Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LII

This contemplation is the third part of a look at several psychological mechanisms at play in our thinking about ecological overshoot and the accompanying societal ‘collapse’ that will eventually result.

In Part One, I briefly summarised four psychological mechanisms I’ve been reflecting upon in the context of ecological overshoot and in particular the collapse of our global, industrialised complex societies that will (or, as some argue, has already begun to) accompany this overshoot; you can read it here. In Part Two, I began elaborating my thoughts on the first mechanism in my list: Obedience/Deference to Authority; you can find it here.

One of the primary considerations in understanding how our cognitions and thus our beliefs and behaviours are going to be affected by the unfolding of the consequences of ecological overshoot and the concomitant ‘collapse’ of our societies is the anxiety/stress that such a future (and present) is going to have (is having) upon us; personally, on a familial level, and on the broader societal scale. Contemplating an unknowable future that is unlikely to provide many of the energetic conveniences most currently depend upon and/or that will challenge our complex systems to the breaking point because of extreme weather events, or supply chain disruptions/breakdowns (especially food, water, energy), etc. can be exceedingly anxiety-provoking.

Mix these (and many other) psychological mechanisms in with Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect — that postulates all animals have an innate motivation to avoid pain/seek pleasure[1] — and you have an animal whose sense-making abilities are leveraged by its mind to deny/ignore away evidence that challenges them and can cause painful, anxiety-provoking emotions (in fact, there appears to be neuroscientific support for this[2]). In response, we appear to employ all sorts of biases/rationalisations to support our belief systems (a ‘pleasurable’ sensation) regardless of disconfirming evidence (that can lead to painful/stressful emotions).

A short thought about groupthink I posted on my personal Facebook Page in March, 2021:

“I’ve been reading about the phenomena of ‘groupthink’ recently. It’s amazing how much our society (and perhaps it’s every society) reflects this and the errors in judgements/decision making that result from it. The overestimation of the group’s decisions to be invulnerable and moral; the collective rationalisation and stereotyping that happens to shut out alternative perspectives/ideas; the pressures towards uniformity and to suppress dissent (e.g., self-censorship, mind guards, direct social pressure, illusion of unanimity). The mistakes that result from groupthink are avoided when a group encourages dissent and skeptical/critical thinking and the discussions that result from different perspectives, not by censoring or belittling them. We seem to be doing the exact opposite of what is needed to prevent bad decisions and judgements from being made. Many of us seem to have lost the ability to have civil discussions about matters we disagree on; to even agree to disagree. Our media (both mainstream and social) oftentimes seems more interested in controlling the narratives and stories we share than presenting the different perspectives and allowing people to decide for themselves. In our attempts to shut down others, one has to wonder if we are falling into the trap of groupthink and leading us to make faulty decisions? And even if we are, would we recognise it as such in order to reduce the cognitive dissonance that would arise as a result??”

Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Three — Groupthink

A reminder that groupthink is summarised as “a premature concurrence-seeking tendency that interferes with collective decision-making processes and leads to poor decisions. It is characterized by deterioration in group member mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgments that result from in-group pressures to seek consensus. It is what happens when the task demands on a decision-making group are overwhelmed by the social demands to reach consensus. When experiencing groupthink, members tend to make simplistic statements about the issues and more positive in-group references than those in nongroupthink cases.”[3]

Groupthink symptoms include: an illusion of invulnerability that leads to an overly optimistic outlook; contrarian evidence being discredited or rationalised away; an illusion of morality that ignores the ethical consequences of decisions; peer pressure to conform to group thinking/decisions or risk being deemed disloyal; a tendency by members to withhold dissenting views (self-censorship); an illusion of unanimity; the development of ‘mind guards’ who take it upon themselves to protect the group from disconfirming evidence; avoidance of opposing opinions/ideas; and, a lack of impartial leadership[4].

As research has shown, while the mechanisms of groupthink and its impact on decision-making can become stronger in larger groupings, the phenomenon of unanimity is less likely[5]. And without unanimity, dissent becomes more probable opening the door to not only alternative perspectives but different ‘solutions’. This can certainly be observed in the various narratives pertaining to addressing our existential predicament of overshoot and collapse[6].

However, add Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs[7], a theory of human motivation, and we might begin to understand that there can be a tendency towards ‘herding behaviour’[8] even in large, complex populations. Maslow’s theory proposes that humans are motivated by meeting various needs. We begin with an urge to satisfy physiological needs (e.g., water, food, sleep, homeostasis). When these basic needs are met, more complex ones motivate behaviour: safety (e.g., security, protection, health, well-being); social (e.g., kin relationships, romance, non-kin relations); esteem (e.g., personal accomplishments/recognitions, sport/community/religious involvement); and, finally, self-actualisation (i.e., personal and on-going improvement). More recent iterations of this hierarchy have added the need for belongingness between safety and esteem needs, and cognitive needs after esteem[9].

Note that the need to belong to a social group of some kind is strong in humans[10]. We want to be part of a group or ‘tribe’[11]. Some psychologists argue this desire is as strong as the need for basic physiological necessities of food and water in order to ensure safety/survival; it is seen as an evolutionary adaptation[12].

“The tribal instincts hypothesis proposes that innate human predispositions to commit to their ingroups arose by coevolution with group selected cultural institutions. We are adapted to living in tribes, and the social institutions of tribes elicit strong — sometimes fanatical — commitment… The nature of the tribes that we commit to, the kinds of commitments we make, and the strength of those commitments all depend upon the cultural traditions that define the group and its institutions. Through the evolution of work-arounds in the last few thousand years, institutions have evolved that recruit the tribal subjective commitment to far larger and very different social systems than the tribe as the concept is understood by anthropologists.”[13]

While the issue for the detrimental impacts of groupthink to arise is not so significant for society at large given the array of competing voices/narratives/interpretations that can exist, it is more so a problem for governments and other elite institutions[14]; those groups that are the primary legislative-/decision-/policy-makers for society and have significant influence over the stories most people cling to.

I would add that governments and large businesses/corporations tend to be prone to groupthink due to the ‘isolation’ that exists for these decision-making bodies. Many (most?) tend to be part of a ‘class’ of people that exclusively interact with like-minded individuals and additionally receive reinforcing feedback from their ‘courtiers/sycophants’. They do not tend to interact with the masses of people who do not view the world from the same privileged perspective; they have their own ‘in-groups’.

Given the previously discussed tendency of humans to defer to ‘authority’ figures and the proclivity for these ‘leaders’ to develop ideas/policies in isolation from a wide variety of inputs/perspectives, we can imagine how maladaptive strategies created by the elite — which are driven by a primary motivation of control/expansion of their power/wealth — can ensure we, as a collective, take a misguided trajectory into the future: the elite encourage a faulty strategy (that serves their purposes) and the hoi polloi defer to it, accepting it as the righteous path to follow and support.

To understand why this tendency towards the need to belong to a social group and groupthink is relevant to overshoot and collapse, I believe we need to revisit archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis regarding a complex society’s collapse due to declining marginal returns. Here we find that as these returns on investments in complexity decline the elite may, and invariably do, respond through greater legitimisation activities and/or control, imposing strict behavioural controls — particularly absent the ability to address such issues via territorial expansion [15]. And, in the end, these actions tend to expedite resource drawdown causing the impending ‘collapse’ due to diminishing returns on investments in complexity to arrive more quickly than might otherwise.

These attempts by the elite to ‘kick-the-can-down-the-road’ seems ample reason to believe we are ‘pushed’ into groupthink tendencies by those who ‘profit’ from the denial of overshoot/collapse, or, perhaps, from raising the prospects of it[16]. Propaganda’s fundamental purpose is narrative control in order to align group thinking so as to interpret events/observations/stories along specific lines. It is the interpretive lens through which we view the world that impacts our beliefs and thus actions/behaviour. If a nation state, for example, can predetermine how most citizens will ‘understand’ what is happening around them, they ease the manner in which they direct society at large. Beliefs impact behaviour and it is behavioural ‘control’ of the masses that is paramount to sustaining status quo power/wealth structures and avoiding — or, at least, deferring — ‘revolution /pushback’.

Consider here the research on Social Cognition, especially Context Effect[17]. What humans ‘perceive’ in their environment is impacted significantly by the context in which it is observed/understood/interpreted. Visual stimuli can actually appear differently to different observers for a variety of reasons but mostly because our brains take shortcuts to reduce the myriad of details, relying upon the context in which we observe to filter and simplify complexities for us. This is also true of our understanding of events. If the context is provided, even if it is faulty/fake, we understand events through it.

The ‘context’ through which we view/interpret information has been given a number of different terms: schema[18], paradigm[19], worldview[20], interpretive lens, etc.. Being able to establish/influence the context through which a person or group views the world is very much the role of propaganda/narrative control.

So, it would appear that humans can be ‘herded’ into believing particular stories by way of the higher status amongst us establishing the context through which we interpret and understand issues and events. This doesn’t necessarily necessitate some grand ‘conspiracy’ but simply a small number of decision-makers to set the stage through policies, actions, and/or even just repetitive ‘marketing’ via speeches, media releases, etc. that are invariably wrapped in verbiage that highlights supposed benefits for the masses. Once a majority of people come to accept the narrative being shared, our strong tendency to want to belong[21] and meet the ‘norms’ of the social group in which we find ourselves leads us to accept the group’s ideas and behaviours — primarily to avoid the negative social pressures that accompany non-conformity. We may not necessarily agree with certain things, but we tend to go along for better or worse.

And while research has expanded and clarified the mechanisms at work in all this, pre/history shows the manipulation of behaviour by the ruling elite over and over again, be it to support status quo power/wealth structures and/or to engage in geopolitical struggles. Throw in Bernays’s work, the need to belong, and tendencies towards group conformity and deference to authority, and we can see how influence of the masses by a small, elite group can occur rather easily.

This is where most of society currently appears to stand. There may be some growing gaps with ‘break-away’ groups challenging mainstream narratives but for the most part the significant majority of society holds onto the stories being weaved by our ruling elite. I see this very clearly in the marketing narratives pertaining to an energy transition from fossil fuels to ‘clean/green’ energy alternatives.

I end with a quote attributed to U.S. General George S. Patton: “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

Please consider visiting my website and purchasing my ‘collapse’ trilogy to help support my work.

[1] https://www.simplypsychology.org/edward-thorndike.html

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/202001/the-neuroscience-seeking-pleasure-and-avoiding-pain

[3] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/industrial-organizational-psychology/group-dynamics/groupthink-i-o/

[4] Ibid

[5] Solomon Asch’s research into social conformity due to majority peer pressure are important here as well (https://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html). People tend to go along with the majority in a group — even when they don’t necessarily agree — for fear of being ridiculed by others in the group and/or believe that the assessment of a majority is more informed than their individual assessment. In the absence of group unanimity, however, overall conformity drops as people are less concerned about social approval in such situations.

[6] There exist stories along a continuum from the idea that concerns are overblown and being leveraged by the ruling elite solely for the purpose of profiteering and/or social engineering/control to the assertion that this is a predicament that has no solutions, cannot be avoided, and total human extinction is at hand.

[7] https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

[8] https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/darwin-eternity/201306/human-herding-how-people-are-guppies; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2827453/; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324510770_How_Herding_Behavior_Affects_Our_lives

[9] https://www.explorepsychology.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs/

[10] In the absence of less complex and smaller human communities that are more amenable to a sense of belonging, there is still a need for this ‘urge’ to be met. Sometimes this is achieved through community organisations or institutions, such as a religious-based one.

[11] This can be observed in the self-reinforcing echo chambers that have arisen with the widespread use of social media. It appears that in their desire to confirm/reinforce beliefs, individuals orient their online browsing and communications towards like-minded individuals/groups. See this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7936330/

[12] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/interpersonal-relationships/need-to-belong/

[13] http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/Richerson/comgrps.pdf

[14] For example, see: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232563904_Groupthink_in_Government_A_Study_of_Small_Groups_and_Policy_Failure

[15] See The Collapse of Complex Societies: https://www.cambridge.org/ca/academic/subjects/archaeology/archaeological-theory-and-methods/collapse-complex-societies?format=PB&isbn=9780521386739

[16] There seems to be, on some level, an increase in the mainstream recognition of possible ‘collapse’, be it economic or some other iteration. Perhaps some see the prospects of it as ‘profitable’ in the sense of leveraging the issue in one way or another. There is, for example, much in the way of ‘commercialisation’ of products to alleviate the anxiety of possible ‘collapse’ and prepare for it. And then there is Joseph Tainter’s observation that

[17] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/social-cognition; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2375957/; https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095634843; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44962135_Context_Effects_in_Social_and_Psychological_Research; https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/achievements-the-aging-mind/202107/the-role-context-in-perception;

[18] https://openpress.usask.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/social-cognition-and-attitudes/

[19] http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/intro/paradigm.html

[20] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/worldview

[21] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/interpersonal-relationships/need-to-belong/

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Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

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A guy trying to make sense of a complex and seemingly insane world. Spend my days pondering our various predicaments while practising local food production...