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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

denial, habit, and the cliff

Last night I finished reading Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, a sketch of our global future in a warmer world. The final chapter, in which he discusses the challenge of preventing the global temperature from rising more than 2°C, I found especially interesting because of his treatment of the major stumbling-block in our path: the psychological defense-mechanism of denial.

There are many different defense mechanisms (Anna Freud made an extensive study of them in the 1930s) that we use to protect ourselves from potential emotional pain. Among them, denial is a key one. According to one explanation, when we experience cognitive dissonance--the conflict in our minds between two strong but irreconcilable beliefs--we feel such discomfort that we deny the truth of one of the beliefs. The classic example is in the behavior around addictions, such as smoking. A person with otherwise healthy self-esteem is confronted with two data: smoking is damaging to the body; and nonetheless, I smoke. Denial in this case usually takes the form of "smoking is not really damaging", or "it won't damage me." But sometimes a smoker might assert, "I"m not really a smoker--I smoke less than a pack a day." Either way, one is spared the pain of confronting one's own self-destructive behavior.

Lynas is saying that this is the dominant mechanism preventing action on the problem of global warming. He says:

One study used random-sample focus groups in Switzerland to investigate attitudes to climate change. Its results showed how the "tragedy of the commons" is reflected in people's belief "in the insignificance of individual action to change the order of things," with the result that perceived "costs to the self are greater than benefits to others." However, the researchers found that the most powerful motivator of denial was more straightforwardly selfish--an unwillingness to abandon personal comforts and consumption patterns. People would complain that public transport is late, dirty and overcrowded, therefore they "need" their cars. Or they might argue that their lives are busy and difficult, so they "need" foreign holidays for a couple of weeks a year.

Lynas goes on to list eight specific expressions of denial catalogued by the Swiss researchers:

  • the "metaphor of displaced commitment" ("I protect the environment in other ways, like recycling");

  • denial of responsibility ("I am not the main cause of this problem");

  • condemning the accuser ("You have no right to challenge me");

  • rejection of blame ("I've done nothing wrong");

  • ignorance ("I don’t know the consequences of my actions");

  • powerlessness ("Nothing I do makes much difference");

  • comfort ("It is too difficult for me to change my behavior"); and

  • "fabricated constraints" ("There are too many impediments").

Quite the list. I recognize pretty much all of them operating in my own psyche (my special favorites are the last three). Together, they form a powerful bulwark against behavioral change.

I had another thought while I was reading the chapter: denial may have a large share of responsibility in preventing change, but let's not forget good old habit. Habits by definition are behaviors that have become automatic, and they have become that way because we find them to be effective in achieving our aims. Most of our behavior is habit, with or without any psychological defense-mechanism running alongside it. William James stresses its powerful, even paramount, role in our mental lives.

But recently I read another interesting take on habit: it was by Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation. He says that it's easy to form new habits. What is difficult is to break old ones.

This is because all of our mental apparatus is programmed precisely to form new habits. We automate our behavior in order to free up attention for the novelties in our experience. When we're learning how to walk, it ties up our attention. We have to concentrate on where to put our feet, how to balance ourselves. Once it's learned, it becomes automatic, so that normally we can walk without giving it even a moment's thought. Only special conditions, such as walking on an ice-rink, or across a stream via stepping-stones, or when we have pain, force our attention back to the task. Otherwise, we can walk, talk, and yes chew gum all at the same time.

What does all this imply about our common future? Will we be able to give up the herd mentality and status-seeking that have us moving ever farther into remote suburbs and commuting to work in ever larger carbon-spewing vehicles? We have to cut through the layer of denial, then through the layer of habit. Will we? Or will the lemmings plunge dutifully off the cliff, secure in the knowledge that we didn't break ranks?

Not to dodge personal responsibility, but much does depend on leadership. Even though we believe in freedom, we follow leaders. After all, one of those lemmings has to be the first one over the cliff.

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  • Hello Paul,

    Was unable to find your email address, so my apologies if this seems out of place in the comments area.

    I am writing to let you know about http://www.dustjacketreview.com. It is a new community for readers & literary producers. Michael Allen is one of our biggest contributors, and I found your blog via his Grumpy Old Bookman links.

    Dust Jacket Review is a place for readers to discuss great reads and connect with other readers, and a place for literary producers to share and promote their work.

    We only just launched and are eager to grow, so I hope you will come take a look.


    By Anonymous Cheyne Rood, at November 22, 2007 8:40 AM  

  • Thanks Cheyne, I'll check it out...

    By Blogger paulv, at November 22, 2007 10:22 AM  

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