It’s stale news now but the City Harvest (CHC)-Kong Hee-Sun Ho saga is probably one the best examples by far of cognitive dissonance and how even supposedly intelligent people fall for it. This topic is not new here on my blog; I identified other instances where other supposedly intelligent people have fallen prey to this way of thinking (see the TKL edition here)

In CHC’s case, the effect is compounded with other effects such as herding, inability to understand sunk cost and the halo effect, which resulted in what can only best be described in Munger terms as ‘loolapalooza’.

First of all, what is cognitive dissonance and how is the CHC saga a good example of this? Cognitive dissonance is simply:

“a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment.”

This usually results in the person experiencing discomfort to rationalise away the points of conflict. In CHC’s case, the conflicts would be the belief that founder and longtime pastor Kong Hee is a good person versus the fact that he is now under investigation for what can be more generally described as an illegal activity. Therefore, their brains must resolve this conflict by rationalising away one of the two opposing views. And this is their official stance (extracted from here):

In a statement released by executive pastor Aries Zulkarnain on Thursday evening, the church stated that it is standing by the five individuals.

“The people currently in the news are our pastors and trusted staff and leaders who have always put God and CHC first,” he said. “As a church we stand with them and i believe fully in their integrity.”

Now, the thing is this. People will argue over whether Kong Hee and the others charged were indeed acting in bad faith (i.e. their actions were for personal gain)  or whether they were doing it for the greater good (i.e. their crossover project) which is the stance the church is taking but in the eyes of the law, I don’t think there will be any doubt that what they did was wrong. (Limpeh, the blogger, has a good explanation of how round-tripping works and his take on the delusion of CHC followers is definitely more entertaining than mine.)

For me, it’s interesting enough to explore how the thought process of CHC and a die-hard follower there. I’m willing to bet that it went something like this:

– Person attends church at invite of friend. Finds carnival concert-like atmosphere together with extremely charismatic pastor a refreshing and familiar (due to it being very close to pop culture) take on religion. [Relevance]

– Furthermore, Pastor preaches what is known as prosperity gospel (example of his sermon here). i.e. If you follow our brand of the religion, you will get rich. Greed sets in. [Extrinsic motivation]

– Proceeds to start giving small amounts in hope of larger future returns. [Greed]

– As time goes on, each member’s social circle starts to revolve around church. [Further mental attachment that what I am doing must be right otherwise why am I doing it?]

– Unsavoury news about Sun Ho living it up in the US starts to surface. Member thinks, “It’s ok. It’s all for the greater good- Crossover Project. [Initial rationalisation]

– Kong Hee and others charged. Member thinks, “Crap…But nah, it can’t be…I’ve already put so much time and money in this place. Ah oh yes, our leaders say they still stand by them. If they really did anything wrong, our church wouldn’t still be standing by time right? They’re only being charged, they’re not guilty yet.” [Further rationalisation and inability to ignore sunk costs]

That’s honestly how I think most CHC followers are right now. Otherwise, how does one explain the fact that attendance after the case broke was nearly as full as before? I think it’s always very dangerous when you have blind faith, vested interest and untestable hypotheses.

Well, that’s my last word on the matter. CHC is after all, not a topic that is going to make or break the world that I live in. I can only hope that CHC followers sit down, look at the facts of the matter and realise the mental errors they are making. And take heed the advice of John Maynard Keynes:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

By the way, CHC members may say that what they do with the monies donated from members is their business. After all, donors were all willing donors and they knew that monies were being channelled to this project but atans has a very good take on that too.

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