The Greatest Wicked Problem: The Psychology of Denialists

Hot Air by Peter Stott review – the battle against climate change denial
A personal account of one climate scientist’s struggle to promote facts in the face of contrarian prejudice

We are approaching a point where those denialist efforts are more than cynical, irresponsible and self-interested: they are starting to look like crimes against humanity.

This is very much a personal account of one climate scientist’s journey, with little analysis or synthesis. Climate-change deniers appear merely as a succession of obstacles to the truth, not as a phenomenon that needs to be understood. It is not hard to fathom the motives of the oil companies, nor those of the conservative thinktanks they have funded, such as the George C Marshall Institute or the Koch Foundation. But in the UK such denialism is kept in the public eye by a small band of professional contrarians including James Delingpole, Sherelle Jacobs and Peter Hitchens via outlets such as the Telegraph, Spectator and Mail on Sunday – the same people and media that have argued against life-saving measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The Venn-diagram overlap on these two unrelated issues is so complete that we’re clearly looking at a psychological issue – a phobia, perhaps, of anything deemed to constrain personal liberty. Perhaps some “sceptics” are genuinely in denial, in the psychoanalytic sense of refusing to accept or confront aspects of reality so as to avoid potential feelings of discomfort. The pandemic really is scary, and climate change even more so.

Already, Covid sceptics and climate sceptics are converging. These trends can’t be tackled just by more and better information, but by an understanding of the psychology involved.

I remember asking myself a questions a long time ago. “How do you help people who don’t want your help?” It was in relation to the problems I was seeing culturally within organizations and how most management didn’t see that their approach to work was part of the problem.

Today, the context for this question has gotten so much bigger to society itself. How do you help people who don’t want your help because they’re undergoing a mental health crisis and are denying reality itself? Wicked problem indeed. In fact, I think this is THE WICKED PROBLEM. Why? Because solving this one transforms the perception of what’s possible for ever other one (ie pandemic, climate change, inequality, etc).


Crystallizing Meaning By Recognizing Chunks of Patterns

Using Pattern Recognition to Enhance Memory and Creativity
The same process that allows us to have better memory than monkeys may ultimately be what makes us human.

explorations of what it means to be human is The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning (public library) by Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor in which, among other things, he sheds light on how our species’ penchant for pattern-recognition is essential to consciousness and our entire experience of life.

Still, our capacity for pattern-recognition, Bor argues, is the very source of human creativity. In fact, chunking and pattern-recognition offer evidence for the combinatorial nature of creativity, affirm Steve Jobs’s famous words that “creativity is just connecting things”, Mark Twain’s contention that “all ideas are second-hand”, and Nina Paley’s clever demonstration of how everything builds on what came before.

Consciousness and chunking allow us to turn the dull sludge of independent episodes in our lives into a shimmering, dense web, interlinked by all the myriad patterns we spot. It becomes a positive feedback loop, making the detection of new connections even easier, and creates a domain ripe for understanding how things actually work, of reaching that supremely powerful realm of discerning the mechanism of things. At the same time, our memory system becomes far more efficient, effective — and intelligent – than it could ever be without such refined methods to extract useful structure from raw data.


We Are In Story Limbo

Laurie Anderson Has a Message for Us Humans
For half a century, she has taken the things we know best— our bodies, our rituals, our nation — and shown us how strange they really are.

“Americans have traditionally demanded coherent and simple national stories,” she has written. “Now many of these stories no longer make any sense. But so far nothing has replaced them. We are in story limbo, and for a storyteller this is an intensely interesting place to be.”

Anderson’s stories tend to be broken and fragmented, unfinished, nonlinear, elusive, pointless — stories about the impossibility of stories. They are often gender-fluid. (She appears, sometimes, as a character called Fenway Bergamot, a male alter ego with thick eyebrows and a mustache.) In place of coherence, in place of the machine logic of propaganda, Anderson inserts dream logic, joke logic, the self-swallowing logic of Buddhism. She likes to hollow out triumphant national stories and fill them with doubt. She once summarized “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for instance, as “just a lot of questions asked during a fire.” (“Say, isn’t that a flag?” she asked, pointing into the distance. “Couldn’t say,” she answered, “it’s pretty early in the morning.”)

She is the American heartland affectionately alienated from itself.


Imagination: A Liminal Gap for Our Inner Space

Imagination is such an ancient ability it might precede language | Aeon Essays
Our imaginative life today has access to the pre-linguistic, ancestral mind: rich in imagery, emotions and associations

Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads.

Contrary to this interpretation, I want to suggest that imagination, properly understood, is one of the earliest human abilities, not a recent arrival. Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.

Lions on the savanna, for example, learn and make predictions because experience forges strong associations between perception and feeling. Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be. On this view, imagination extends back into the Pleistocene, at least, and likely emerged slowly in our Homo erectus cousins.

The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning.

The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge. Fantasy that really moves us – whether it is high or low culture – tends to resonate with our ancient fears and hopes. The associational mind of hot cognition – located more in the limbic system – acts as a reservoir for imaginative artists. Artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and H R Giger can take controlled voyages to their primitive brain (an uncontrolled voyage is madness), and then bring these unconscious forces into their subsequent images or stories.

Similarly, evolution built a crude imaginative faculty before language and culture refined it into a sophisticated one. The raw system (dominated by emotional and perceptual associations) is still alive and well in the basement of our psychology.


Employer & Employee Disconnect Due To Different Realities

Remote-working jobs: Disaster looms as managers refuse to listen | ZDNet
A survey finds that executives are drawing up post-pandemic work policies without employees’ input, who are willing to quit if their employers don’t deliver.

Business leaders are “holding on to the remnants of the past” by failing to recognize fundamental shifts in the workforce — leaving them with a potential talent exodus on their hands.

This disconnect between employer and employee preferences risks being entrenched into new workplace policies, researchers found. Two-thirds (66%) of executives reported they were designing post-pandemic workforce plans with little to no direct input from employees -and yet 94% said they were “moderately confident” that the policies they had created matched employee expectations.

What’s more, more than half (56%) of executives reported they had finalized their plans on how employees can work in the future. The survey said the disconnect between employers and employees was largely a result of the fact that bosses tended to have a far higher level of job satisfaction than those below them.

“While executives are banging down the door to get back to their corner offices, nonexecutive employees are demanding flexibility in where and when they work.”

“The desire for flexible work is strongest among women, working parents and employees of color, who have shown gains in employee experience scores while working remotely,” the report noted.


The Pandemic Reveals Our Already Degraded Humanity

We’re Losing Our Humanity, and the Pandemic Is to Blame
“What the hell is happening? I feel like we are living on another planet. I don’t recognize anyone anymore.”

Great article but I would change one thing about it. It’s title. The Pandemic isn’t to “blame” for us losing our humanity. We were already losing it well before it happened.

This concurs with so many other articles where people talk about issues within the workplace (ie lack of humanity & well-being for workers) and how they’ve existed for decades, yet only now they are being brought to the surface by the Pandemic.

So the pandemic isn’t the causes for these issues but rather it’s the catalyst that’s making us aware of them in a way that we can no longer ignore.

Many of the altercations have begun over masking because, unlike your vaccination status, a mask is right there on your face. Depending on your point of view, the mask can symbolize an erosion of personal freedoms or a willingness to protect others, a society that accepts tyranny or one that embraces science. A person’s reaction to a mask — or the absence of one — can be driven by an entire network of beliefs and emotions that have little to do with the face covering itself.

People’s pandemic views aren’t just preferences. They’ve evolved to fundamental beliefs. And when that happens, social psychologists say, people are more likely to accept incivility to achieve what they want.

“When people feel that their attitudes reflect strong moral convictions, that gives them permission to dehumanize those who oppose them,” said Linda Skitka, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who’s researching ideological divides. “And it doesn’t take a lot for the shift into perceptions of good and evil. So if the other side is basically evil, it’s not a far stretch to say it’s OK to yell at them.”

Because the mask has become so polarizing, the extreme reactions aren’t really about being asked to wear one for an hour. It’s about communicating what side you’re on.

“It really makes adaptive sense to treat out-group members not like people, because then it’s much easier to hurt them and to act against them,” he said. “One central piece of intergroup conflict is a switch in viewing your enemies from full-blown humans to dehumanized entities that you do not ascribe all the things that you typically ascribe to a person. That makes conflict so much easier.”

On a societal scale, one of the fastest ways for two deeply entrenched, opposing groups to start seeing each other as fellow humans again is to give them something bigger to fight against together. It’s an “Independence Day” sort of scenario, Chester, the Virginia Commonwealth University professor, said: If aliens invaded, countries who hate each other in normal times would suddenly work together against an external threat.

But the external threat with the potential to unite a deeply polarized country, he said, should have been the pandemic. And it didn’t happen.

“I think fundamentally, it’s because we have different perceptions of this pandemic,” he said. “It’s really hard now that it’s so entrenched, that masks are viewed as this group symbol. It’s really hard to get people out of that.”

To put this all in another way, people at different stages of (the midrange of) psychological development are effectively at “civil war” with each other, using their beliefs to determine who is an “enemy” or not, dehumanizing each other in the process.

And until we can all come around the table and see each other has human beings again, who all have the same psychological needs, not much will change. The greatest obstacle to this though is people denying our current reality and simply want to go back to the world the way it used to be.

That’s not going to happen though because the world has already changed and is continually changing. So to step forward, we need people who are courageous enough to step into a new unknown world…but one that helps regain our base psychological needs, rather than ignores them (as such of much of the workplace is doing today).


Being In Denial Isn’t Caused By Being Uneducated

Humans are hardwired to dismiss facts that don’t fit their worldview
Whether in situations relating to scientific consensus, economic history or current political events, denialism has its roots in what psychologists call ‘motivated reasoning.’

Yet many well-educated people sincerely deny evidence-based conclusions on these matters.

But things don’t work that way when the scientific consensus presents a picture that threatens someone’s ideological worldview.

“Motivated reasoning” is what social scientists call the process of deciding what evidence to accept based on the conclusion one prefers.

Insofar as you define yourself in terms of your cultural affiliations, information that threatens your belief system – say, information about the negative effects of industrial production on the environment – can threaten your sense of identity itself. If it’s part of your ideological community’s worldview that unnatural things are unhealthful, factual information about a scientific consensus on vaccine or GM food safety feels like a personal attack.

For example, as Jost and colleagues extensively review, populations experiencing economic distress or external threat have often turned to authoritarian, hierarchicalist leaders promising security and stability.

Under the right conditions, universal human traits like in-group favoritism, existential anxiety and a desire for stability and control combine into a toxic, system-justifying identity politics.

Simply put, a lot of this has to do with your perception of reality, rather than your intelligence.

And an intuition that I have that relates to being in denial is that the faster and greater the change, the greater the chance the person will be in denial over it, often having to go through an arduous grieving process to work through that change. This is why a lot of CEOs can be seen in complete denial, almost delusional, when their world comes crashing down literally overnight.

In a more general way though, anyone who has benefited from a stable system that has generated security for them over a long period of time will probably have a greater chance of denial if that change and disruption occurs at a rapid pace.


Denial Leads To Destructive Behaviour

What Does It Mean When Someone Is In Denial?
Denial is a common defense mechanism that involves denying reality to prevent anxiety. Learn more about how being in denial can affect a person.

Denial is a type of defense mechanism that involves ignoring the reality of a situation to avoid anxiety. Defense mechanisms are strategies that people use to cope with distressing feelings. In the case of denial, it can involve not acknowledging reality or denying the consequences of that reality.

If you are in denial, it often means that you are struggling to accept something that seems overwhelming or stressful. However, in the short term, this defense mechanism can have a useful purpose. It can allow you to have time to adjust to a sudden change in your reality. By giving yourself time, you might be able to accept, adapt, and eventually move on.

But denial can also cause problems in your life, particularly if it keeps you from addressing a problem or making a needed change. In some cases, it can prevent you from accepting help or getting the treatment that they need.

Like other defense mechanisms, denial functions as a way to protect you from experiencing anxiety. In some cases, it might be a way to avoid dealing with stress or painful emotions. By refusing to deal with or even admit that there is something wrong, you are trying to prevent facing stress, conflict, threats, fears, and anxieties.

Denial serves a few different purposes. First, using this defense mechanism means you don’t have to acknowledge the problem. Second, it also allows you to minimize the potential consequences that might result.

Denying a problem exists allows the individual to continue engaging in destructive behavior without addressing the problem.


Creating Time & Space For More Flexible Work

Hootsuite’s flagship office in Vancouver reconfigured to envision post-COVID future of work
As more companies shift to hybrid work models, the design and functionality of the Vancouver office has changed —— especially for employees at Hootsuite.

“We asked employees what they were looking for as the pandemic gets more under control,” said Tara Ataya, Hootsuite’s chief people and diversity officer. “While free snacks and PingPong tables may have cut it pre-pandemic, post-pandemic culture will require companies to becomes catalysts for a healthy environment.”

“We also know that not everyone who comes in will do so all of the time,” Ataya said. “Healthy employees are those who are given the time and space to be that and that’s also why we’ve increased benefits six-fold for mental health services during the pandemic.”

“It’s not just about looking at the physical space of the office but paying attention to the physiological well-being and safety of people working there,” Ataya said.

As I’ve always noted about Hootsuite in the past, they’re focus isn’t so much Social Innovation as it is just Social Media. That said, these changes are a step in the right direction but still don’t get to the heart of how organizations need to transform themselves today. Thus many will hype mental health, yet do everything except the very thing necessary to improve it.

As an example, you can introduce all the mental health programs and physical spaces in your company for people to practice their mental health but if you don’t provide people with the additional time and space for it, nothing really changes.

In fact, by putting these mental health “expectations” on them with no time to practice them, it can actually make people feel even more overloaded and stressed out than before (as I noted my wife was experiencing at her workplace).

To really make a difference to their well-being, people need more time and space to do their actual work, rather than being asked to do more work with the same or even less time. That’s where the biggest change will occur. By giving people the flexibility to have more time and space for their work, it will create a greater psychological sense of space within them, helping them to feel like they can breathe more easily both emotionally and mentally.


Pandemic Restaurant Innovations: A Better Experience For All

Review: Welcome to Oh Carolina Café & Grocery, a modern and timely rendition of the old-fashioned corner store, and more
Oh Carolina Café & Grocery, Collective Goods Bistro & Grocer and La Quercia Deli have been following (and are thriving with) a new business model brought on by the pandemic

At the venerable La Quercia in Kitsilano, co-owner Adam Pegg didn’t just put a corner aside. He turned the entire dining room into a deli on wheels.

By day, he sells fresh-rolled pasta, sauces, prepared meals, sausages, wild mushrooms, sandwiches, select pantry items and wine.

At night, he rolls the shelves aside, sets up a long table and serves family-style dinner for private groups of up to 10 people for $1,000.

“I’m not going back,” Mr. Pegg says. “The pandemic forced us to create a new business model and I really like this format.”

More important, everyone’s happier.

“The cooks don’t feel like cogs. I get to cook everyday. We take vacations. The customers are thrilled. If we have to close the restaurant again, we can stay afloat. And we’re making the same numbers with less volume.”