The odds are good you won’t read this entire post. The reason? It has to do with confirmation bias. If you think what I am going to say conflicts with your belief system – whether you are a scientist or a Christian – you won’t finish it to avoid cognitive dissonance even though you aren’t entirely sure what I will say.
Ruby and I have been discussing Glenn Beck’s week of “Islam is going to result in the rise of the Anti-Christ” television shows that have been all over the news lately. (I’m really not making that up – if you live outside of the United States, seriously … find the clips online if they are available. This is one of the highest rated television shows in the world.)
That’s not really the point. It occurred to me that the entire discussion provides the perfect example to illustrate one manifestation of the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance and how the human brain responds to conflicting input or belief systems, especially when the choices are purely binary (that is, mutually exclusive).
Jesus and Captain Kirk Cannot Co-Exist
Consider the following statement:
Someone who believes in Christian eschatology (that is, the world will come under the influence of the Anti-Christ and the false prophet who will introduce a single global economic system, persecute Christians and declare himself God before Jesus Christ returns at the battle of Armageddon where all mankind has joined to fight before he doles out some WWE-style smack down) cannot, by definition, also believe that humanity will ever achieve space travel and colonization.
Christian eschatology is based upon the absolutely non-negotiable position that all mankind will be judged and humanity as we know it ended upon the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (or “The Second Coming” as it is often used in American culture; e.g., “He thinks he’s the Second Coming”).
However, if even a small portion of mankind no longer lives on planet Earth or has established a colony on Mars, the Moon, or in some sort of Space Station city that people like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos would like to see happen, then “all of mankind” cannot be here, on Earth, cannot be under the government of the Anti-Christ, cannot be forced to take the “Mark of the Beast” and cannot unite in a war against the return of Jesus Christ.
This would indicate that if mankind ever did achieve space travel in any meaningful way, the Book of Revelation, as modern Christians believe it will happen, cannot come to pass and that it was a lie. Hence the mutually exclusive part. Only one can be true or happen but not both.
Cognitive Dissonance – How Humans Handle Conflicting Belief Systems
Cognitive dissonance occurs when the brain holds two conflicting beliefs that cannot both be true. The brain tries to deal with this information in one of several ways:
- Denial: I’d be willing to bet that a decent percentage of people who say they believe in the Biblical account of the end-of-the-world would say they also believe mankind will some day achieve Star Trek-like technology at the rate we are going provided you did not ask the questions together in a relatively short period of time so they didn’t make the mental link between the two scenarios. By remaining in denial about the mutual exclusivity of the possibilities, the person can go cheerfully through life without confronting any hard decisions or experiencing emotional turmoil related to the quandry.
- Hostility: The brain experiences hostility and causes the person who suffers the cognitive dissonance to get angry and, in some cases violent, with the person who points out the cognitive dissonance. You see this a lot with fundamental terrorist groups that kill anyone who is an “infidel” or an “enemy of Islam”. In cults you hear people say, “They are blind to the truth of the prophet”. In racists groups hear people say, “They are a race traitor”, etc. The list is endless but the underlying emotional response is the same.
- Modification of Beliefs: In this resolution mechanism, the original belief system is modified. People used to believe that Nero was the Anti-Christ. When Christ didn’t return, they went through other world leaders, including Napoleon. Each time, they have abandoned their previous beliefs and modified the interpretation of the book of Revelations to fit the world in which they lived.
A Few More Biases You May Encounter
Now here is the really interesting part.
Throughout this entire post, I haven’t given a single word as to my personal belief or opinion on anything we’ve discussed. You have no idea whether or not I believe in Christian eschatology (well, unless you are a family member or friend).
The point is that I’ve simply illustrated a concept. I chose Christianity because it is a fairly important part of the American culture that everyone, even atheists, know enough about to follow the illustration.
But if you suffer from first conclusion bias, confirmation bias, and several of the other mental models, your mental response would have been one of the two following things based upon your own belief system:
- “Of course he says that! He is a fiscally conservative right-wing Christian who believes in a book of fairy tales” or
- “Of course he says that! He is a socially liberal rationalist who believes life should be viewed through the lens of science and calculated analysis of data.”
If you found yourself thinking either of those things at any point during this article, your mind was automatically attempting to protect your own first conclusion bias to avoid cognitive dissonance even though I never said a word about my own personal beliefs. You would have inferred them entirely based upon your own world view and projected your own biases and prejudices onto me. This explains the lunacy of the far-right and far-left media if you’ve ever wondered how two people can listen to the same commentator and one scream “liberal bias!” as the other screams, “conservative bias!”. It is the same concept at work.
Seriously – go back and re-read this post. You won’t find my personal opinion on the topics involved anywhere. It’s all in your head based upon your own beliefs.
Pretty cool, huh? Who would have thought Captain Kirk and Jesus would have so much in common.
But you know the absolute coolest part?
If you actually read the first sentence of this post, it drastically increased the probability you reached this point due to an ingrained psychological need to prove that “you are different” and I “don’t know how you’ll respond”. And I knew that when I wrote it. But teaching you how that works – because it is another mental model that I’m not going to give you the name of, yet – was worth it so forgive the trick 😉