You Are Not So Smart (YANSS) 125 – How we rationalize unwanted changes to the status quo that we once resisted
This podcast, recommended by someone on my professional association discussion list, is a fascinating exploration into the ability of the human mind to rationalize changes and new realities to protect itself. I highly recommend listening to the full thing if you have 45 minutes of commute or dish-washing or other chores to do, but if you only have 5 minutes, my summary follows, along with what I find to be the key points and some personal ramblings.
And if you only have one minute:
In order to cope with seriously unwelcome changes, our brains will create a new version of reality for us to believe, complete with changes to what we remember to be true. I feel and fight a literal struggle against this rationalization process in an almost physical sense some days; perhaps you do, too. This happens on a societal level as well. So, if you want to resist or reverse a policy change, you need to show your resistance with strength in numbers and be as visible and confidant as possible. You being out there demonstrates to others that the new policies are not certain or inescapable, and presents an alternative as a still viable possibility to other people whose brains are similarly trying to construct a new reality for them. This is why we all need to keep getting out there for rallies and marches even if we, and everyone around us, sometimes think “another one?” Yes, another one.
Psychologist Kristen Laurin has been researching how the human brain can rationalize an unwanted change to make it seem like maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. This coping mechanism is well-known and researched in personal lives, but Laurin wondered if it scaled up to groups, cultures, and nations, and has been researching the ways in which this may occur when a person is confronted with more systemic governmental and societal changes. She noticed that when people greatly resist a change to the societal status quo, once the change actually happens, the panic and resistance often seem to drastically diminish within a few weeks, and she wondered if this was a form of the brain’s rationalization process and how profound an impact it could have.
Through research on split-brain patients (people who have had the nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of their brain severed), it has been shown that the moment a person doesn’t understand why they did something, they avoid confusion by creating a false but plausible rationalization that they then take to be true. This is how brains make sense of the world: there is a portion of the brain that makes up a story to explain something and it then convinces the rest of the brain to believe that story.
Similarly, in order to cope with unwanted changes, the brain will rationalize a new status quo and people then change their attitudes or beliefs around that rationalization in order to better endure the new normal, to make something that is disturbing seem less disturbing, and to make themselves feel at peace. This doesn’t happen every time an unwanted change is being faced, but there are two key components that contribute to its occurrence: a feeling that one can’t escape from a change and that the change is coming with 100% certainty. People rationalize when they feel stuck with the change and they can’t get away from it, and it’s too late to do something to prevent it.
This partially explains why there can be a shift in public opinion about something after the law changes. For example, after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, public opinion about it started to shift to be more positive.
Laurin’s studies have shown that part of this rationalization is that people persuade themselves to believe something they didn’t believe before. In one of her studies, people rewrote their own pasts – in order to avoid negative emotions about a new anti-smoking law that had gone into effect, people altered their own memories and personal stories, incorrectly coming to believe that they hadn’t ever smoked in the past in places that were now restricted.
People similarly began to rationalize the world once Trump was inaugurated. Once it was an inescapable, 100% certainty that he was President, people who were highly opposed to his election improved their opinion of him as President in the days immediately following his inauguration. There was no escaping the reality, and people had two choices – they could either feel horrible for the next 4 years or they could try to trick themselves into feeling more positively about the situation.
Even his supporters came to rationalize the behaviors they didn’t like about him, coming to see them as more positive – what were once flaws in his behavior were now seen as things to be admired.
The Key Bits As I See Them
David McRaney, the podcaster, calls this ability “a clever trick, a gift really, one that allows us to rebuild our lives and develop new identities instead of the alternative, spiraling down into depression and stasis. By telling ourselves a good story, the brain keeps us from taking up extended residence in our bedrooms with the covers over our heads.”
I have often marveled at how, when confronted with a change at work, I really just need a few minutes to get comfortable with it. I typically chalk this up to having a knee-jerk reaction to change, followed by taking a few minutes to process what it means and to get used to an idea. Little did I know that it was actually my brain tricking me into accepting something for its own comfort. While this can be a wonderful coping mechanism that has undoubtedly helped us deal evolutionarily with our conscious self-awareness, I also find this to be a tale about how our brains work to betray us.
There are basically two key points I took away that are relevant to this time and place.
There have been many moments over the last, oh let’s say, 21 months in which I have literally felt myself locked in an epic internal battle with my brain – my brain that so desperately wants to bring itself, and me along with it, to a more comfortable place. It is a literal struggle, especially in moments when my spirit feels particularly diminished in light of the daily news onslaught, in which I feel my brain trying to get me to just accept the state of things and “I” (that thing which is my core values) waiver before I actively realize what is happening and insist that I will not yield to that pull.
This internal struggle is enough to make one question one’s grip on sanity, and I appreciated hearing that I am not alone and that the struggle is real. It also should be no wonder that I find myself so exhausted these days – it’s tough work battling such a formidable opponent. 😉
The other cognitive dissonance from which I have suffered is struggling to understand how large groups of people who used to believe one thing, and said so loudly and vehemently, have come to so thoroughly not just change their way of thinking, but not see that there’s been a change at all. Perhaps, just perhaps, realizing that their brains are also working to rationalize for them can help me at least avoid the desire to ram my head through a wall.
The podcast ends with the second key point in the form of advice for people who are actively resisting a change. Remember, the two main components that kick a person’s rationalization process into high gear are a situation’s certainty and inescapability.
If you want to resist or reverse a change, Laurin suggests you need to show strength in numbers and be as visible and confidant as possible in your resistance; other people who have begun to rationalize, and so normalize, a new situation will be more likely to believe something else is still possible if they see an active, strong resistance. The change is not perceived as certain or inescapable.
As I’ve said a few times in recent months, show up and keep showing up. If people wonder why we keep going to rallies and marches, and why they should, too, here’s a reason:
Maybe you don’t get people to join you in the streets, but by them seeing you out there, along with thousands more of your new friends, it may just get them, even subconsciously, to resist their own brains’ attempts to rationalize and accept the unwelcome and harmful changes you are protesting as just the way things are.