Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

The psychological causes of denial

with 13 comments

Connecting the dots – the story concludes…
This is the third and final post re-visiting points made in the introduction to my MA dissertation on climate change scepticism in the UK (as summarised on my About page), which are (1) the philosophical roots of scepticism (monday); (2) the political misuse of scepticism (yesterday); and (3) the psychological causes of denial (below).


The psychological causes of denial

When Leon Festinger published A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957, he introduced it by citing the illogicality of someone continuing to smoke cigarettes even though they know it is bad for them (i.e. something it took over 50 years to get tobacco company executives to publicly admit). He suggested that the discomfort this knowledge causes makes people try to rationalise or justify their behaviour. Furthermore, when faced with such discomfort (i.e. dissonance), he concluded that people will also actively avoid exposure to information likely to increase their discomfort; and seek solace in the company of those that reinforce their prejudice.

Today, the modern equivalent is continuing to burn fossil fuels even though we know that doing so is damaging the Earth’s climate. In particular, it is insane to take advantage of melting Arctic sea ice to extract previously-inaccessible crude oil, when we know that burning this additional fossil fuel (rather than finding an alternative source of energy) is going to aggravate an already growing problem. Listen to the arguments of Greenpeace International Director Kumi Nadoo (from 0:50) in this brief video:

Does this not make you feel uncomfortable?

David Aaronovitch defines a conspiracy theory as “the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable“; (a.k.a. ‘Occam’s razor’ or ‘the simplest explanation is most likely to be true’). He reviews a large number of modern conspiracy theories (such as those surrounding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the assassination of President Kennedy, the accidental death of Princess Diana, and the terrorist attack of 9/11) and draws a number of conclusions together under the title ‘Bedtime Story’ (which hints at the nature of his overall thesis); namely that we invent conspiracy theories to make ourselves feel better and/or to absolve ourselves of responsibility for things that did not go the way we would have wanted.

Therefore, if cognitive dissonance is the cause, confirmation bias is the resultant effect: By being selective in what you read or who you listen to, you will receive only messages that you want to; ones that enable you to remain “comfortable“. You see only what you want to see; and believe only what you want to believe.

Unfortunately, in any large-scale disagreement, people on both sides of an argument will often accuse the other party of confirmation bias. However, if you continue to reject the vast majority of empirical (i.e. observational) data; in favour of an extreme minority of data capable of supporting an alternative hypothesis, I am afraid the most likely explanation is that you are suffering from cognitive dissonance. Insisting that you are right and everybody else is wrong; or that everybody else is deluded, incompetent or mendacious just is not credible (especially if you are unqualified to comment and/or being paid by an oil company to spread misinformation). See Denial… is not a river in Egypt! (20 June 2012).

Ben Goldacre has pointed out that “only 49% of the population can be better-than-average at driving a car…” Dr Tari Sharot has recently provided an interesting further twist on this statistical certainty by describing what she has called Optimism Bias. Here is Dr Sharot explaining her research at TED…

Sharot has uncovered evidence that humans tend to be unduly optimistic. She suggests that optimism is an evolutionary survival mechanism (because giving up on escaping a predator would be likely to result in being caught and eaten): Using an MRI scanner to monitor brain activity, Dr Sharot has accumulated a large body of evidence that indicates that:
We assimilate new information that proves we are being unduly pessimistic; but
We ignore any new information that proves we are being unduly optimistic.

If so, which one are you doing?


Polite Reminder (to those still in denial about being in denial)
Record-breaking rainfall in the UK, unprecedented storms and temperatures in Washington DC, record-breaking droughts, floods, landslides, and bush-fires all around the world… Will the fake sceptics admit they are wrong when we see 1-in-100 year floods every 5 years? Or must we wait until they are an annual feature? Just how much longer must we wait for people to admit they are wrong; and that this is not normal? The world may not be about to end but, are the signs that it is past its best not clear enough to see? This is not random weather; this is what happens when we ignore what scientists have been saying for over 150 years.
Please Connect the Dots!

13 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Really good summary of the idea of cognitive dissonance and denial. Might share it with my old environmental communications prof.


    4 July 2012 at 05:44

    • Thanks Isaac; I hope he or she likes it too!:-) One point I forgot to repeat at the end was that Festinger had based much of his conclusions on observations of religious fanatics disappointed that the End of the World had not happened… In a funny inverted kind of way, this is what fake sceptics are dong today; continually having to explain away all the accumulating evidence that they are mistaken.

      Martin Lack

      4 July 2012 at 09:16

  2. Thank you for this look into the mind of the folks “on the other side”.


    5 July 2012 at 09:13

  3. you should probably read this:

    Barry Woods

    7 July 2012 at 11:57

    • Thanks for that, Barry. 11 years old that piece is – and yet it is very reminiscent of the thrust of both Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species and David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories. I must commend you or your open and fair-minded attitude (i.e. I recognise that you did not have to drop by and provide that link for me) but, forgive me, does this mean you are anywhere near accepting the argument (or do you just feel it is all just politically-motivated mind games)?

      Martin Lack

      7 July 2012 at 16:44

      • It looks like from that piece that the science was settled when the science was very much in its infancy.

        Ie George Monbiots quotes Marshall in a much earlier piece in 1995 I think.
        I’ll look out the link.

        It seems that future climate must be a catastrophe; not merely dangerous.

        He has an ‘interesting’ blog.

        Barry Woods

        7 July 2012 at 21:53

        • What do you mean by saying “the science” was in its infancy? We have known about the heat-trapping properties of CO2 for over 150 years. However, even if you mean that it took until 1988 to be sure we could separate the anthropogenic influence from all the other factors (such as volcanoes, sunspots, and solar flares etc.); that would make it a teenager – not an infant!

          We are now driving change many times faster than any previous natural change. Denying this does not make it untrue; and saying it does not mean I want it to happen. I am just being realistic about the consequences of putting business profitability before the Laws of Physics.

          Martin Lack

          8 July 2012 at 11:07

      • I think Clive basically pinched everything from George Marshall!and probably David as well

        Ie Clive refers to George Marshall in 2002!

        Barry Woods

        8 July 2012 at 12:39

        • That doesn’t make any of them wrong and, as ever, if you are going to dispute the primacy of CO2 as causing the change we are seeing, you need to have a workable alternative explanation, which you do not have: It is not possible to explain the changes of the last 50 or 60 years by reference to sunspots, solar flares, and/or TSI…

          There is of course an alternative explanation for the similarities in things all these authors have written (Aaronovitch has told me he has no strong opinion on climate change and, in fact, deliberately avoided the subject): They are all – along with Leon Festinger and Tari Sharot – flagging up the same flaw in the human psyche; a tendency to remain unduly optimistic in the face of evidence that might well indicate it is time for a change of plan…

          Martin Lack

          8 July 2012 at 16:42

  4. […] philosophical roots of scepticism; its possible misappropriation for ideological reasons; and the psychological causes of denial are reviewed.  In this context, based on the finding of numerous researchers that conservative […]

Please join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 350 other followers

%d bloggers like this: