When I wander into using terms and concepts that are more complex and obscure that your run-of-the-mill facts, I sometimes wonder if I should explain them more often. Then again, I don’t want to come off as a lecturing pedant. And don’t think that I walk around with terms like ‘pedant’ rolling freely without effort out of my brain: I have a vague idea of what it means, and then I go and google it, just like everyone else. For the record, pedant means “a person who is excessively concerned with formalism and precision, or who makes a show of his or her learning.”
But all of that is beside the point. I want to talk about a psychological concept that tries to give a partial answer to the question ‘humanity, why you so crazy?’: Cognitive Dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable mental state where you are trying to believe in two conflicting ideas at the same time. They both can’t be right, but somehow you’re supporting both of them. Smoking is a good example. Every smoker knows that smoking is terrible for them, and yet they continue to smoke, even though they believe that they are a smart person who makes good choices.
So, faced with the conflict between the two ideas, our clever and adaptive mind creates a scenario where those two ideas can live in a simulation of harmony. We rationalize our behaviour, as being right anyway. We downplay or ignore the negative consequences. These adaptive capabilities are a big part of how we learn and survive in a chaotic world that doesn’t follow any strict logic, but it also allows very bad behaviours to get rooted into our psyche and stay there.
Consider this for a moment: we are a society of law and we expect everyone to follow the rules, but the News Of the World scandal reminded all of us that some people will see no punishment at all for disobeying those rules that are meant to apply to everyone equally. This creates cognitive dissonance. Some might wonder “Why should I follow the rules and accept their place in life when the wealthy use their fortunes to ignore their obligation to society? Why not take it into my own hands to rebel against the law and acquire some wealth of your own?”
I don’t give anyone absolution for the stupid and evil choices they make, in this case the choice to riot and loot. The responsibility for the action always rests on the shoulders of the individual. But it’s vital to look at the environment that encouraged that decision-making process, and the conditions that created it. When we accept a systemic disrespect for the rule of law from our leaders, we weaken the structures that allow our complex society to thrive.