The Psychology of Cults
Harvard College, Harvard Extension School
In November of 1978, 909 members of The People’s Temple perished in Jonestown, Guyana after drinking Kool Aid laced with cyanide. David Berg of the Children of God convinced his followers to abandon their monogamous marriages, encourage pedophilia, and allow their children to be sex trafficked. How do certain groups convince people to harm and even kill themselves and their children? This course will explore the psychological mechanisms that enable cults to form and to take human belief and behavior to such extremes. What do cults share with other groups (mainstream religions, nations, everyday social interactions, etc.), and what makes them stand apart? In what ways are cults an environment in which many of our psychological tendencies (toward ingroup conformity, heuristic decision making, rationalization, etc.) are magnified? And what do cults reveal about the profound power of our social environment? We will examine case studies through the lens of empirical psychological science to uncover how psychological research can shed light on cult behavior, and how cult behavior can shed light on our everyday psychology.
The Origins of Our Beliefs and Ideologies
Why do our ideologies change when we are put in positions of power (e.g., victim dehumanization), or subordination (e.g., Stockholm Syndrome), or with peers with a different opinion (e.g., conformity)? Why are our moral and political ideologies so different across time and culture (e.g., the ideologies of ISIS members compared to Americans)? Why do we claim that our morals are logically justifiable when we cannot justify them (e.g., moral dumbfounding)? This course will explore the hidden incentives that can explain these and many other puzzling features of our beliefs and ideologies. Evidence from psychology, as well as philosophy, economics, history, and current events will demonstrate the crucial way that incentives outside of our awareness shape our beliefs and ideologies.
But Why?: Ultimate Explanations for Classic Social Psychological Phenomena
Social psychology has documented many surprising features of the human mind, providing robust evidence that people deceive themselves, are systematically overconfident, believe implausible things to avoid inconsistency, and so on. Explanations often focus on proximate psychological mechanisms (e.g., we avoid inconsistency because we find it uncomfortable). But behind every proximate mechanism is an ultimate explanation (why is inconsistency uncomfortable?)—why did evolution or learning lead us to be this way? This course examines proximate and ultimate explanations for classic social psychological phenomena and the insight that ultimate level explanations add, with a focus on how to test ultimate explanations convincingly.
Game Theory and Social Behavior
Harvard College, Harvard Extension School
What happens when the benefits of one strategy depend on the strategy chosen by another? From doing favors to driving on the right side of the road, this interdependence characterizes much of human social behavior, and game theory is the tool designed to reveal what results. This course draws on models from game theory and evolutionary dynamics to explain some of the most puzzling aspects of our psychology, including why we speak indirectly, why people end up in feuds over trivial resources, and where our moral intuitions come from.
Explaining Beauty: The Hidden Functions Behind Aesthetics
Harvard College, MIT Media Lab
Why do people from some cultures find body modifications attractive that others find ugly? What makes a Picasso beautiful? Why are fashion trends constantly changing? This course will delve into the hidden functions that explain our aesthetic tastes, including what we find beautiful in the physical body, art, and fashion. Drawing on classic evolutionary theory, theories of cultural evolution, and game theory, we will seek to explain both aesthetic tastes that remain relatively constant, and those that differ dramatically across time and culture. We begin the course by building a toolkit for generating hypotheses about the hidden function behind what we find beautiful, and then apply these tools to a series of diverse case studies. This course features field trips to art museums and discussions with experts in different domains of aesthetics.