All or Nothing Thinking

Posted: May 16, 2017 in General Rants

I was just on Facebook, as one is, and was reading about the powerful retaliation against Leonardo DiCaprio’s stance on the environment. The argument goes something like “How can he claim he cares about the environment when he flies a jet which has a big carbon footprint?”.

I think this is a big part of why people deny climate change theory – or parts thereof. The human brain cannot reconcile two seemingly opposing ideas, and most people engage in at least some behaviours that are not environmentally friendly.  For example, I love road trips and driving for the sake of driving. I also know that the carbon emissions from doing so are contributing to the climate problems we are facing.

How can I justify my behaviours if I acknowledge the damage it does to our environment.  This is called cognitive dissonance. Our brains don’t like when our behaviours don’t match our beliefs compelling us to change our behaviours, or change our beliefs.

One of the early psychological experiments on cognitive dissonance is one of my all time favourite psychological experiments.  A group of participants was brought in to the lab and asked to eat a cracker with a tiny fleck of fecal matter on it – yep, that means poo.  In reality it was a tiny crumb of a chocolate brownie, so don’t freak out, but the participants were told it was poo.

Now here’s the important part.  Half of the participants were given $10 for their participation and the other half were not given anything.

After the poo eating, participants rated how disgusting it was.  Those who were paid $10 said it was awful!  Hideous! The worst thing ever!  Those who were paid nothing said it was fine, no big deal, not so bad.

Same poo, different disgustingness?

The researchers argued that the people who were paid had an external way of justifying their behaviour. In other words these participants were able to say they ate this horrible, disgusting poo because they got paid. Their beliefs about the disgustingness of the poo did not conflict with what they did. The people who were paid nothing, had no way to justify engaging in something so disgusting – their behaviour did conflict their beliefs – so they had to change their beliefs to justify their behaviour.

When we love something like driving, or the convenience of something like an electric dryer, it is a struggle to justify these behaviours if we believe we are damaging the environment, and currently the joy of driving/using the dryer/using plastic cutlery with takeaway/quad-ing or snowmobiling/and so on is strong enough that it compels us to change our beliefs.

If we could acknowledge both, accept that we are doing some damage, would it possible to make minor adjustments?  If we don’t acknowledge the problem, we’ll never change our behaviours that are contributing to it. So maybe we have to start saying something like – “I love driving, and it damages the environment so I’m going to hand my clothes to dry and minimize the plastic I consume.”  It’s better than not changing at all.

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