How our cognitive defence mechanisms are condemning us to death

By Sebastien Carew-Reid / Deep Green Resistance Australia

Most rational people with even a basic understanding of the scientific process will acknowledge that something is seriously wrong. From climate change and the mass extinction of species, to factory farming and the global violations of human rights, the symptoms should be obvious to anyone brave enough to look. Most will also concede that another few decades of “business as usual” would condemn us to a horrifyingly apocalyptic future.

So considering how adverse to pain, misery and death we all are – and rightly so – these realisations should be providing us with sufficient motivation to bring our collision course with chaos to a swift and permanent halt by any means necessary. Unfortunately this is obviously not the case. In fact, not only are our current environmental movements failing to prevent the accelerating rate of destruction, but upon closer inspection it becomes evident that business is, indeed, continuing as usual. So what’s going on? We have the facts, the mountains of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, and the powerful tools of reason and logic at our disposal – implementing an effective and permanent strategy to save the planet should be the easy part.

Our first problem is that the majority of our current solutions and strategies aren’t addressing or even recognising the root cause of our problems – industrial civilization. If the root cause of a problem isn’t targeted, all efforts are obviously doomed to remain ineffective and temporary solutions at best.

Our second problem is that our persistent failures to acknowledge and implement the only realistic solution available to us lie beyond the reach of reason and logic, deeply embedded in our animal brains. We are, after all, fallible biological creatures, slaves to the natural selection processes that crafted our survival behaviours over millions of years. In this case, the intricate, protective mechanisms of self-deception are to blame. The reality that our way of life requires systematic destruction and death to exist – and therefor needs to be dismantled – is simply too much for us to cope with, and stress hormones trigger a fundamental biological response to restore peace of mind at any cost.  The result? We cling to the soothing false hopes that “green” technologies, altering personal consumption habits, or the right political party will somehow save the day.

Writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen likens this deep aversion to life without industrial civilization to the symptoms of an addiction. “We have become so dependent upon this system that is killing and exploiting us, it has become almost impossible for us to imagine living outside of it…A primary reason so many of us do not want to win this war – or even acknowledge that it’s going on – is that we materially benefit from this war’s plunder. I’m really unsure how many of us would be willing to give up our automobiles and cell phones, hot showers and electric lights, our grocery and clothing stores. But the truth is, the system that leads to these things, that leads to technological advancement and our identity as civilized beings, are killing us and, more importantly, killing the planet.”

Coming to terms with these realities is deeply traumatic and destabilizing. FMRI studies have shown that this kind of cognitive distress activates the same areas of the brain that light up when we are being physically hurt: the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. In one study these regions were activated when people experienced social rejection from peers. In another study these same regions were activated in people looking at photographs of former romantic partners they had recently broken up with. Researchers in Italy found that even witnessing the social pain of another individual activated similar pain responses through empathy.

Our innate aversions to pain of any kind will fuel heroic efforts to minimise it. But to avoid mental anguish in a world where unpleasant realities are ubiquitous, we will inevitably spend a great deal of our lives actively censoring and altering the input of information we encounter. At the first sign that our worldviews and beliefs are being threatened, our mental “immune systems” get to work restoring cognitive comfort by changing the facts and biasing the logic, bringing us peace of mind at a severe cost.

Evolutionary theorist and Harvard professor Robert Trivers explores the science behind these firmly embedded defence mechanisms in his book Deceit and Self-Deception, pointing out that “this is way beyond simple computational error, the problems of subsampling from larger samples, or valid systems of logic that occasionally go awry. This is self-deception, a series of biasing procedures that affect every aspect of information acquisition and analysis. It is systematic deformation of the truth at each stage of the psychological process.” To put it bluntly: we manipulate the truth in order to reduce personal responsibility and validate inaction, condemning our responses to remain inappropriate and ineffective. Trivers points out that “the psychological immune system works not by fixing what makes us unhappy but by putting it in context, rationalizing it, minimizing it, and lying about it…Self-deception traps us in the system, offering at best temporary gains while failing to address real problems.”

When confronted with the very real problem of the environmental collapse our culture is causing, a great deal of self-deception and denial is required to justify inaction and simultaneously preserve a self-image that is ethically sound. In these situations we fall victim to the extensively documented self-deceptive processes of confirmation bias: our tendency to interpret any new information as validation for one’s existing beliefs or theories. In one example, researchers at The University of Michigan and Georgia State University found that when people holding beliefs based on misinformation were presented with corrected facts, not only did they rarely change their minds, but were prone to becoming even more convinced by their faulty views.

We don’t have to look far to see real world examples of this. Every time you encounter someone smoking a cigarette, you are witnessing real-time self-deception mechanisms in action. You simply cannot enjoy an activity while being conscious of the severe harm it is doing to your body, so the decision to continue smoking needs to be rationalized with the deluded justifications we are all familiar with: “I’m just a social smoker,” “I’ll quit before it’s too late,” “those things won’t happen to me.” The same deluded justifications are occurring with climate change deniers, “green” technology advocates, and anyone clinging to the hope that industrial civilization is somehow redeemable to avoid giving up their cosy, bloodstained lifestyles.

If we want any chance of saving what little remains of the natural world, we will need to put our egos and blind optimism aside, take responsibility, and base our actions on reality. As Jensen writes in “Beyond Hope”: “when we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free — truly free — to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.”

We need to realise that grief and anger are normal emotions when something we love is being threatened or destroyed. These emotions are trying to speak to us. We need to stop burying them in denial and start listening, because they are telling us that a line has been crossed. They are showing us where the limits are for what is ethically acceptable for one species to do to an entire planet. They are exposing the direction our hearts want us to go in, showing us where action is needed for true peace of mind. We need these emotions to fuel our motivations, our drive to never stop fighting for what we love, to never stop fighting for what is right.

We have the solution, we just need to get to work.