Last Sunday a friend gave me his unread copy of Malcolm Gladwell's 2019 book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know.
I hadn't heard of the book before. It seems to be less well known than Gladwell's other books like Blink and The Tipping Point.
I'm enjoying it after reading the first few chapters. This morning I read "The Queen of Cuba."
A primary focus of the chapter is on how Ana Belen Montes, a Cuban expert at the Defense Intelligence Agency, got away with being a double agent for Cuba even though warning signs about her were obvious in retrospect, after it was discovered she was passing American secrets to Cuban officials.
Here's excerpts from the chapter that bear on the question of why people continue to believe the teachings of a religion even though they have doubts about it.
The point of [Tim] Levine's research was to try to answer one of the biggest puzzles in human psychology: why are we so bad at detecting lies? You'd think we'd be good at it. Logic says that it would be very useful for human beings to know when they're being deceived.
Evolution, over many millions of years, should have favored people with the ability to pick up the subtle signs of deception. But it hasn't.
...Tim Levine's answer is called the "Truth-Default Theory," or TDT.
...We have a default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.
...To snap out of truth-default mode requires what Levine calls a "trigger." A trigger is not the same as a suspicion, or the first sliver of doubt. We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive.
We do not believe, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowly gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion.
We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.
...Over 40 percent of the volunteers picked up on something odd -- something that suggested the experiment was not what it seemed. But those doubts just weren't enough to trigger them out of truth-default.
That is Levine's point. You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don't have enough doubts about them.
I'm going to come back to the distinction between some doubts and enough doubts, because I think it's crucial. Just think about how many times you have criticized someone else, in hindsight, for their failure to spot a liar.
You should have known. There were all kinds of red flags. You had doubts. Levine would say that's the wrong way to think about the problem.
The right question is: were there enough red flags to push you over the threshold of belief? If there weren't, then by defaulting to truth you were only being human.
...In the movies, the brilliant detective confronts the subject and catches him, right then and there, in a lie. But in real life, accumulating the amount of evidence necessary to overwhelm our doubts takes time.
...This is the explanation for the first of the puzzles, why the Cubans were able to pull the wool over the CIA's eyes for so long. That story is not an indictment of the agency's competence. It just reflects the fact that CIA officers are -- like the rest of us -- human, equipped with the same set of biases to truth as everyone else.
This fits with my own lengthy process of deconverting from the India-based religious organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), that I was an active member of for 35 years. After I left the group and started writing about my doubts on this blog, some people would leave comments along the line of "How could you have believed in RSSB for so long, then rejected it?"
The obvious answer, which I recognized but couldn't give a name to such as Truth-Default Theory, is that I always had some doubts about RSSB and its teachings. After all, few religious people believe everything about their chosen faith 100%.
My doubts just didn't reach the enough level as mentioned above until I'd had sufficient experiences of RSSB not being what I originally thought it was to warrant cutting my ties with the organization. This is similar to how I felt about my first marriage, which lasted 18 years.
My wife, Sue, and I got along well for much of that time. But not perfectly. No marriage is perfect. Gradually, bit by bit, Sue and I grew farther apart, until one day the strains in our marriage passed the some level and hit the enough level where both of us felt a divorce was the way to go.
So even though someone may leave a religious group unexpectedly to those in the group, usually they've been having doubts about that religion for a long time. It just took a while for those doubts to rise to the level where they felt they needed to leave the group.