Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh L
May 19, 2022
Cognition and Belief Systems in a ‘Collapsing’ World: Part One
Keeping in mind that we humans are storytelling primates with extraordinary cognitive abilities, I’ve been reflecting upon a few of the psychological phenomena that are key to how we form beliefs, especially as they pertain to ecological overshoot and its concomitant societal ‘collapse’. The specific mechanisms I have been thinking about include: deference to authority, groupthink, cognitive dissonance, and the justification hypothesis. I studied all of these during my few years of interest in psychology while at university and have been re-exposed to their importance in the past handful of years.
This contemplation is quite a bit longer than my usual ones so will be broken up into parts as I reflect upon, edit, and invariably expand it…please try to bear with me until the end of these few contemplations to see how I view these psychological processes as important to our impending ‘collapse’ — or, at least, one’s interpretation of it and ultimate reactions in light of personal and societal perspectives.
What we believe is extremely important to our perception of the world as it creates a ‘reality’ for us that may or may not have much in common with observable, physical evidence. Ultimately it would appear that we believe what we want to believe; ‘facts’ be damned. We very much don’t want to acknowledge this but we seem to be, as author Robert Heinlein has been credited with stating, rationalising animals not rational ones; and research is increasingly supporting this view.
Megan Siebert and William Rees highlight this point at the start of an article on the impediments and consequences of pursuing non-renewable ‘renewables’: “We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives — even scientific theories — are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.”
This is an important perspective to take on our species since it is the narratives that we construct (or have constructed for us) that impact significantly our belief systems and thus everyday actions and reactions. But the stories we cling to also influence greatly our understanding of events, helping us to comprehend (or miscomprehend) a complex world — its past, present, and how it may unfold in the future.
Thinking about ‘collapse’ and ecological overshoot necessarily has us attempting to frame a picture of the variables impacting our world and how events are going to ‘unfold’. I’ve increasingly come to believe that predicting the trajectory of complex systems is, well, complex; in fact, I’d argue impossible. We need look no further than meteorological models to get a glimpse at how difficult (impossible?) it is to predict relatively simple, complex systems such as wind and precipitation patterns. Throw human behaviour into the mix and complexity goes off the charts.
Dan Gardner’s Future Babble is an excellent reminder that complex systems with their non-linearity and emergent phenomena cannot be predicted accurately, so there is no ‘certainty’ to be found in constructed stories, regardless of the sophistication of the model used in the prediction or the amount of data/evidence inputted into the model. ‘Uncertainty’ will always exist and the tiniest of errors in a fundamental assumption at the start can have oversized impacts on the projected trajectory and endgame. Ultimately, only time will tell what the future holds but this simply is not sufficient to an human wanting certainty to reduce their anxiety about an unknowable future.
We want to know what the future holds. How things may rollout in the days, months, years ahead is fundamentally important to us as we tend to find uncertainty extremely anxiety-provoking. One of the methods for reducing the stress/anxiety that accompanies uncertainty is to take solace in ‘certain’ narratives; regardless of the evidence/facts that support them. And oftentimes it matters little how accurate a person’s or institution’s previous prognostications have been. If the story sounds plausible and it is given with certitude, we are more prone to believe it even if previous predictions have never been accurate.
So, to ensure our beliefs about the future are ‘certain’, we employ a host of cognitive biases to help us become confident in our thinking. What are these? Simply “[a] cognitive bias is a subconscious error in thinking that leads you to misinterpret information from the world around you, and affects the rationality and accuracy of decisions and judgments. Biases are unconscious and automatic processes designed to make decision-making quicker and more efficient. Cognitive biases can be caused by a number of different things, such as heuristics (mental shortcuts), social pressures, and emotions.”
Without further ado, here are four of the mechanisms that I’ve been considering as important as we slide down the Seneca Cliff of ‘collapse’ and attempt to make sense of our world.
Deference to Authority
Wishing to try to understand better German society’s apparent willingness to participate in the vilification and systematic elimination of countless Jews during World War II, Yale University’s Stanley Milgram began exploring the relationship between authority and the well-known tendency of people to obey instructions issued by authoritative figures.
Milgram’s ‘Shock Experiments’ demonstrated rather plainly the willingness of individuals to obey the demands/requests of supposed ‘authority’ figures to a point of overriding their moral principles. This was said to be the result of a relinquishment of responsibility for one’s actions in the presence of an authority figure but also because of a person’s acceptance of the definition or viewpoint of the situation as supplied by the authority figure.
Basically, humans tend to trust and obey individuals in positions of ‘authority’. We follow their diktats. We believe their stories. We do as we are instructed. Not always, but certainly most people do, most of the time.
Irving Janis coined the term Groupthink “to describe a premature concurrence-seeking tendency that interferes with collective decision-making processes and leads to poor decisions. It is characterized by deterioration in group member mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgments that result from in-group pressures to seek consensus. It is what happens when the task demands on a decision-making group are overwhelmed by the social demands to reach consensus. When experiencing groupthink, members tend to make simplistic statements about the issues and more positive in-group references than those in nongroupthink cases.”
Supplemental research has suggested that groupthink is far more likely when group leadership is directive in style, when greater amounts of mind-guarding occur (tendency to keep group members from being exposed to contrarian viewpoints and information), and a tendency to self-censor. Solomon Asch’s research on behavioural conformity is also of particular interest to this mechanism. Asch found that individuals are likely to conform to the observations and opinions of peers in social situations. As social animals, humans tend to conform to their social group in behaviours and ideas. This tendency increases when: more people are present; a task is more difficult; and, other members are of higher social status.
Fundamentally, humans have a tendency to meet the ‘norms’ of the social group in which they find themselves and will accept the group’s ideas and behaviours, primarily to avoid the negative social pressures that accompany non-conformity. We may not necessarily agree with certain things, but we tend to go along for better or worse.
Leon Festinger investigated and defined the idea that humans experience negative emotions when they hold conflicting or inconsistent cognitions. The resulting state of discomfort leads us to become motivated to align our cognitive knowledge, and the more discomfort or anxiety we feel from such conflicting cognition the more we struggle to reduce the resulting tension. It is during such efforts to reduce the dissonance we are feeling that we engage in significant rationalisation that can convince us to accept knowledge that we might otherwise not agree with.
“And that is what is so interesting about cognitive dissonance. In our effort to reduce dissonance, we come to distort our choices to make them seem better, we come to like what we have suffered to attain, and we change our attitudes to fit our behaviors.”
Essentially, in the attempt to achieve consistency in knowledge about the world we align our behaviours with our attitudes, and to reduce the anxiety that may arise from inconsistent cognitions we accept or reject certain information leading us to construct a ‘reality’ that is less anxiety-provoking than we might otherwise hold. We create a belief system that is comforting and then tend to cling to it fiercely.
The Justification Hypothesis is part of the Grand Unified Theory of Psychology. It argues that human cognition differs from other animals due to the relationship between language, self-consciousness, and social existence. The interaction of these phenomena result in our beliefs functioning to legitimise our particular perception of the world. We consequently engage in systems and processes that serve to justify our behaviours.
The concept is founded upon three premises. First, the development of language and living in social groupings led to the problem of having to justify actions/behaviours; why did you do what you did? Second, our attainment of self-consciousness created a system of aligning internal concepts of self with external actions; we strive to hold a stable view of oneself and create the same image for our peers. Third, since we are social beings living with many others, sometimes in very large groupings, we create sociocultural expectations/beliefs/values about normative behaviour along with large-scale systems to justify these.
Primarily, this hypothesis points to our tendency to rationalise our behaviour and beliefs as a result of our biology, psychology, and social interactions with others in order to maintain our self-image and avoid conflict with others.
You can locate Part Two of this multi-part Contemplation here.
 These are just a handful of the many processes that are relevant to human cognition and our formation of ‘knowledge’. Epistemology and some related fields are fascinating areas to explore; especially social psychology since we are, after all, very social animals and form our knowledge from and with others.
 It may have actually been meeting this great girl in one of the classes that kept me interested in the subject. Once she agreed to marry me I shifted over to archaeology;) And now we’re closing in on our 36th anniversary.
 Reading a couple of recent psychology course textbooks along with my youngest daughter as she took some courses so she’d have someone to bounce concepts/understandings off of during online courses due to the pandemic closures has been perhaps the best refresher.
 And I acknowledge that this is as true for me as everyone else. In fact, I would admit that the more I come to ‘understand’, the more I come to appreciate how much I don’t completely understand and how ‘simple’ our comprehension of an exceedingly complex universe truly is.
 It also, because of how we form ideas/beliefs, has us interpreting the present and past through particular lenses/worldviews/schemas/paradigms.
 Gardner, D. Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail — and Why We Believe Them Anyway. McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2010. (ISBN 978–0–7710–3513–5)
 Note that my summaries are in no way ‘comprehensive’. These are my highlighting of what I view as important aspects of these phenomena.