Diane Benscoter

Author - "Shoes of a Servant", Salient

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Memetic condoms to prevent extremism

I see extremism as more than a belief system; it is a dangerous cognitive disorder. It creates circular logic and is fueled by a message of "us" verses "them". If extremism is an infectious destructive meme it must be understood and combated with an even more powerful meme.

Extremism cannot be stopped with 10, 000 or 100, 000 troops equipped with the latest weapons of war. It will rise up again, every time, because it is the meme - not the person infected by the meme - that lives on.

Utilizing methods such as fMRI, it should be feasible to demonstrate that certain “memetic infections” can disallow access to the part of the brain where rational thinking takes place.

Let’s assume it could be demonstrated that extremism is linked to a memetic infection which causes dangerous cognitive damage to the brain (even if temporary) and that certain vulnerabilities to this type of memetic infection could be clearly defined.

It would then be possible to create "memetic condoms," if you will, to immunize against such damage.

An effective meme should have fecundity, fidelity and longevity. Armed with solid facts about the cognitive damage and the inherent dangers of extremist memes, educational memes could be built. After being carefully constructed, these preventative memes could be propagated in targeted areas to those most vulnerable, for example, those in war torn places.

If we can understand what happens inside the brain, making it possible for otherwise good people to be able to commit unthinkable acts…we can begin the long road to prevention.

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      Jul 4 2011: Hi Jim,

      Good point. Scientific method belongs among our protective memes.

      I'm going to add some to my list.

      All statements about correlations of types of events (including causal patterns (laws of nature)) should be subject to verification in accordance with the methods of science.
  • Mar 4 2011: First of all. Love the analogy! Infection, condom, prevention. It's clever and accurate. :)
    Secondly. Many visionaries through the ages have thought of forcing the "right" ideas on people. And as far as I'm concerned, "forcing them" is bad, both in effectiveness and in being kind of annoying. And I sense tendencies of wanting to force these memes on people, obviously with good intentions, I generally like the idea, but that's not how the world works. Just dropping the right propaganda on people isn't enough. Humans are hard, sometimes almost impossible, to control.

    Anyways, my idea for a condom is "humor". (Going with the same idea as Amos Oz in his short book about curing fanaticism) How wonderfully naïve of me. But I'm serious about humor, it's funny, and thus it is probable to replicate. And with humor I don't mean all humor. Not pure shadenfreude or something like that. But the ability to laugh at yourself. "Självironi" is the swedish word for it. To be able to see your own flaws, to laugh at that which doesn't make sense. Instead of being a double-thinking asshole, laugh at the inconsistency. See the ironic part of serious issues. It's easy to laugh at crazy fundamentalist creationist, because they make no sense. They're a rich topic. If you are a fanatic, you'll just be insulted by this heresy. Someone is making fun of something holy! But I think that when humans face the choice in modern society between the group of people laughing at the humor of the world versus the group of offended people, they will much rather belong to the group that's having fun. And I think topics humor is an expanding circle. If it's ok to make fun of A, a couple of years later B accepted, and so forth.

    However, in societies where you get stoned to death for heresy, there is little hope for any quick change. Still I believe humor and fun will win in the end, because in circumstances where the status quo is fanatically on the side of stoning heretics and such, humor triumphs.
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    Feb 21 2011: Interesting concept. I'm wondering - wasn't the bible with it's prescription "though shall not kill" a memetic condom? Seems like it served it's purpose (to some extent) for a while. Then secular societies began to issue laws (and social contracts) prohibiting such behavior. But, as we know, those laws are only enforced when the people have the power to see them enforced.

    I'm convinced that humans are essentially tribal creatures and war with neighboring tribes is a response to human biological characteristics which have evolved to enhance the survivability of "our" tribe.

    Yet, in modern societies, most of us have been indoctrinated in such a way that we end up living a life without killing anyone. So maybe the answer to your question lies in discovering what social learning has enabled us to get as far as we have.
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      Feb 22 2011: Thank you Tim. Have you read the book "What Are You Optimistic About?" edited by John Brockman of edge.org? It's a great read and I think you would enjoy it. In it some of the worlds top scientists and thinkers answer that question is short essays. Many speak about humanity evolving toward a more humane and peaceful existence and make excellent cases for why that is true.

      While I am encouraged by the more global view mentioned above, having personally been in a religious cult, I am passionate about discovering a way to understand extremism from a cognitive perspective. I know my cognitive abilities were hampered by the ideas in my brain, during my time in the cult, until I was deprogrammed. If there is, in fact, a kind of cognitive disorder that allows effected individuals to potentially cause harm to themselves and/or others (suicide bombers, for instance) I want to look for a way to prevent that, especially among those most vulnerable to this "disorder".

      Also, I know the word meme throws people off when I talk about my theory and my plans for research, but I also think memetics is an important concept to help explain my theory.

      Again, thank you for your thoughts.
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    Feb 17 2011: Something like "Ideas Worth Killing"
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      Feb 17 2011: That's great! That's exactly what it is. It takes a more evolved meme to kill a meme that is destructive toward humanity. It can be done though. It does need to be backed by valid research. That research is yet to be done as far as I know. Sam Harris is doing some important work with fMri that is fascinating. My hope is to find others that understand why this research could produce information about extremism that could have profound results toward peace and together begin doing the work.
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        Feb 18 2011: I was being a little sarcastic in my statement. Meaning, memes evolve because they are irresistable not because they perform a social task (though many of them do). My point is that memes are designed simply by virtue of survival. Even a joke meme has one of several mechanisms that are common to all jokes with just new 'accoutrements' added in like specialised proteins, so to speak. Meaning the mechanism is what evolved as an effective meme. So what would a meme that will prevent people believing in violent cults look like? Maybe a lazy hippy, non productive mindset? or a strict rationlist Stalinistic control meme. Or maybe just plain old 'freedom serves us all best' meme. It is possible that we have to see the bad in order to be attracted to memes that have good social outcomes. PS I like Sam Harris (also my spelling is Aussie english)
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          Feb 18 2011: Let's assume research would demonstrate that extremist thinking indeed restricts certain parts of the brain from being accessed, specifically the parts of cognition where the greatest ability to make rational decisions exists. (Of course we need to define rational decision making...but feeding poison to your children because Jim Jones said to is not the product of a fully functioning, healthy brain, for example) The meme I foresee being effective against extremism would be a compact package of facts about the disorder. That information would need to be packaged such that people would want to avoid the disorder. Who wants a "mental disorder" that essentially makes you irrational and dangerous? The meme I am envisioning would express these facts in ways that could be understood by those most vulnerable. Simply put certain memeplexes can cause malfunctioning of the brain. It would ultimately define extremism as a cognitive malfunction cause by infectious extremist memes.
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    Feb 16 2011: wow. that came right out of 1984.
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    Jul 12 2011: Here is a new one I just learned. See the talk to give it concrete content.

    "Don't take consciousness for granted"

    http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_lewis_don_t_take_consciousness_for_granted.html
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    Jul 3 2011: I doubt there is a perfect magic bullet (or condom).

    A meme that is short enough to be rememered will also be ambiguous enough to be hijacked. A meme that is long enough to eliminate most ambiguity will not be as easy to remember and can be broken into parts with the parts being hijacked.

    I think the most helpful memes are those that draw as back to the origin of rationality and point us toward maintianing that rationality. A good meme is one which tends to to hold us to rationalty's project of pursuing good. A bad meme is one which tends to thwart that project. The trick of course is to distinguish the project that is truly directed at the good from those that are not. Here are some suggested memes that I think tend to be helpful:

    Be benevolent.

    Treat others the way you would want to be treated.

    Choose your actions and beliefs (and your methods of choosing your actions and beliefs) in the way you would want everyone to choose their actions and beliefs (and methods of choosing actions and beliefs).

    Practice empathy.

    Love even your enemies.

    Have faith in benevolence.

    Choose your beliefs and actions based on, and only on, those reasons which you could want everyone to rely upon whenever those reasons are applicable.

    Any statements about correlations of types of events (including causal patterns (laws of nature)) should be regarded as uncertain to the extent that they have not been verified in accordance with the appropriate methods of science.

    The more developed our methods of rationality are, the more rationality is preferable to irrationality.

    The methods of rationality (including scientific method) should be revised to, and only to, the extent that they fail to provide useful conclusions. In this case, usefulness is measured by usefulness generally rather than usefulness to a limited group. More usefulness is preferable to less usefulness. Our ultimate aim is to find the most useful methods.
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    Jun 23 2011: This is a very interesting conversation, thank you.

    Diane: "The meme I foresee being effective against extremism would be a compact package of facts about the disorder. That information would need to be packaged such that people would want to avoid the disorder."

    Recently this was published:
    "British Intelligence Vandalizing Extremist Online Magazines"
    http://www.f-secure.com/weblog/archives/00002176.html

    Maybe they should not put garbage characters, but that "compact package of facts" :-)
  • Apr 28 2011: I think some extremists are just regular people that were mislead, brain washed and perhaps suffered emotionally as kids. They were given reason to live and to help them deal with their past.

    Please watch this video:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sharmeen_obaid_chinoy_inside_a_school_for_suicide_bombers.html
  • Apr 3 2011: You’re proposing people can be inoculated with a fanaticism vaccine.
    It’s an interesting concept.
  • Apr 3 2011: I agree with Jordan, but I must go futher. I can see you wanting to create a protective tool to prevent others from suffering from past negative experiences that you've had. Unfortunatley for you, your expereince was bad, or more acurately, you decided it was bad. (i am not saying it was not bad, but others with free will might have been very happy in your shoes). Your plan requires a cure to a disorder for which many might not want a cure. It also requires an arbiter who chooses in advance what is worth protecting others from. Will that arbiter be you? If not how would they be chosen? What if they in fact were already infected with another more insideous meme, that makes their decision making all the more dangerous than just leaving people alone? I think you are a courageous and decent person who is now flirting with very a dangerous idea in an effort to save others from the heartache you suffered, wiithout realizing that for society in genrral and the freedom of the individual in specific, your cure may end up being much worse than the disease. Speak out against the moonies...not free thought, as you define it. Good luck to you.
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      Apr 12 2011: It's not the Moonies I want or need to speak out against. My story is anecdotal. What I am concerned with is preventing dangerous extremism or fanaticism. I can, unfortunately, empathize with the mental condition of suicide bombers. My experience does allow me insight in that respect, but to focus on my experience is missing the point. A deeper understanding of memes and their effect on cognition is what I am proposing. In that understanding lies a key to preventing atrocities. I understand the concern you raise. I am suggesting preventing a disorder that is highly dangerous, not stripping freedom from anyone.
  • Mar 23 2011: I don't think I would use the word, "damaged" to describe the minds of extremists. While it is true extremist memes influence the way we think, often causing us to behave "abnormally", a person infected with a extreme meme, doesn't behave in ways that are wholly disconnected from normal human nature. Its more of a situation of psychological "reaction norms". Where there is a wide range of "normal" mental activity, including things that from our perspective might seem unusual, memecomplexes are patterns of mental activity.

    It is my view, from observation; that memes have evolved to take advantage of human emotions, cognitive biases, group solidarity, and other trends in human psychology that have biologically origins. Human beings are biologically hardwired with cognitive biases, I can recall a pretty good TED video on monkey economics that touched this issue briefly. But theres plenty of such phenomon that psychologists have discovered.

    There is for example a representativeness heuristic tends to lead people to think emotionally important events (life, love, intelligence, creativity), have emotionally significant causes ( all loving creator, universal consciousness, inmaterial soul,etc). Another good example is escalation of commitment. Where people justify continue to invest in something, based upon how much they've already invested, rather than weither or not their investment is likely to pay off.

    As for reason, reason is a tricky beast. Two people can believe drastically different things, but both can be equally as rational. In most cases, reason alone only serves to ensure people hold self consistent ideas. The crux of the issue, is the rejection, or deliberate ignorance of facts. Which coupled with reason, would warrant the distorted meme induced perspective obsolete. This can adequately be explained by confirmation, and emotional biases.

    As for your inquiry, I think science and/or the particular thought proccesses associated with it, are our anwser.
  • Mar 15 2011: Look I know that you think(Vigot) it is wrong to impose beliefs onto people, but, in school you MUST learn Algebra, History, Reading, English. We are all pretty much forced to learn these things because you cannot pass if you don't. I think that teaching kids about every religion should also be FORCED. I believe that a seasoned understanding of the many religions and the extremist versions will help prevent exremism.

    We have to start somewhere class room is epitomal. If we are talking about the future then let us enfluence the future, which is our children.

    In America we blow off our religion. Not because of education, but because our lives are so much easier and suffer free compared to other realigiously extreme countries. Because we have glutton lives, we don't have many reason become martyrs. 100 years from now though, I wouldn't be suprised to see that 80% are non religious. (Well I would actually because if I could see I would be 127 years old :).

    Bottom line, people just don't understand enough about how their brain works and Diane makes a great point that we should educate ourselves.
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      Apr 12 2011: Thank you Trey. This is the heart of what I am saying. I would like to be part of an effort to "target educate" specific areas of the population that are most vulnerable to extremism as well as the general population.
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    Feb 16 2011: A memetic condom would use the same process as the meme from which you wish to avoid infection. That is; it would prevent you from believing in an alternative view no matter how attractive
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      Feb 17 2011: Thank you for commenting. The type of memes I am proposing building would be akin to the meme which says wearing a condom prevents AIDS, or using a net prevents malaria. It does not create a different way to shut down the brain, it instead promotes full functionality of the part of the brain where rational decision making takes place. These memes would educate those most susceptible to having their rational abilities hampered by the types of memes which cause circular thinking. They would offer information about how the brain processes certain types of memes. The concept of memes is a bit confusing but offers a way to understand some very important concepts. I hope it can be discussed more thoroughly.
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        Feb 21 2011: It occurs to me that "Memes that Kill Memes" would have to rely on a system of circular thinking much like the memes targeted, which would result in entrenching a greater meme with another circular thinking trap.
        If you want to combat memes with memes I suggest that you employ memes that ground or anchor you in reality. Memes that, over time, have proven to hold truth, like:
        "All that glitters is not gold"
        "There's no such thing as a free lunch"
        And my personal favorite, "People that drive with their hazard light on are right."
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          Feb 21 2011: Thanks Daniel. I do not think a meme that kills memes needs to include circular logic, but I absolutely agree with what you said about a meme being grounded in reality. That is exactly correct. There are 3 attributes of a successful meme. The first is fidelity, so it needs to be clear and simple to be copied accurately. The second is fecundity, so it needs to reproduce abundantly. It also needs to have longevity.

          For what I am suggesting, building preventative "condom " like memes, they do need to be solidly based in facts/truth. This is why I am working toward beginning research utilizing the latest technology neuroscience has to offer. This project needs to begin with solid data regarding the difference between a brain which functions with a high level of rational thought and one that is capable of atrocities.

          "People that drive with their hazard light on are right." is one I haven't heard, but love, so I hope it spreads and has a long life. The others you mentioned are clearly already successful memes.