasoning, I think Cowen is exactly right—for individuals. Binary thinking makes it hard for individuals to understand the nuance and complexity of most situations. For groups, I’d put the cost closer to 20 IQ points. Shared moralism creates a mutual policing effect that prevents the group from thinking well or changing its mind in response to new evidence. (Please note: I am not calling any person stupid. I am saying that smart people create stupid groups when they bind themselves together in a monomaniacal community.)

In 1859, John Stuart Mill laid out the case that we need critics to make us smarter, and that we should have no confidence in our beliefs until we have exposed them to intense challenge and have considered alternative views…. Read more»

Jonathan Haidt | “Monomania Is Illiberal And Stupefying” | Persuasion | Oct 1, 2021 (HT: Keith Kanavel)


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One comment

  1. Thank you for this info and link to the full article, fascinating insight! One of my concerns is am I asking the right questions, am I in a bubble? Understanding monomania is another tool I will use to analyse and understand peoples opinions and directions.
    Thanks again

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