Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIV
June 18, 2022 (original posting date)
Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Five — Justification Hypothesis
This contemplation is the fifth 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. The fourth in this series looks at the role of Cognitive Dissonance in our cognition and can be read 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 — 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). 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).
The uniquely human phenomenon theorised via the term Justification Hypothesis can be summed up in a quote attributed to author Robert Heinlein in the previous article: “Humans are a rationalising animal, not a rational one”.
It is argued that we seek to rationalise/justify our behaviours and cognitions in order to align them, sometimes to justify our efforts/actions, and perhaps at the same time to present a positive image to others and ourselves. A form of positive feedback tends to then arise where we experience increasing ‘pleasure’ through the confirmation of our beliefs, putting more ‘effort’ into attempts to confirm them (i.e., seeking like-minded individuals/groups or examples/data in support of), and becoming more ‘convinced’ we are correct in our belief system.
Effort justification, for example, may be as simple as rationalising the physical or mental energy we put into an activity. Research indicates that the more effort or sacrifice we put towards an activity or idea/belief, the more we come to view it as positive. It is important to note that studies suggest that this attractiveness is stronger and more prone to occur if the activity/belief is perceived as being freely chosen and the expected ‘cost’ is known prior to any effort.
“At least two important implications seem to follow from effort justification. First, it is likely to have functional benefits for groups. By increasing attraction and commitment to the group, group cohesion and stability are enhanced. Second, effort justification is likely to increase persistence at tasks that are not altogether pleasant, especially when such tasks are seen as chosen. Many worthwhile outcomes in life require short-term sacrifice to achieve longer-term gain. By encouraging such sacrifice, effort justification is functional to the individual and the group.
Of course, what is functional is not always good. Attractive, cohesive groups may be more prone to group-think, and persistence at lost causes can be destructive.”
While the justification by individuals is the basis of this theory, research has expanded to look at the use of it by systems in a broader sense. Systems justification theory looks at how groups justify/rationalise the status quo systems they exist within.
“System justification can lead us to deny and excuse aspects of our society — such as the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and the damage we are doing to the natural environment, to take just two very salient and worrisome examples — that we ought to confront sooner rather than later.”
Think about this hypothesis in terms of the leveraging that can be accomplished by a ruling elite with specific motivations in mind, especially as the complexities that ‘sustain’ our industrial civilisation increasingly falter.
First, we tend to defer to ‘authority’ so establishing and maintaining this authority will help to ensure the majority of individuals comply with the status quo directives that may be increasingly difficult as numerous crises erupt. While ‘force’ can help to ensure such compliance, having people ‘believe’ in the narratives we are ‘herded’ towards is far more efficient (i.e., less costly) and more effective (i.e., think of Johann von Goethe quote here: “The best slave is the one who thinks he’s free.”).
Second, our motivation to belong to a social group along with our tendencies to conform to the beliefs/ideas/opinions of the majority and to view events/evidence through the context we are provided, makes establishing the narrative by which the group tends to interpret exceedingly important. By setting the context (cognitive framing as some call it) through which people view the world, the stories that percolate through society can more or less be controlled, especially those that legitimise the power/control of individuals/groups that sit atop the power/wealth structures of our world. This not only maintains the flow of ‘wealth/goods’ up to the elite but minimises the discontent that can result in sociopolitical upheavals.
Third, because there can be competing narratives in large, complex social groups and people will feel dissonance when conflicting cognitions exist, it is vital that the messaging of the elite is ‘proactive’ (i.e., their story is put out very quickly in order to set the context thru which people interpret events), relatively similar/consistent (i.e., remain on message), and repeated often. This is where their control of most media institutions comes into play. They not only have the means to spread their message relatively quickly and consistently, they can do it in a way that appears ‘objective’. The power structures, for example, can be reinforced through narratives regarding ‘representative democracy’ and agency via the ballot box. Not only can the context through which people interpret events be established but confirmation biases can be supported.
Once we latch on to a narrative we strive to justify it and rationalise events/evidence in light of it to reduce any anxiety that might arise from the conflicting messages our minds receive. This phenomenon is perhaps one of the strongest mechanisms that contribute to the denial of ‘facts’ that challenge one’s interpretive narrative.
This ends my thoughts on the four aspects of psychology I set out to discuss. In the next and last instalment of this mini-series of articles I shall attempt to tie them together with respect to what is increasingly seeming to me to be a self-created bottleneck that threatens our complex societies and perhaps even, as some argue, our and many other species extinction.
 Note that I am aware that I am as prone to these psychological mechanisms as everyone else and this long series of articles could be perceived as my attempt to rationalise/justify/reinforce/confirm my own biased beliefs; especially as they pertain to ruling elite behaviours in the face of societal collapse.
 It is not surprising that the rise of technologies that allow for competing narratives that challenge the status quo is creating increasing calls for censorship — currently in the guise of countering ‘fake news/misinformation’.