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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIII–Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Four — Cognitive Dissonance

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIII

June 11, 2022 (original posting date)

Santorini, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Four — Cognitive Dissonance

This contemplation is the fourth part of a look at several psychological mechanisms at play in our thinking about ecological overshoot and the accompanying societal ‘collapse’ that will eventually result.

In Part One, I briefly summarised four psychological mechanisms I’ve been reflecting upon in the context of ecological overshoot and in particular the collapse of our global, industrialised complex societies that will (or, as some argue, has already begun to) accompany this overshoot; you can read it here. In Part Two, I began elaborating my thoughts on the first mechanism in my list: Obedience/Deference to Authority; you can find it here. Part three comprises some thoughts about the phenomenon of Groupthink and can be found here.

One of the primary considerations in understanding how our cognitions and thus our beliefs and behaviours are going to be affected by the unfolding of the consequences of ecological overshoot and the concomitant ‘collapse’ of our societies is the anxiety/stress that such a future (and present) is going to have (is having) upon us; personally, on a familial level, and on the broader societal scale. Contemplating an unknowable future that is unlikely to provide many of the energetic conveniences most currently depend upon and/or that will challenge our complex systems to the breaking point because of extreme weather events, or supply chain disruptions/breakdowns (especially food, water, energy), etc. can be exceedingly anxiety-provoking.

Mix these (and many other) psychological mechanisms in with Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect — that postulates all animals have an innate motivation to avoid pain/seek pleasure[1] — and you have an animal whose sense-making abilities are leveraged by its mind to deny/ignore away evidence that challenges them and can cause painful, anxiety-provoking emotions (in fact, there appears to be neuroscientific support for this[2]). In response, we appear to employ all sorts of biases/rationalisations to support our belief systems (a ‘pleasurable’ sensation) regardless of disconfirming evidence (that can lead to painful/stressful emotions).

Hastening back to the summary I wrote on cognitive dissonance in the first part of this series, recall that it is fundamentally “…the idea that humans experience negative emotions when they hold conflicting or inconsistent cognitions[3]. 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.”

The anxiety one may experience in holding conflicting beliefs varies since some people are not as impacted by such internal conflict as they have a higher tolerance for it. In fact, there are some who are quite comfortable with holding beliefs that conflict with each other so their dissonance-reducing efforts are not as impactful as for those who do encounter such internal stress.

For those who do suffer from anxiety-provoking emotions caused by conflicting beliefs, if the beliefs one holds are more personal or valued in nature (or the disparity between them is great), even more dissonance may be experienced than may be typical if the beliefs are not personally valued. This can bring about heightened efforts to reduce the dissonance. These efforts may also be increased if beliefs are challenged by others, leading to even further entrenchment/defense of one’s beliefs and concomitant dissonance-reducing attempts.

Further, if our behaviours do not align with our beliefs we may find that we actually alter our beliefs to become consistent with our behaviours[4]. There appears to exist a feedback loop between our beliefs and actions, with each affecting the other in ongoing attempts to minimise personal anxiety (i.e., psychological ‘pain’).

Another complexity in this entire process is that a person’s comfort with uncertainty may also critical to how much dissonance may be experienced[5].

Research on human reactions to uncertainty is, of course, important to the issue of overshoot and collapse given the nature of the predicament and what we do in attempting to understand how it will impact us and the planet. We are, for all intents and purposes, making ‘guesses’ about our future and as physicist Niels Bohr has been credited with stating (and several others): “Predictions are difficult, especially if they’re about the future”.

We can’t help but be anything but uncertain about our future and this feeling of uncertainty intensifies emotional reactions; sometimes positively but most of the time negatively because humans desire certainty (which is why we sometimes are prone to misleading narratives, especially if communicated in a convincing manner that offers assurances). And the greater the uncertainty, the stronger the affective reaction. Most people experience anxiety with uncertainty[6] and seek ways to reduce this.[7]

One of the ways our brains reduce uncertainty is to simplify our understanding of the world. We engage biases and heuristics to do this[8], and in the process we tend to see patterns that don‘t exist and treat random events as meaningful[9]. By simplifying an exceedingly complex reality we can reduce our uncertainty and thus our anxiety about the future.

So, here we are, an animal existing in an exceedingly complex world with relatively remarkable cognitive abilities attempting to understand the flood of information our senses are experiencing. We also find ourselves within a hierarchical social environment where our tendency is to defer to those ‘above’ us in social status. If they can influence or create the worldview through which we interpret the world, we tend to do this.

Then comes along some disruptive technologies such as the printing press and, more recently, the internet to allow for the dissemination of competing narratives for how we view the world. The variety of interpretive lenses that are created by this can lead to ever-growing dissonance[10]. We are exposed repeatedly to the stories that our elite are pushing[11], but we are also aware of competing ones. We tend to defer to those communicated by our authority figures (be it politicians, the media, academics, etc.), but not always. We do occasionally get exposed to conflicting messages and evidence.

How do we alleviate the resulting anxiety? We employ our mind to filter out the incoming information in a way that reduces the stress we are experiencing. It matters little what we experience with our own senses or the data we are exposed to. We simplify, alter our perspective/interpretation, and create a narrative that we can filter evidence through. We also seek out self-reinforcing echo chambers of like-minded individuals/groups. Confirming information is amplified and reinforces our story while disconfirming information is ignored, denied, or rationalised away. In essence, we believe what our minds want us to believe; ‘facts’ be damned. And if we are challenged and begin to experience dissonance, we grab a hold of our fundamental beliefs even harder.

Obviously, it’s not quite as simple as this and some are more prone to the anxiety-reducing mechanisms than others, but for the most part we are ‘guided’ to beliefs that may not align with ‘reality’ but that reduce our ‘pain’ (i.e., anxiety) while increasing our ‘pleasure’ (e.g., dopamine surges appear to be one result when we encounter the pleasurable sensation of ‘confirmation’ of our beliefs[12]). We take increasing comfort in narratives that can reduce our anxiety, often regardless of any evidence that challenges them.

Depend significantly on industrial civilisation and all the conveniences it offers? Then you can be sure to either ignore/deny the narratives and accompanying evidence that point to its probable demise[13], and/or take increasing comfort in the stories that human ingenuity and our technological prowess will ‘solve’ our predicament[14] of ecological overshoot and its accompanying collapse. It seems we create our own ‘reality’.

Finally, keep in mind the statement attributed to author Robert Heinlein: “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal”. We ‘rationalise/justify’ what we believe and do so constantly, which will be looked at in the next piece that reviews The Justification Hypothesis.

[1] https://www.simplypsychology.org/edward-thorndike.html

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/202001/the-neuroscience-seeking-pleasure-and-avoiding-pain

[3] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-psychology-theories/cognitive-dissonance-theory/

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mortal-rituals/201306/behavior-over-belief; https://www.verywellmind.com/attitudes-how-they-form-change-shape-behavior-2795897; https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-dissonance-2795012

[5] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326738#overview

[6] This feeling appears to be context dependent as some activities with uncertainty may actually produce positive emotions, such as watching sports or a mystery movie, or gambling.

[7] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-right-mindset/202002/why-uncertainty-freaks-you-out; https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3153298/Gilbert_FeelingUncertaintyIntensifies.pdf;

[8] https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/heuristics; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3864559/;

[9] See Dan Gardner’s Future Babble for a great overview of this phenomenon: https://www.dangardner.ca/publication/future-babble.

[10] Perhaps this explains the seemingly ever-growing number of people in so-called ‘advanced’ economies that have been identified with an anxiety disorder and, for some, become reliant on anti-anxiety medication. https://www.anxietycentre.com/statistics/anxiety-disorder-statistics-facts/

[11] As I have argued previously, we have a ruling elite who sit at the top of our power/wealth social structures and are motivated by a drive to sustain their privilege. Part of what they do to meet this imperative is that they create narratives that help to legitimise their positions — from being directly descended from God/the gods to chosen ‘freely’ by the masses as their representatives (or worked exceptionally ‘hard’ to deserve their privilege). This class of people also tend to be susceptible to the vagaries of groupthink due to their increasing isolation from the hoi polloi.

[12] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201802/the-dopamine-seeking-reward-loop; https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/Confirmation-Bias-What-is-it-How-it-affects-You-and-How-to-Deal-With-It; https://www.healthline.com/health/dopamine-effects#drugs-dopamine; https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(19)30013-0;

[13] I say ‘probable’ given the self-evident fact (at least, to me) that not one of us can predict the future with much accuracy. Evidence appears to be accumulating that the endgame of ‘collapse’ is unavoidable but in truth only time will tell if and how this all plays out.

[14] I am of the opinion that this is a predicament without solution; it can possibly, at best, be mitigated somewhat and in some places better than others.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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