It seems everywhere we turn there is bad news, about the economy, our political institutions are failing us, and environmental destruction and climate change are upon us. With such uncertainty and confusion as to where we are headed, it is difficult to navigate the world and make sense of why and how we have managed to get to this point. As humans we make poor decisions based on biases, beliefs and misinformation. These decisions shape our world and will increasingly influence the future of the species and the planet. These behaviours may not always be expected, make sense, or are rational. They do explain why people suffer internally and make value judgments, decisions and choices not always in line with the reality that exists. Being aware of how conflicting beliefs influence and impact our lives can help us make better decisions and choices.
Work by Jared Diamond, Joseph Tainter and Ronald Wright have contributed much to the conversation around understanding why societies fail, succeed or simply collapse. There are numerous reasons why societies collapse, ranging from environmental degradation (soil erosion, salinity problems, water scarcity), overpopulation, over exploitation of natural resources (water, forestry, over fishing, overhunting), and economic dislocation. Many of these problems are a direct result of how we make decisions.
Our human misjudgements and biases impact every aspect of our lives and influence what happens throughout society. While there are hundreds of biases which shape how we think and act, our discussion will focus on a few which are particularly relevant at this point in time. It is the choices and decisions we make which really matter, as these define us as individuals, communities and nations. These decisions ultimately determine our future and that of future generations. It is through our choices and our ability to see through the fog which will allow us to make better, more informed decisions, for the benefit of all.
A parallel to the climate change and resource depletion debate can be illustrated by Marion Keech, a housewife in suburban Minneapolis back in 1954. Keech had been receiving messages from aliens, from the planet Clarion, for a number of years. Keech believed this year would be remarkable. She had gathered with a small group of followers awaiting the apocalypse. Human civilization would be destroyed by a massive flood at the stroke of midnight on December 20, 1954. Keech and her followers were convinced the flood was coming. All marked the date of Armageddon on their calendars, quit their jobs, sold their homes and didn’t bother buying Christmas presents for friends or relatives. Gathered at her home on the evening of the 20th, Keech was unaware prominent social psychologist, Leon Festinger and some of his colleagues had infiltrated the group. They were hoping to observe and study the reaction of the cultist when the world was still intact and the aliens which were supposed to escort them to a waiting spaceship did not materialise.
The stroke of midnight passed at the Keech residence and nothing happened. One of Keech’s group noticed another clock in the room showing the time as 11:55. A sigh of relief fills the room and the group agrees it is not yet midnight. Both clocks in the room are now showing it is clearly past midnight and still no sign of the alien visitors. The group sits in stunned silence. It is now 4:00 am and the group continues to sit in silence after a few feeble attempts have been made to explain the alien no show. Keech breaks down and begins crying. The time is 4:45 am. Suddenly Keech gets another message from the aliens (through automatic writing). The message states “the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off. The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” The message was received with warm enthusiasm by the group. In a stark turnaround on the afternoon of December 21st, the group who had previously shied away from media coverage now wished to tell their story. The group proceed to embark on a media blitz, contacting newspapers and seeking interviews. Keech did however lose some of the group members through what psychologists call disconfirmation. Disconfirmation is where new evidence or information is provided that conclusively confirms a hypothesis is not true. It was during and after the ordeal many of the group members were more convinced the aliens and indeed the entire series of events were real. The story of Mrs Keech and her group highlights what psychologists’ term cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the mental anguish and stress created when there is a discrepancy between currently held information and beliefs, versus new information contradictory to those originally held beliefs or information.
Festinger and his colleagues who had infiltrated the group, hypothesized before the events, the dissonance created by disconfirmation of the group’s beliefs would motivate them to change their beliefs or seek alternative strategies to re-confirm their beliefs. They were right. Instead of accepting they were wrong, the group continued to reassure themselves, finding alternative stories to reconcile the disconfirmation with their chosen beliefs. The group’s strong commitment to the prophecy allowed them to identify with a new set of explanations which remained consistent with their original claims. Festinger outlines how, “the existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance”.(1)
This story of Keech resembles our current paradigm. This winter, temperatures over the Arctic Ocean ranged from 4°F to 11°F (2°C to 6°C) above average in nearly every region. While February marked the biggest atmospheric temperature spike observed, with the monthly reading running 1.5°F above normal, a new record. The measurement is taken by satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies around the world. The record extends back to 1979 and is managed by scientists at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. (2)
It seems all the rhetoric of the Climate Summit in Paris was little more than window dressing and hot air. It is clear that not one country is pushing to contract their economies by reducing economic growth. The economic agenda is ever more focused on resurrecting flagging economies in the hope that the glory days of the 1950’s 60′ and 70’s will return. We continue to reassure ourselves by finding alternative stories to reconcile the disconfirmation with our chosen beliefs. While the planet starts to slowly cook us we will continue to tell ourselves stories that we can live on a 3, 4, 5 or even 6 degree warmer planet, all for the sake of maintaining the status quo. The cognitive dissonance and mental anguish we continue to create for ourselves is limiting our ability to take positive action and engage in meaningful change that will help alleviate the challenges we face.
Source: excerpts from Rethink…Your world, Your future.
Cover Image: flickr
(1) Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Row, Peterson and Company. 1957.