Communal Reinforcement

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Communal reinforcement is a social phenomenon in which a concept or idea is repeatedly asserted in a community, regardless of whether sufficient empirical evidence has been presented to support it. Over time, the concept or idea is reinforced to become a strong belief in many people’s minds, and may be regarded by the members of the community as fact. Often, the concept or idea may be further reinforced by publications in the mass media, books, or other means of communication. The phrase ‘millions of people can’t all be wrong’ is indicative of the common tendency to accept a communally reinforced idea without question, which often aids in the widespread acceptance of urban legends, myths, and rumors.

Communal reinforcement works both for true and false concepts or ideas, making the communal reinforcement of an idea independent of its truth value. Therefore, the statement that many persons in a given communities share in a common belief is not indicative of it being valid or false information’s. An idea can be accepted and spread throughout a community regardless of the validity of the claim.

Communal reinforcement can be seen as a positive force in society if it reinforces a concept or idea which is true or beneficial to society, such as the discouragement of driving under the influence. It has also been seen as a beneficial method for treating alcoholism. Communal reinforcement explains how entire nations can pass on ineffable gibberish from generation to generation. It also explains how testimonials reinforced by other testimonials within the community of therapists, sociologist, psychologists, theologians, politicians, philosophers, talk show hosts, and others can supplant and be more powerful than scientific studies or accurate gathering of data by disinterested parties. Conversely, it can be seen as a negative force if it reinforces a concept or idea which is untrue or harmful to society, such as the belief that bathing was avoided in Medieval Europe.

The community-reinforcement approach (CRA) is an alcoholism treatment approach that aims to achieve abstinence by eliminating positive reinforcement for drinking and enhancing positive reinforcement for sobriety. CRA integrates several treatment components, including building the client’s motivation to quit drinking, helping the client initiate sobriety, analyzing the client’s drinking pattern, increasing positive reinforcement, learning new coping behaviors, and involving significant others in the recovery process.

Communal reinforcement may play in key role in confirmation bias within a group about conspiracy theories. Beliefs created by conspiracy theorists feed the demonization in a very specific way. Conspiracy theorists promote rumors as if they were revealed truth. The people who come to know these truths get a sense of being ‘initiated’ into a close circle, of gaining knowledge that others have no change of getting access to. The initiated parties may also feel quite self-important for allegedly being less naïve than ordinary citizens.

In Chris E. Stout’s book ‘The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspective,’ Stout explains how communal reinforcement is present in the psychotic state of terrorists. ‘The individual would feel less charged, validated, courageous, sanctified, and zealous, and would feel exposed as an individual.’ It is believed that the group mentality of a terrorist organization solidifies the mission of the group through communal reinforcement. Members are more likely to stay dedicated and follow through with the event of terror if they receive support from fellow terrorist members. An individual might abandon the mission in terror, but with the reinforcement of his peers, a member is more likely to stay involved.

A possible explanation for communal reinforcement is cryptomnesia (hidden memories). The term was coined by psychology professor Théodore Flournoy (1854-1921) and is used to explain the origin of experiences that people believe to be original but which are actually based on memories of events they’ve forgotten. It seems likely that most so-called past life regressions induced through hypnosis are confabulations fed by cryptomnesia. Cryptomnesia may also explain how the apparent plagiarism of such people as Helen Keller or George Harrison of the Beatles might actually be cases of hidden memory. Harrison didn’t intend to plagiarize the Chiffon’s ‘He’s So Fine’ in ‘My Sweet Lord.’ Nor did Keller intend to plagiarize Margaret Canby’s ‘The Frost Fairies’ when she wrote  ‘The Frost King.’ Both may simply be cases of not having a conscious memory of their experiences of the works in question.

Communal reinforcement is much like social norms, in that they can influence behavior only if people conform to them. Most of the time, people conform for one of two reasons: informational social influence, following the opinions or behavior of other people because we believe that they have accurate knowledge and that what they are doing is right, and normative social influences, conforming to obtain the reward that comes from being accepted by other people while at the same time avoiding their rejection. Like in experiments made by Solomon Asch (1951-1956) about conformity using groups of college student, it was found that after the task was over, some participants told the experimenter that they felt the group was wrong but went along avoid making waves and suffering possible rejections. Results of Asch’s experiment also show that variable such as the size of the group and the presence of a dissenter can have an effect on a person’s willingness to conform. Memory is a reconstructive process, in which we can’t remember all details, so we keep key details and ‘fill-in the blanks’ to make a complete story. So if the suggested idea that the community reinforces is challenged, people’s memories and opinions of certain events will change as well.

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