Will to Belief

November 12, 2016 / Jongjin Park

The will to power is a concept founded by philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. He describes the will to power as the main driving force in humans - our intrinsic need for achievement, ambition, and striving to reach the top. In short, this concept describes our willingness to reach that “state of power.” Some may disagree as to whether or not this will to power is the main driving force in humans, but it cannot be denied that we are all determined to do something or to be in a certain position in life.

On April 23, 2016, Craig Robert Sampson III died in a car accident at the age of 19. CBS reported that speed and alcohol was a factor in the crash along with 4,913 deaths that occur every year due to alcohol. It is for this reason health education programs highly enforce the teaching of abstinence from alcohol and other drugs while driving. And in the midst of these statistics rising, we have this idea that these people who die from crash due to being under influence are intrinsically irresponsible or reckless. That their beliefs are intrinsically wired in a wrong way. But that’s not the case with most drivers, and it wasn’t the case for Craig Sampson. The following is the Facebook post published by Craig Sampson’s funeral home: A.W. Rich Funeral Home:

The description of Craig doesn’t fit our description with the so-called “reckless” drivers. Along with being constantly positive, “He was polite, conversational, disciplined, reliable and kind - a person of integrity with thought-out convictions… he was still a beacon of light for those around him,... He was refreshingly humble, and was never afraid to display his loving and affectionate personality.” Craig also had this idea of “will to power,” constantly in the back of his head. He had “dreams and aspirations.” “He had an unwavering work ethic… determination was a key element of his personality.” Craig must have firmly believed that recklessly driving was wrong. But if all of this is true - if Craig was disciplined, determined, and aspired for a certain goal in the back of his mind -, how would it be possible that someone like Craig could presumably choose to drive with speed under the influence?

Mark Granovetter, American sociologist and professor at Stanford, did a study for the American Journal of Sociology titled, Threshold Models of Collective Behavior*, in May, 1978. The study talks about our behaviors when making a decision between two alternatives. Our brains, instead of thinking about the costs and benefits, usually think about other influences. Granovetter believes that everybody has a limit that causes you to make a decision outside your belief system when that limit exceeds. He calls those limits, “thresholds.” For example, if someone starts a riot by being the first one to throw rocks, then that person would have a threshold of zero. If there’s someone that would never be willing to start a riot, but would do it if one other person started it, then that person would have a threshold of one. If someone takes 100 people all throwing rocks for that person to actually join in, that person would have a threshold of 100, and so on. Someone who does have a threshold of 100, might believe that throwing rocks is intrinsically wrong. But in the model of thresholds, beliefs don’t matter; if the thresholds are exceeded, then the person would be willing to do something irrational that goes against their beliefs.

It’s for this reason that someone like Craig, a well-behaved, disciplined, humble, aspiring young man, can happen to so easily drive under the influence. There could be friends with lower thresholds encouraging this kind of behavior. There might be an oversaturation of drunk-driving in the media that might convince someone to experience a similar feeling. But whatever it is, it’s other influences that keep challenging the threshold of someone like Craig.

A New Yorker article, "Thresholds of Violence"**, written by Malcolm Gladwell on October 19, 2015, talks about how a similar phenomenon can be seen in America’s mass school shootings. The first school shooting ever documented was July 26, 1764. But since that time and the 1980’s, the frequency of school shootings were rare as any mass killing would be. That all changed in the late 1980s to the 1990s saw a sharp increase in mass school shootings per year. The most prominent one is, of course, the Columbine Shooting that occurred on April 20, 1999. What’s extremely unique about Columbine is not the mass shooting part, but rather how they decided to kill the large number of people. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two shooters of the shooting, wore long black coats (presumably inspired by The Matrix) and made a video before the shooting occurred. In the video, they gesture a couple of motions including pointing the gun in opposite directions, pointing the gun at the camera, and pointing the gun at their foreheads. What’s interesting about this is that almost every school shooting that followed Columbine, imitated these motions, as if Columbine set the script for how every school shooting would happen. And Columbine also happens to mark one of the first shootings that showed an extreme increase in school shootings per year. Today, we have this idea that these mass shooters are intrinsically evil or even mentally ill. Mike Huckabee said that we have a problem with “uncivilized savages.” We see these shooters as someone who is deeply disturbed enough to contemplate horrific acts, but in reality, these recent shooters are people like Craig Sampson. The recent shooters since the early 2000s weren’t mentally ill; they simply had low thresholds. We see the pattern of Columbine over and over again as shooters dress in black and film themselves with similar gestures. As more and more people commit mass shootings, more and more people (with different thresholds) are more likely to commit more and more shootings. Gladwell concludes by saying,

The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

Rational people doing irrational things isn’t just limited to huge instances, but also simpler ones. A Wealth of Common Sense study found that never punting in football would make your team more likely to win at least one more game per season. But no matter how popular this study becomes, it won’t ever convince teams to stop punting simply because that’s just the way it is. In the players’ head, there is this sense of how a game is supposed to be played rather than how it should be played.

Wilt Chamberlain, the basketball legend, was a horrendous foul shooter. He fixed this problem by starting to throw free throws underhanded. In his most famous game, the 100-point game, he made almost every shot. The shots he didn’t make were shots he made overhanded. But why would he make this decision? Why, after fixing his prominent problem, go back to his old ways, knowing that he would fail? The answer is simple: his threshold was reached. Chamberlain wrote,

I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now, the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn't do it.

Notice how he says he knew he “was wrong”. He knew what the right thing to do was. If his main goal was to become the best basketball player he can be, he should’ve continued to throw underhanded. But simply put, other people’s perception mattered to him more than his efforts to become the best basketball player he can be.

Consistently, we do things that are irrational or against our personal beliefs because of someone’s view of us. Every time we do this, we’re discrediting and disowning our own selves and self-declaring that the things you believe in aren’t worth believing to the point where we’ll actually stand up for them. Wilt Chamberlain may be one of the greatest/legendary basketball players, but he can never say he stood up for what he believed in or say he gave it a 110%. It’s not just about your beliefs, but how strictly you’re willing to stand for or enforce those beliefs. It’s not a matter of belief, but the will to belief.


* Threshold Models of Collective Behavior by Mark Granovetter

** Thresholds of Violence by Malcolm Gladwell

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