The Mass Suicide of the Xhosa: A Study in Collective Self-Deception

Article excerpt

IN 1857, AN EXTRAORDINARY RELIGIOUS frenzy took the lives of over 100,000 Xhosa and Thembu people in what is now South Africa, effectively destroying the Xhosa culture. But until recently a more pervasive self-deception has kept the full truth about that astonishing event from being known, for the evidence on which the historical account was based was riddled with both deliberate lies and self-delusions.

The Brain as lawyer Though people often take pride in imagining themselves independent thinkers, we often believe what we have been induced to believe or--and it frequently comes to much the same thing--what we have found convenient to believe. If the order of the day is to throw Christians to the lions or to bum witches at the stake, or to conquer an indigenous population so that we may put their land to "better" use, then compliant and law-abiding citizens, certain that such behavior represents an altogether necessary civic obligation, are likely to assist in the enterprise or applaud those who do so in their name. Over the past few decades social psychologists have demonstrated that once individuals have committed themselves to a belief they are likely to fred the evidence in its favor to be convincing, and disconfirming evidence to be unpersuasive. And this is apparently as true for scientists who pride themselves on their objectivity as it is for ordinary citizens, and as true for the ordinary citizen as it is for the fire-breathing zealot single-mindedly devoted to a patently irrational cause. Even weak or equivocal evidence in favor of a proposition to which one is emotionally committed is likely to seem salient, vivid and persuasive. And having given oneself over to that belief, it is often all but impossible for the believer's mind to be changed, no matter how strong the countervailing evidence. Robert Wright has nicely summed up the power of this cognitive disability that seems so central, and ultimately destructive, to the human condition:

   The proposition here ks that the human brain is, in
   large part, a machine for winning arguments, a
   machine for convincing others that its owner is in
   the fight--and thus a machine for convincing its
   owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good
   lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets
   about convincing the world of their moral and logical
   worth, regardless of whether they in fact have
   any of either. Like a lawyer, the human mind wants
   victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes
   more admirable for skill than for virtue. (1)

Self-Deception In the Xhosa Story

This phenomenon, generally known as "confirmation bias," "has been studied enough to reveal its extraodinary power in the way individuals form and maintain their beliefS, but little has been done on its significance for understanding collective behavior and destructive social movements. The "cattle-killing madness" that infected the Xhosa people in the middle of the 19th century serves as a case study. Until the recent work of J. B. Peires, the story seemed a simple if incredible tale of religious frenzy and "primitive" thinking among a benighted tribe, a tale that ends with the beneficent assistance the survivors were given by their white Christian colonizers. But as Peires has noted, "the primary sources, the evidence on which the historical account is based, are riddled with lies, both deliberate lies and self-delusions." (2)

In 1857, in what is now South Africa, some one hundred thousand people of the Xhosa and Thembu cultures starved to death because of a vision that appeared to a 14-year-old-girl named Nongqawuse, who returned one day from the Gxarha River and informed her uncle that she had met there a group of strange-looking men. Her uncle, Mhlakaza, who had a reputation for prophecy, went to the river to see for himself and, according to him, found the men still there. They instructed him to return home and come to them again after he had purified himself. …