Lying to Ourselves at The End of The World

Why the denial keeps getting worse.

Lying to Ourselves at The End of The World
Shot Prime

In the late 1950s, a devastating famine hit China. It lasted for years. People were eating the bark off trees. Families were cooking each other.

30 million starved.

And yet, you couldn't convince the government to care. You couldn't acknowledge a famine was happening. If you tried, someone would drag you out into the woods and shoot you (then probably flay you). You could watch someone fry human flesh for dinner, and then listen to them talk about how great things were going. You can read all about these horrors in Yang Jisheng's epic book, Tombstone. His own father died in the famine. He spent years covertly digging through national archives to tell the story.

The majority of people don't want to believe something like this could ever happen to them, but it's going to happen. We have piles of data telling us what to expect, and it's already happening right in front of us. And yet, the denial only seems to get worse. News outlets are spending less time covering any crisis. Every story comes with that new mandatory phrase, "The risk remains low at this time."

What the hell is going on?

More than sixty years after the Chinese famine, I find myself on social media reading about a young woman whose parents are trying to serve her undercooked meat on the eve of a bird flu pandemic, a time when it's more important than ever to heat your food thoroughly. I find myself reading story after story about entire societies getting high off ignoring warnings, blowing off science, and shrugging as disaster movies come to life on our phones, all while excusing genocide and wondering "how innocent really" are the children who happen to be in the way of our bombs. I find myself watching politicians who can't agree on anything except banning the only platform where young people feel comfortable expressing their trauma as the world unravels. It's disturbing, but it's also just dumbfounding, isn't it? You wonder what could motivate this kind of behavior. Why on earth does reality motivate so many of us to do the exact opposite of what we should?

It's cognitive dissonance.

If you're like me, you've heard that term for years. You know what it means, but you've been taking it for granted.

Well, let's take a minute.

Leon Festinger introduced cognitive dissonance in the 1950s, just a few years before the Chinese famine. Basically, the idea refers to the deep discomfort it causes us when someone proves us wrong or when we find ourselves living in contradiction with our principles. We'll do anything to alleviate that discomfort before we actually change our behavior.

In Festinger's own words, "Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point." For decades, research on cognitive dissonance confirmed the most disturbing traits about human nature, that we're impulsive and easy to manipulate. We can rationalize anything, but if our cognitive dissonance becomes too great, we can't function. We go nuts.

The denial we're seeing isn't new. It's as old as time. It's just getting worse, and the stakes are getting higher. I think what we're learning is that it doesn't matter if the entire fate of the species and every other species hangs in the balance. In fact, that's all the more reason to try and ignore it. Who's going to raise their hand and take responsibility for destroying all life on earth? It's easier to either deny it, or find someone else to blame.

There's several types of cognitive dissonance:

First, there's selective perception. People seek out information that confirms their beliefs. They ignore anything that challenges those beliefs. They readily believe misinformation, lies, and propaganda that confirms what they want to hear. It's not just the crazy alt right doing this. Everyone does it. Nobody really wants to sit and think about information that's going to make them feel bad about themselves or put pressure on them to do things that are hard, inconvenient, or expensive. It's easier to just ignore it. And if you can't ignore it, then you can question it and second guess it until it doesn't matter.

Then there's belief disconfirmation. When reality disproves someone's beliefs, they don't change their beliefs. They cling to them. They dive deeper. They look harder for reasons to believe. They'll accept even bigger, more outrageous lies to explain the first one. The deeper they go, the harder it gets to reverse and admit they were wrong. That's how you wind up with myths that lockdowns from almost five years ago are responsible for everything bad happening now. It's not about logic anymore. It's about preserving beliefs.

If you're wondering why the current administration can't face our inflation problems and keeps talking about how great the economy is, that's belief disconfirmation plus selective perception joining forces. They just come up with bigger and bigger lies to explain away our problems. They can't blame climate change or corporate greed. Identifying the real causes would mean they'd have to actually address the problems. They can't. They can't stand up to big oil. They can't stand up to their corporate donors. So they look for convenient answers, even if those answers make no sense at all. They're not supposed to make sense. They're supposed to alleviate dissonance.

That's the point.

Next, there's the forbidden behavior paradigm. The stricter the restriction, the more severe the punishment, the more someone wants to do the forbidden thing. It doesn't matter if the forbidden thing is dangerous. All someone cares about is doing it because they can't.

That's how you get surges in demand for raw milk right after the media reports that raw milk contains inactive bird flu.

Festinger also learned that induced compliance works wonders. One of his studies found that if you pay someone significantly less to complete tedious tasks, they're more likely to find the work meaningful or interesting. The low pay induces them to find reasons for doing it.

That's how you wind up with low-paying professions citing things like passion and fulfillment as the main rewards. The less you're paid, the more meaningful you find your work, because meaning is all you've got. And if you think CEOs don't know this little trick, think again.

They exploit it without mercy.

Research on cognitive dissonance over the last several decades has found that people in general will go to extreme lengths to rationalize and justify their behavior, regardless of how much damage it does to them or their friends and family. It doesn't even matter if millions of people are starving right in front of them. They'll look for a reason to keep smiling. Because what they really care about is preserving their own mental state.

All this research tells us that as things get worse, so will the ferocity of the denial, both personal and institutional.

The world we grew up in is gone, but most people don't want to admit that because it creates an extreme level of cognitive dissonance. It's so much easier to just pretend that things are fine.

The majority of people don't want to admit there's an airborne virus that guarantees severe chronic illness after a few infections. Doing that would make them extremely uncomfortable, and it would require them to both change their behavior and admit responsibility. The longer we go, the harder it's going to be for them to admit they probably killed more than one person and probably cursed even more to a life of endless sickness.

We have plastic floating in our blood. And as much as we like to cite George Carlin's popular opinion that the world will be fine with plastic after we're all dead, he didn't know about microplastics and PFAS. I suspect if he were alive, his opinion on the dangers of plastic would have...evolved.

Who wants to admit that?

We live in a world where the heat can kill you in minutes, and it's getting hotter. We live in a world where it's not safe to get on an airplane anymore, and that airplane does more damage every minute it spends in the sky. We live in a world where the biggest celebrities don't care if their concerts injure, sicken, or kill their fans. And neither do their fans.

We live in a world where our coffee, our chocolate, our electronics, and often our clothes are produced by slaves halfway around the world who work 16 hours a day. Talk about cognitive dissonance...

We live in a world where bankers and shareholders celebrate crop failures and pandemics, because they can find a way to profit off them. We live in a world where the biggest corporations are designing algorithms to figure out the highest amount they can charge for an item.

We live in a world where producing something that's high quality for an affordable price is a bad business model and a liability.

We live in a world where an actor can refuse to license their likeness to a corporation, and the corporation will use it anyway.

We live in a world where our leaders have chosen to make scarce commodities out of the basics like food, clothing, and shelter. They're turning clean air and water into scarce commodities, too.

Most people go along with it.

Who wants to admit they live in that world? Nobody. Even for doomers like us, it's just disappointing and anticlimactic to know that even if we survive the pandemics and the famines and the super storms, we'll die prematurely from cancer because of the microplastics in our kale.

It just sucks.

On some level, everyone knows it would take a massive amount of effort to turn things around. It would mean very hard conversations. Why should Joe give up straws if Becky won't give up her Taylor Swift concerts? Why should Jake and Melanie give up their private jet if the U.S. military can keep flying planes and dropping bombs everywhere?

It's not fair.

It's all cognitive dissonance at work.

Everyone can rationalize what they're doing because nobody is willing to make sacrifices or take responsibility.

Here's the worst part:

Work on cognitive dissonance has also illuminated what psychologists call the just-world fallacy. If something bad happens to someone, then they're just getting what they deserve. That's become the key staple of American ideology, whether it's used to justify inequality or crimes against humanity. You find that attitude everywhere, even in self-help books with all their talk about the importance of mindset. So if you fail, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

That's just-world fallacy on steroids.

It's easier to believe.

It's extremely appealing to believe you have total control over your own destiny. It's hard to admit your fate could be decided by someone who already makes 300 times more than you, and has control of your politicians.

That's depressing.


If someone's poor, it's their fault. If someone's sick, it's their fault. If someone's getting bombed somewhere, it's their fault. They brought it on themselves. It has nothing to do with choices we made.

And if you happen to be poor, sick, or at risk of bombing, it's easy to just pretend things will get better on their own.

And poof, the discomfort goes away.

Nobody has easy answers or quick fixes for this. Sure, I could say the answer is to acknowledge and combat our cognitive dissonance. Would that really help? The whole problem is that it's easier to ignore inconsistencies and contradictions in our behavior than to do something about them. When you throw money and corrupt economic systems into the mix, it gets even harder.

Here's what I can offer:

You're alive.

As long as you plan to be alive, you have to find a reason to keep living. You have to find something worth doing. You have to find things that bring you some sense of joy, fulfillment, or peace.

You have to come up with some vision of a future that's worth fighting for, no matter how bad today feels. So, maybe humans are doomed. But maybe some of us can survive and build something of a civilization after all this goes down. Maybe a few plants and animals will make it.

That's what keeps me going.

When you get frustrated, when you wonder why people are like this, just remember. It's part of our psychology. It's a design flaw. This is how people behave. It's how they behave in pandemics. It's how they behave in famines. A lot of people, including ones you know and love, would rather become monsters than change their behavior, because they can't handle the dissonance. We can pull together during hard times, but we can also splinter.

Sometimes you can't reason with someone. You can't appeal to their logic or emotions. All you can do is fight them for influence. All you can do is help the ones you can. All you can do is repeat the truth over and over again. And sometimes, all you can do is know the truth, and act on it.

You would think the reality of the situation would finally force an awakening. You would think that the cascade of disasters would finally convince deniers and minimizers to come to terms on some level.

Nope, that's not how it works.

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