This One Psychological Principle is at the Heart of All Global Conflict

Extremist beliefs, terrorism, racism, bigotry. If you watch the news, it seems like we’re seeing a resurgence of some of the worst characteristics of humanity on a global scale.

Why can’t we all just get along? Cognitive dissonance, that’s why.

Cognitive dissonance (<- read this link, it’s by the creator of Dilbert and it’s awesome) occurs when someone holds contradicting beliefs (such as, “I can do what I want with my life”, but also, “gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married”), and/or encounters information that conflicts with their existing set of beliefs (the Bible says Earth was created in 6 days and is about 6,000 years old, but, well, science has proven the Earth is actually over 4.5 billion years old).

Cognitive dissonance is rooted in fear, and all conflict essentially boils down to a fear-driven Us vs. Them mentality.

Because our brains are wired not just for physical self-preservation, but for psychological self-preservation as well, when our system of beliefs is challenged the brain comes to our mental defense quickly, fiercely, and often foolishly.

Saying things like “Let’s get rid of anyone who doesn’t believe the same way we do or who is different from us!” or “You’re wrong and a douchebag, so shut up!” are, annoyingly, the brain’s way of protecting our mental health. For such a sophisticated organ, our brains sure do cause us a lot of problems.

So what exactly is driving this apparent surge of cognitive dissonance? The media.

Here’s the thing: just about every media outlet on the planet makes money from ads, primarily display ads. How do they charge for display ads? Per 1,000 views, called CPMs. Media companies make money in direct proportion to the number of people who view their content, so they employ all manner of psychological tactics to ramp up those views, regardless of the consequences.

Have you ever heard the saying “If it bleeds, it leads?” That is the motto of the page view journalism world, and it is seriously fucking with the psychological state of humanity. The media LOVES the negativity bias, because it gets more page views.

In fact, if you were to conduct a survey, you’d find that the vast majority of people around the world think our world is getting worse…but the truth is exactly the opposite.

Infant mortality rates are down, global per capita GDP is rising, the number of homicides and violent crimes are down, and the number of people living in poverty is decreasing. Life expectancy is increasing, and technology is raising the quality of life of just about everyone on the planet.

THE WORLD IS GETTING BETTER, but that message doesn’t sell ads, and so the media just keeps peddling the same negative shit year in and year out. As Facebook proved handily with their (perhaps ill advised) psychological testing of news feed content, what you see impacts how you feel. Negative things warp your outlook on reality towards the negative, and positive things make you more positive. People are afraid because media outlets feed them a non-stop diet of “They sky is falling!” and “Woe is me!”

When we feel afraid, we fight back, often both illogically and ineffectively. A person who is afraid looks for someone to protect them, to fix their perceived problems…which is exactly what Vox found when they went hunting for a reason for the rapid and shocking rise of Donald Trump’s political campaign. People want someone to protect them, someone who will act, and someone who feed their cognitive dissonance derived feelings of Us vs. Them.

Extremism, racism, and bigotry appear to be on the rise because we have failed to keep the media in check, leaving them to fuel a potential societal descent into madness.

Negative news coverage makes people afraid of “them”, which leads to the rise of someone like Trump who says he’ll protect you from “them”, but who in reality will simply lead to more conflict (which will drive more media views). It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, driven by media companies and their desire to make more money from ads.

So, what can we learn from all of this? That fear sucks, that the brain needs to be kept in check, that ads are the root of all evil (a post for another day), and perhaps that media companies should be legally obligated to show a un-fucking-biased view of reality (or, if not unbiased, which is objectively impossible, at least a balanced view of reality…perhaps one piece of positive news for every piece of negative news, evenly displayed). Alas, because of the negativity bias mentioned earlier, even that might not work.

I’m all for free speech (I’m all for personal freedoms, period), but freedom of speech needs to come with some boundaries. When your actions truly affect nobody but you (rarely the case, unless you’re an orphan living in Antarctica), there should be little to no regulation. But when your actions impact others, especially large numbers of others…well, there needs to be some bloody accountability.

We can’t let fear control us, and we can’t allow the greed of others to influence our minds for the worse. The world is an awesome place full of wonder and beauty, full of awesome people who for the most part are just like you, and it’s a world that is getting better all the time.

Stop focusing on differences. Accept that you can, and always will, view reality from a slightly different perspective than everyone else…and that’s just fine. Your opinions are yours, and opinions shouldn’t be forced onto others.