Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Trouble with TRs

The 30 Second Skinny Scientology's Training Routines often involve pattern spotting. Psychology suggests that is possible that by training someone to be a more adept pattern spotter they may in turn become more superstitious, or in other words come to recognise patterns that aren't really there. This could well be a consequence, intended or otherwise, of the TRs.

For the uninitiated, TRs are the Training Routines that mark the beginning of someone's path in Scientology. The initial routines zero through nine form the basis of the communication course and involve learning how to shout at ashtrays. It has been criticised elsewhere. The troubling aspect for me with these exercises is that they teach one thing while claiming to teach another. Key here is the much touted "bull baiting" which forms TR 0. Here you are supposed to be learning how to deal with someone being openly hostile to you, but the TR is taught using a "buddy" system. Sometimes you are shouted at, and sometimes you do the shouting, so you are not only being trained in resilience, but also how to be abusive. You can see the fruits of these routines in a myriad protest videos! But there is something else that is introduced later on in the TRs that is worth special note.

TR8 (tone 40 on objects) is the famous "shouting at ash trays" routine. The earlier routines have a clear end marker. You pass these TRs when you are able to receive verbal abuse without reaction, or by illiciting the answers you want from your coach. TR8, however, steps into vague. TR8 is to be done until one has a "cognition", being a "sudden realization about oneself having to do with Scientology". And that's all the help you get. You are repeating a semi-meaningless exercise at length until you make a personal realisation. Later training in Scientology will rely on this "repeat until cognition" format, but here, I believe, is its first outing. Why is this a cause for concern? Let's talk pigeons.

In 1947, the behavioural psychologist B F Skinner published research that he claimed demonstrated the development of superstitious thinking in pigeons. He kept the birds in cages and at random intervals ran small amounts of grain into them. He noticed that the birds tended to develop rituals based on whatever they, by chance, were doing when the grain was first introduced; 3/4 clockwise turns, for instance. These behaviours would develop despite there being no genuine cause at work, and even more tellingly, the birds would persist in their rituals whether or not it resulted in grain. One could argue that it was Skinner who was making a connection that wasn't there rather than the birds, but the reality remains that this is how we operate with our own superstitions. A date goes well, so we bestow our underwear with magical powers, and continue to wear them on dates, whether or not the dates go well. I had a lucky rabbit's foot, but I lost it.

Now here's where it gets even more interesting. This tendancy towards superstition is linked with our ability to spot patterns; set someone a series of pattern-spotting exercises, and quiz them on their irrational beliefs, and you will find a correlation. This makes a kind of intuitive sense. In order for us to read entrails, we need to recognise something in them. In order to feel as though "someone is trying to tell you something" you need to hear them. Put plainly, superstition involves recognising patterns that aren't there, so the better you are at recognising patterns to begin with, the more likely you are to believe that the patterns you see everywhere are created by some outside force or reality. This is explained in Bruce Hood's wonderfully lucid book SuperSense.

If we take this on board, we are left with a question. If we train someone to become a better pattern-spotter, do they then become more superstitious. I suspect that the curmudgeonly uber-rational will not waver, but those who do not hold fast to a particular ideology would indeed, over time, become more superstitious. They would spot more patterns in the world at large, and come to form superstitious beliefs in order to explain them.

And so back to that training structure. We are told to repeat certain trivial actions over and over and over until we have some kind of realisation about ourselves, about the exercise, about the universe. It makes sense that the cognition should resolve what the exercise is asking of us, that we spot the pattern in it. So one of the potential consequences of the study of Scientology is an increasing reliance on magical thinking at the expense of rational thinking. It would certainly explain some of the conversations I've had with Scientologists!

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