The Kernel: Our minds have in-built strategies to maintain self-states. When faced with a threat to the consistency of these self-states, we marginalize this threat through Retreat, Ritualism, and Rebellion. This way, we minimize –or in some cases eliminate– the dissonance which ironically is a result of giving legitimacy to both our self-states and the new evidence that simultaneously threatens them. As such, we delegitimize Climate Crisis through selective perceptions, distortions, self-rationalizations, and two-track thinking. This de-legitimacy allows us to delay the cost of social trauma, as well as collateral damage to self-states, by adopting Climate Inaction that is more diffused, and that has a delayed effect. The effects of this inaction is less disruptive than responding to Climate Action, a response that is disruptive because it is an acute, direct, and immediate impact. As a result, we stay in the herd and enjoy all the engendered status quo benefits while casting aside as far as possible the thought of the impending cliff of Climate Crisis.
The Details: In this blog, we will look at Dissonance as the next type of social inertia barrier to Climate Crisis. Just like the previous type of social inertia Doom, Dissonance is a stage where the legitimacy of Climate Crisis has also survived the defenses of Close, Real and Immediate.
Dissonance is the mental discomfort when a person holds two or more beliefs, ideas, values, or norms that are in conflict with each other. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which these beliefs, ideas, values, or norms clash with new evidence perceived by the person.
For this blog Part 1, we will look at the precipitating conditions for dissonance. This is followed by looking at our differing strategies of reducing dissonance, imperiling us further into social inertia. This is followed by Part 2 where we will look at the underlying psychological basis and adaptive role of dissonance.
We can use an example of a smoker to explore dissonance where the desire to smoke and the desire to remain healthy are not compatible with each other. This incompatibility is because the freedom and benefits of addiction are antithetical to having a long term healthy life. As a result of holding onto these two equally legitimate but incompatible goals or outcomes, dissonance arises. Because dissonance challenges one’s self-consistency, we suffer from a form of mental discomfort and tension. Hence, one way to lessen the dissonance is for the smoker to believe she is immune to the ravages of such a habit. Another way is to cite selective examples of lifetime smokers living to a ripe old age to marginalize the threat to the habit.
In this study on Climate Crisis, we encountered several frameworks to explain the dissonant tension that is also similar to that experienced by the smoker: 1) Social Orientation, 2) Economic framework, and 3) Field Effect.
Social Orientation: One research paper uses a Social Orientation framework where dissonance is a result of taking a Climate Crisis action when it lacks social support, or, worse still, is in conflict with habit and beliefs of people we are in close relationship with (Stoknes, 2018). The implication here is that such action could be seen as threatening or disruptive to the social groups, and this would lead to risking our social standing and group belonging. Another paper elevates this social orientation framework to where dissonance results from the struggle of two competing narratives competing for a vision of our future: a) Avoiding large-scale social changes and thus maintaining the status quo, versus b) Severe dislocation of existing social practice (Brulle & Norgaard, 2019).
(D)issonance results from the struggle of two competing narratives competing for a vision of our future: a) Avoiding large-scale social changes and thus maintaining the status quo, versus b) Severe dislocation of existing social practice.~Brulle & Norgaard, 2019
Economic framework: Two papers use an Economic framework where dissonance is a clash between our interpersonal need to get ahead and the needed curbing to those needs so as to address the Climate Crisis (Markman, 2018; Swim, 2009). Another paper piggybacks on the above papers when it cites the possibility of suffering economic, cultural, and social inequities from being an early responder to Climate Crisis (Ross et. al., 2016). Ross et. al. (2016) adds this inequity comes in the form of an inequitable economic price to early adopters enacting climate repair (due to lagging institutional support); whereas Swim (2009) adds the social price comes in the form of risk of shame, ridicule, loss of reputation due to lagging cultural support; as well as the risk of personal resource waste from the unknown efficacy and valuableness of a person’s action given Climate Crisis’s complex, multivariable nature.
Field Effect: Using a sociological Field-Effect framework, one paper notes dissonance is a normal response to avoid social trauma (Brulle & Norgaard, 2019). It goes on to say trauma is inevitable because of the scale and severity of disruption to norms, rules, and patterns found in interpersonal, cultural, institutional, governmental fields needed for an adequate response to Climate Crisis. And because the size of this disruption grows exponentially as the more we sit out with inaction, we experience increasingly profound dissonance with passing time (Stoknes, 2017).
These narratives seem to paint a picture of a woke proverbial lemming trapped in its herd, where the herd’s current is following the pied piper’s tune of status quo over a cliff. This “Face the stampede of the herd now or face the cliff later” has clear dissonance all over it.
Face the stampede of the herd now or face the cliff later
Because dissonance creates a great disruption to self-consistency which causes us mental discomfort and tension, we naturally seek ways to reduce this unease. These strategies (Brulle & Norgaard, 2019) can be lumped into 3 broad categories, which I call them the 3 R’s:
A) Retreat: the afflicted retreats from the situation to a position of marginalization and passivity
B) Ritualism: the afflicted continues with the old pattern and ignoring its implications in the new context
C) Rebellion: the afflicted attacks the new worldview and its implications as attempts to alleviate trauma
Retreat: One of the easiest ways to retreat is simply changing one’s position on the issue. Understandably, since it is easier than changing one’s habits (Low hanging fruit effect [Gifford, 2014]). Another way is to marginalize the new evidence by looking for evidence that confirms existing beliefs and/or rejecting contradictory information (Confirmation Bias [Pike, 2010]). Pike (2010) adds that Belief Polarization is similar to the above bias in that one chooses to associate only with people who share one’s views.
Another retreat is Delusion by going through the motions of change, such as enacting policies of the slow adoption of zero-emission vehicle mandate, that will not get anywhere near needed targets (Gifford, 2014). Wishful Thinking (Pike, 2010) plays off Delusion as the tendency to believe favorable outcomes are more likely to happen than undesirable ones. Framing Risk is another retreat where there lacks an accompanying socio-descriptive narrative to its data, thus causing uncertainty to social change as this change is poorly narrated in a socio-descriptive way (Pike 2010; Stoknes, 2017). One paper takes us to the larger field with Institutional Gradualism (Brulle & Norgaard, 2019) that is inspired to avoid Field Disruption, using these retreating actions :
1) Over Promise, Under Deliver: Suppressed action to Inflated pronouncement
2) Shoot the Messenger and the Data: Repression or marginalization of data and messenger, or defiance of data as a way to avoid disruption to Institutional procedure
3) Greening the Institutional Field: Using Carbon Capitalism to maintain current power structures and fossil-fuel fields.
Ritualism: One way ritualism occurs is to maintain the status quo of current benefits (Markman, 2018), such as driving a combustion engine car over an electric car so as not to give up the longer mile capacity advantage of the former. In a similar vein, Intrapersonal need to get ahead effect (Swim, 2009) is similar but different in that it is to get ahead of the baseline of the norm rather than a slide back from it. Another ritualism is the sheer Inertia of Habit effect (Swim, 2009) where behavioral momentum of the status quo is sufficient grounds for no change. Some of the world views behind this behavioral momentum are:
- Take-Make-Waste World View (Pike, 2010): The maintenance of the ideology the planet is disposal via extractive and unfettered pollution.
- Nature Dominance World View (Pike, 2010) is similar where it places the human species as having a right to overlord the planet and other species for its benefit.
- Benign to Human Activity narrative (Gifford, 2014) supports both the above worldviews in viewing the planet as having the endless capacity to absorb and transform human waste without disrupting the regenerating process for the web of life.
One paper offers up Two-track thinking effect (Brulle & Norgaard, 2019) as a form of retreat, but also without experiencing dissonance where one develops a Double Reality co-existing within as such:
Track 1: A reality where critical importance is placed on Climate Crisis where its apocalyptic future is acknowledged
Track 2: A reality where business as usual for the pursuit of personal future and political actions, but at the same time no acknowledgement of environmental crisis exists.
Because Two-track does not have an attendant mental discomfort and tension, it is possible to exist in Two-track in perpetuity. This can be an inert inner state to let us quasi-hold Climate Crisis close enough so as to avoid the guilt of wholesale abandoning it or to avoid the complicity from letting it fall off the radar.
(Two Track) lets us quasi-hold Climate Crisis close enough so as to avoid the guilt of wholesale abandoning it or to avoid the complicity from letting it fall off the radar
Rebellion: This is simply a way of dispelling dissonance by attacking the new Climate Crisis worldview and its implications. One of the ways this attack shows up is Mistrust and Reactance (Swim, 2009). This is where one no longer trusts the credibility of respectable sources, a mistrust that is worsened by having a jaundiced view these sources have concealed schemes for public manipulation. Counter-framers (hoaxers, conspiracy theorist, professional doubt sowers) add to this form of retreat when they simply provide a convenient psychological relief valve for those afflicted by dissonance.
In Summary: Our minds have in-built strategies to maintain self-states . When faced with a threat to the consistency to these self-states, we marginalize this threat through Retreat, Ritualism, and Rebellion. This way, we minimize –or in some cases eliminate– the dissonance which ironically is a result of giving legitimacy to both the self-state and the new evidence that simultaneously threatens it. As such, we delegitimize Climate Crisis through selective perceptions, distortions, self-rationalizations, and two-track thinking. This allows us to avert the cost of social trauma, and thus trauma to self-states, that would cost us 1) Large-scale social changes, and 2) Severe dislocation of existing social practices. As a result, we stay in the herd and enjoy all the engendered benefits while diminishing –and perhaps eliminating– the thought of the impending cliff.
 Thinking of self as a pattern of behavior across time and situations, a more dynamic way, as opposed to attempting to characterize it as a specific, fixed, and unchanging object (Henriquess, 2014)
Ross, L. et al (2016). The Climate Change Challenge and Barriers to the Exercise of Foresight Intelligence. BioScience 66: 363-370. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biw025
Gifford, P. (2014). Environmental Psychology Matters. Annual Review of Psychology 2014. 65: 541-79. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115048
Stoknes, E. (2018). The Five Psychological Barriers to Climate Action. Retrieved from https://www.utne.com/environment/psychological-barriers-to-climate-action-ze0z1803zhee
Stoknes, E. (2017, September). How to Transform Apocalypse Fatigue into Action on Global Warming. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/per_espen_stoknes_how_to_transform_apocalypse_fatigue_into_action_on_global_warming?language=en#t-2178
Markman, A. (2018). Why People Aren’t Motivated to Address Climate Change. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/10/why-people-arent-motivated-to-address-climate-change
Swim, J. (2009). Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change
Pike, C. et al (2010). Climate Communications and Behavior Change: A Guide for Practitioners. The Climate Leadership Initiative (2010)
Brulle, R. & Norgaard, K. (2019). Avoiding Cultural Trauma: climate change and social inertia. Environmental Politics, 28:5, 886-908. https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2018.1562138
Henriquess, G. (2014, April 25). One Self or Many Selves? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201404/one-self-or-many-selves