Cognitive dissonance: A step-by-step guide

Kurt Nelson

Climate Change. These days those words appear many times in every edition of The Reader, everywhere there’s a reader and a Reader to be read.

It’s always bad news, often really bad news, and yet even if you don’t read The Reader, or pay any attention to the news at all, it’s still just as bad.

Or is it?

When I think of things like climate change, cognitive dissonance comes to mind. Cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant state of mind in which those who are experiencing it attempt to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. A psychological conflict resulting from incongruous (contradictory) beliefs and attitudes, both held simultaneously.

We humans survive, and have a long history of doing so, by having our brain alert us to problems that may otherwise go unnoticed. We all know about the alarm signal our brain sends us when we touch a hot stove. It’s a strong signal that leaves behind a lesson that is well learned and hard earned.

But our brains are capable of alerting us to dangers well beyond those at our extremities. Much like the annoying beep of a home’s smoke detector in need of a new battery (it beeps every three seconds, seemingly forever), when our thoughts and beliefs don’t add up, our brains will send us distressing and even painful signals that can impair both our mental and physical health.

If we are unable to establish unified or harmonious cognition, there are a few strategies we may use to help relieve the pain and discomfort. These are referred to as cognitive biases, and a simple concoction consisting of a few of these alarm disarming biases, first developed in sub-Saharan Africa, has been found to offer profound relief in treating the symptoms of a brain in cognitive disorder.

The process is simple – find a good spot, dig a small hole, stick your head in it.

Wait, wait. Don’t run for the shovel, or turn the page thinking that you already know all about burying your head in the sand. Please read on, as there are some things you may need to consider, as well as a few important cautionary notes.

I’ll also toss in a few tips and suggestions that you may find useful when you find yourself in amongst the grains.

First of all, get comfortable. The carbon released today will remain in the atmosphere for many centuries, and its climate-changing impacts will get much worse long before they get better.

You may be down there for a while, and although the traditional method works (on your knees, lean forward, insert head into hole), it can be a major pain in the neck. However, the bigger concern with this approach involves gravity, and the tendency to inadvertently bury one’s head too deep. Going too deep can be very dangerous, not only to yourself but also to others around you.

I will go into greater detail on this topic below.

That said, all that’s really needed to do it right, and with much less risk to yourself and others, is a small depression scooped out of the sand.

Simply lie on your back, tilt your head back into the hole, then reach back to pull some of the loose sand in around your head.

When you think about it, climate change and all of the nasties that will surely accompany it, the pain originates deep in the back of your brain, and that’s the part that craves those cool and comforting sands.

Two words – beach sand.

But do consider making it a family affair as well. The kids can bring their colorful plastic beach buckets, shovels and rakes, and in doing so you can pass on a family tradition that your children may find very useful if they get old enough to face the future on their own.

I’ve already mentioned the biggest concern facing those who partake in this process, namely going too deep. When we first find that wonderful relief in a bit of subterranean cranium insertions, it’s just human nature to immediately think that deeper must be better.

The opposite is true, as it is within the deeper, damp and musty sands that many of the other, and much more dangerous, cognitive biases lurk.

How deep is too deep and how can you tell when your earthy habits have become downright delusional? Unfortunately, it can’t be measured in inches of sand or depth from the surface.

Sand and soil types vary, as do individual sensitivities to them. I do, however, have a couple thoughts and suggestions that may help you in defining your own personal safety zone, and hopefully prove useful in keeping you safely in the shallows.

First, I think it’s best to exercise a reasonable amount of caution around all sands with a greenish tint. While it is a good substrate, and can offer fast relief that’s often free of individual commitments, the greenness itself may conceal a layer of quicksand, lurking just below the surface. Quicksand, quick fixes, and more of the status quo. Yet even within giant dunes of pure, white sands, it is still possible to get sucked into this thinking.

That said, it may be safe to linger a bit in something like “If climate change was really that bad, I’m sure they’d be doing something about it.”

Reassuring and fairly harmless, but don’t spend too much time there, because of course “it” is and “they” aren’t.

Some folks find relief in the concept that aliens will come to save us, showing up at the last moment to offer us their superior technologies. I used to take a lot of comfort in the aliens, but then, through the intrusion of another thought process called Occam’s razor, I came to a more rational realization.

In short, Occam’s razor says that given a number of reasons why something may be happening, the simplest answer is the one most likely to be true.

Of course, it is much more likely that the aliens have invaded the minds of our elected leaders, and through them they are terraforming our planet (they are mostly aquatic, and just love the heat):

As a side note, it’s a good idea to take an Occam’s razor with you with on every trip to the beach. A helpful tip – keep one wrapped up in your favorite beach towel.

The Deep. When perplexing and persistent thoughts of a dystopic climatic future get buried too deep, far from the light of reason, they inevitably fester and ferment into a putrid, primordial stew.

Born out of fear, denial and anger, and nourished through hate and prejudice, they rise from the sands, half alive, fully evil, and in human form (perhaps you’ve seen the movies): These are the deep sands of darkness, dread and despair that must be avoided at all costs.

So, before summer comes to an end and the cold arctic winds of winter flow down behind a faltering jet stream, it might be good to get in a few more trips to your favorite sandy hideaway.
Amidst all that is happening in the world, it really is important to find those reassuring moments that clear away the alarming clutter within our brains. Please do take these cautions to heart, and keep the darkness out of your head.