Asceticism and Self-Mortification

02 Mar 2004 15:16

Especially intellectual self-mortification. Even more especially, what causes intellectuals to despise and repudiate intellect, and even to devise elaborate theories concerning the despicability of intellect?

Costly signalling and sunk costs. Costly signalling is the idea that "talk is cheap" --- it's too easy to say you'll do something for that to mean very much, but if you're willing to do something difficult and costly and hard to fake, that should carry conviction. Asceticism could be thought of as a costly signal of the ascetic's devotion to their cause. A religion (or other group) that demands asceticism of its members thus has an easy way of checking who is really committed. However, this does not not explain why ascetic practices are attractive. There I think we're looking at a combination of pride ("am I strong enough to bear this?") and a form of effort justification or dissonance reduction --- an unwillingness to admit that the (considerable) costs incurred by the ascetic were wasted. That is, the binding power of ascetic practices derives from our susceptibility to the sunk cost fallacy.

See also: Initiation Rites; Mysticism; Shamanism