Thought Contagion Theory and the Heaven's Gate Tragedy.

Aaron Lynch, former physician, wrote one of the first books about the new theory of memetics. Inspired from Richard Dawkins' approach in "The Selfish Gene" this theory has become itself some sort of mem fascinating many people. In this essay Lynch outlines some mechanisms of thought contagions within the apocalyptic movements at the end of this millenium. The cult Heaven's Gate is a good example how thoughts could infect people as their hosts to kill themselves. But how could memes in this way replicate? 2160_1.jpg::

See also Tim Druckrey: Dangerous Contagion
Howard Bloom: The Embrynoc Meme
Richard Brodie: Evolution der Meme


My recent book Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society uses science to understand one of the strongest social forces in the world: the process of belief propagation in society.

Thought contagion theory arises by inverting the age-old question of how people acquire beliefs, focusing instead on how beliefs acquire people. Some beliefs make adherents have more children, other beliefs bring better imitation by the children. Some beliefs lead adherents to spread the belief to friends, and still other beliefs deter dropping out. When beliefs take this active role in acquiring new adherents, they are called by the new word memes, a term that emerged from evolutionary biology 20 years ago. Some beliefs induce retransmission better than others, and those are the ones that tend to win out by spreading to wide prevalence. In taking this evolutionary approach, the theory brings scientific understanding to what otherwise looks like the arbitrary currents of culture. The new theory is called memetics, a term familiar to fans of Richard Dawkins, Douglas Hofstadter, and Daniel Dennett.

An example under the "family values" heading is the belief that some household chores are "manly" while others are "womanly." Holding these ideas pressures people to hurry up and get married, because staying single means men having to cook and women having to pound nails. So these traditional role restrictions motivate quicker marriage, and thus a quicker start to having and raising children. With each passing generation, the host population becomes a bit more numerous. And compounded over hundreds of generations, the effect takes a meme from rarity to majority status.

A good example from the realm of religion is the idea of giving mystical significance to spreading "the Word," as in the Gospel according to John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Clearly the faith spreads more vigorously by telling adherents that to spread the Word is to instill God himself. With a capitalized "Word" like this, it's no wonder that biblical literalism gains prevalence even in a modern scientific society.

Another familiar meme from the realm of religion is the idea that unbelievers will suffer in Hell. This idea motivates adherents to spread their faith to friends and relatives to prevent them from being separated and eternally punished. If you add the idea that "the end is near," you get a combination that tells adherents to hurry up and spread the word. Adding the idea that you must love your neighbor as yourself broadens the range of people to care about saving, beyond friends and family, to include everyone. This of course further accelerates belief propagation.

Many other memes that amplify the proselytic effect of the heaven and hell the memes have evolved to propagate in synergistic combination. A rather subtle meme that often conveys the threat of hellfire to non-hosts in the United States is the common evangelical idea of identifying oneself simply as "Christian" instead of "Catholic," "Lutheran," etc. To call oneself merely "Christian" sounds pleasant enough, but in many settings it tacitly implies that anyone who uses a denominational or "religion" label is non-Christian, hence subject to damnation. This may have added to the rapid rise in numbers of Americans identifying simply as "Christian" in recent decades.

With Heaven's Gate and other new cults, proselytizing is usually not so subtle, but is still often accelerated by a belief that "time is quickly running out" for adherents to convert all people they care about. So doomsayers out-proselytized the non-doomsayers of similar persuasion. It's an important thought contagion factor behind the sensational ideological events that cluster around comets, eclipses, and thousand-year marks.


A belief that "The End is near" can even make some of its hosts mentally closer to the belief that "the End is ours to hasten," as happened with Heaven's Gate cult, the recent "supreme truth doomsday cult" of Japan, the "Branch Davidians" of Waco, Texes, and others. After all, if the End is imminent, and believers have a special role in it, there remains just a small mental step to thinking that the believer holds the role of actually beginning the End. But the idea of a special role reserved for believers during the End Times tends to suggest that their status as believers will confer special knowledge of the exact day and hour. This fosters a notion that adherents must receive some highly visible sign that the time is not just near, but really, really near, helping to cluster the ensuing tragedies and explaining their rise in the late 20th century as well as other peculiarities of timing.

With the Heaven's Gate cult, the "heaven" was a "higher level," the harbingers of doom were space aliens, and the "sign" was a comet. Other groups will have other concepts of heaven, the End, and the sign, but the thought contagion principles will work very similarly, leading to other mass suicides in the coming years.

The contributing idea that an alien space ship crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 demonstrates several other thought contagion principles. When a government employee said that a spaceship had crashed, it set off a very contagious rumor. The idea was so fascinating that believers kept thinking about it. And people do tend to talk about what they are thinking about, if it's not too personal. Moreover, hosts of this meme realize that they will receive rapt attention from any one to whom they re-tell the story. Because most people crave such social attention, the typical adherent therefore retells the story often enough to cause rapid propagation. Others, such as reporters, UFO entrepreneurs, etc. re-tell the story for the business or professional advantage that the attention brings. Vast numbers of newly exposed listeners are susceptible, too, owing to the emotional appeal of ideas that friendly aliens would visit, and the implication that an ever greater future awaits humanity. But when government officials announced that it was not, in fact, a spaceship that crashed, natural selection had its own way of getting around it. Some, perhaps most, would have simply dropped the Roswell Spaceship meme. These people would have stopped thinking about it frequently or viewing the story as a good way to win themselves social attention. So the prosaic account of what happened in Roswell would have enjoyed very little replication. But those who distrusted the government's denials of a spaceship crash would have retained all the original re-transmission drives, and kept on re-telling the story along with their explanations for why the government told the truth the first time and lied the second time. So with the official denials of a spaceship crash came an infectious advantage for government conspiracy and cover-up variants of the Roswell story, and more strident subsequent government denials would have favored the evolution to more intensely conspiratorial Roswell memes. As mentioned in Thought Contagion, such conspiratorial memes also have a built-in self-preservation mechanism: any one arguing against the meme is easily dismissed as a victim or a party to the conspiracy.

Private skeptics have also joined in debunking the Roswell story, but even they have not succeeded completely. Some Roswell believers drop out, but those who remain tend to be those whose belief in the space ship is more tightly woven into their world view and hence more resistant to attack. And their memes may continue inspiring more retransmission effort than the skeptics' prosaic explanation. The problem is similar to attacking bacteria with successively stronger antibiotics: resistant strains develop, and out-propagate the non-resistant strains.

So after decades of natural selection, the "fittest" Roswell spaceship memes combine the high levels of transmissivity, receptivity, and longevity that form a hugely prevalent thought contagion. Such was the Roswell meme set that became and remained prevalent enough to infect Marshall Applewhite in the 1970's, contributing to the proselytic zeal of him and his followers - and adding to his and many other people's belief in an extremely conspiratorial US government.

Yet an apparent memetic paradox arises from the exclusivity that Heaven's Gate applied to its core members, who called themselves "the class." As The New Yorker points out on page 33 of its April 14 issue, the exclusivity makes the movement look like an "anti-meme." Membership, however, is not the same thing as believership. So even while turning people away from "the class," these core members still played the role of dissemination specialists by spreading the basic tenets to unbelievers. It resembles, in some respects, the College of Cardinals, which turns away most aspiring members, and which never admits people into its membership simply for converting to Catholicism. As a form of social stratification, the "class's" exclusivity also acts as a kind of "proof" that there must be at least one "higher level" than mere believership, an effect that applies even in Catholicism, for which higher and higher levels exist for both Earth and Heaven. Demonstrating the ascending levels on Earth helps convince people that still higher levels must exist beyond the temporal realm, and creates an impression that adopting the faith and practicing more fully elevates one's status. And conferring such distinction upon the dissemination specialist can encourage aspiring "ordinary" adherents to work harder at their own preaching efforts. Applewhite may thus have acquired the idea of an exclusive priestly class from the established and widely proliferated faiths. But unlike those older faiths, the Heaven's Gate movement failed to provide the "ordinary" believer with a regular means to practice or express the faith, and this may have limited the ideology's long-term propagation with or without the suicides.

Heaven's Gate was hardly the first group to believe in visiting space ships, imminent doomsday, a "higher level" reserved for believers, and so forth. But Heaven's Gate does illustrate another principle of memetics: Formation rates for recombinant packages of belief depend on how well the beliefs spread beforehand. So because the UFO beliefs, astrology beliefs, apocalyptic beliefs, and heaven for the faithful beliefs were spreading so well in the 20th century, it became nearly certain that the beliefs would propagate into new combination with each other in a single host such as Applewhite. And since new combinations of beliefs often cause new kinds of inferences, we saw Applewhite arriving at the unusual conclusion that "the End" was his to initiate.

"Heaven's Gate" and many other extreme belief systems also carry a belief in socially segregating from unbelievers for nearly all purposes other than proselytizing, and this too plays a role belief transmission. The ideological segregationist experiences fewer challenges to the belief system, which makes for a longer course of "infection" with it. And the longer someone retains a thought contagion, the more times they tend to re-transmit it. Of course, segregation also puts members further out of touch with mundane reality and favors mental "inbreeding" all of which make for more extreme ideas and hazardous behavior.

Some members of "Heaven's Gate" were also castrated, but the role of this remains unclear. It could, however, have helped maintain the social segregation. It could also have helped maintain the belief system as the only thing left that adherents had to live and die for. In any case, a belief that eunuchs are especially close to the kingdom of heaven has ancient religious origins, making its early replication a factor in the modern tragedy: because of the early spread of a eunuch meme, there is now a Bible verse, attributed to Jesus, which refers favorably to "...those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 19:12)* So the current wide replication of Biblical Christianity must have played a role in giving Applewhite the castration meme. The wide propagation of a homosexuality taboo, for reasons explained in Thought Contagion, may also have played a big part, as it gave one of Applewhite's sexual competitors the machiavellian means to force Applewhite out of his job and his relationship. Absolute repression seems to have been the lesson that Applewhite learned from the experience.

Fortunately, there are factors holding these tragedies in check. One is the normal will to live. Another is the fact that suicide has historically ended the believer's ability to spread their apocalyptic faith. Unfortunately, modern media publicize such sensational events, which may inspire imitators. And such media as newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet now make it much more possible for socially segregated people to preach their message to thousands of potential converts. So it may not be the "end of the world," but in coming years we should expect a continued rise in apocalyptic thought contagions and mass suicides.

Classical social sciences also have much to contribute to our understanding of Heaven's Gate and other ideological phenomena. But Thought Contagion Theory fills a crucial missing link.

This passage from the Gospel according to Matthew exemplifies how natural selection can de-emphasize some segments of scripture while emphasizing others. Few men can accept a pro-castration meme, and most evangelists know, at least in modern times, that they cannot extol the virtues of castration without driving potential converts away. And most of those who would persist in trying to sell men on the idea of castration are out-done by evangelists who avoid mentioning the subject. Finally, the idea assures itself eventual losses in parental transmission - even though a eunuch minority may have once out-evangelized those men who were tied down with young children to support. Just as biological evolution allows for genes to become recessive or completely inactivated, the castration meme is the equivalent of non-transcribed scripture in most of today's Christians. Heaven's Gate illustrates how a long dormant meme can be "turned back on."

Aaron Lynch is a professional memeticist and former engineering physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Batavia, Illinois, in the U.S.A. He is a member of the advisory board of the Journal of Memetics, and author of the book Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society, the first all-memeticsbook endorsed by Richard Dawkins. (Aaron Lynch)