Why are so few individuals, businesses and governments not taking the climate change and the resource depletion stories seriously?
To understand how these are connected it is worth going back to the summer of 1954. Marion Keech is a suburban housewife in Minneapolis. 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”. Sound Familiar? Many of our current challenges can be explained by Festingers theory of cognitive dissonance. As a society we have developed a set of beliefs over several decades. These beliefs are in stark contrast from the current reality. When our current beliefs do not correlate to the information at hand we start changing our story. Hence, we change the goal posts to suit our situation. We begin changing the narrative enabling us to feel comfortable with life and the world we live.
The mental anguish and stress created when we find out the future may not look like the past is difficult for us to process. We tell ourselves convenient stories stories such as ‘peak demand,’ ‘energy revolution’, and ‘technological innovation’ will save us. Having had a background in the financial markets I was witness to numerous ‘technological innovations’ which were going to change the world and markets forever. None of these have eventuated. Most of these innovations ‘hyped’ the benefits and downplayed the challenges in efforts to encourage would-be investors to lay down their hard earned cash. In my experience, those who see the resource depletion story as some great conspiracy, and portray ‘peak oilers’ as simply doomers, wear a shroud of cognitive dissonance or have not bothered to study the challenges ahead.
We tell ourselves we can seamlessly transition to a renewable energy future and we can go on living like we have. These stories distract us from the truth and eventually become embedded in our consciousness. These stories give us comfort and false hope assuring us everything will be alright. We start telling ourselves a bunch of nonsense to protect ourselves from the reality which exists. This discrepancy between currently held information and beliefs makes us do strange and sometimes funny things. Combined with numerous other biases we continue on with a business as usual, hoping everything will just work out. It can be difficult for the average person to make informed decisions with so much overwhelming information.
Those who can move past this dissonant behaviour will thrive and prosper into the future. Those who remain trapped by certain beliefs and behaviours will suffer, financially, emotionally and spiritually. We can become either pessimistic or optimistic about certain realities. It is far more prudent to try and be realistic. Like Marion Keech we can sit waiting for the aliens to come. Alternatively, we can recognise the challenges and turn these into opportunities…the choice is ours…
Sources: Excerpts from Rethink…Your world, Your future.