Smart enough to be dumb, or vice versa?
Just came across this section of Transforming Behaviour Change while looking for a reference about decision-making and thought it was worth sharing. Any vegetarians or anti-vegetarians out there with views on the subject?
“This message that we are not rational is not a simple one to convey, because we also appear to have a somewhat craven need for rationalisation. In fact, the social presumption of rationality is so strong that we are inclined to find and create reasons for our actions, or even invent them, merely to preserve the illusion that our choices are freely chosen.
This social imperative of cognitive consistency is the reason why vegetarians, for example, are frequently cross-examined, often by an entire dinner table, on the rationale and consistency of their preference to avoid the meat that most people eat. At an anecdotal level, it seems the ethical and environmental gains achieved through eating less meat are given relatively little attention, compared to the social sanction of highlighting perceived inconsistencies in the individuals making the effort.
For example, the inconsistency of wearing a leather belt while avoiding a beef stew appears to be more salient in social company than the fact that, for example, if every
American reduced meat intake by one meal a week, it would have the equivalent environmental impact as taking five million cars off the road.
In a recent talk on ‘Eating Animals’ at the RSA, Jonathan Saffron Foer argued that most meat eaters simply do not want to know about the conditions on factory farms, for fear that it would create unbearable cognitive dissonance. In light of animal suffering, and concomitant environmental degradation, Foer suggests people cannot reconcile their desire to enjoy the taste and cultural appropriateness of meat eating with their desire not to cause unnecessary suffering, so rather than stop eating meat, they prefer not to know about the suffering and the environmental harm:
“We have such a resistance to being hypocrites that we would rather be fully ignorant and fully forgetful all the time.”
This claim is a strong one, but it is important to make this case because it is fundamental to the social influence on decisions, and supports the need to shape social norms, rather than merely being subject to them, for it is these norms that norm-alise our behaviour.
A similar point about the challenge of pervasive self-justification is made by Tavris and Aronson, who contend that there are very few conscious hypocrites in the world. Indeed our capacity to rationalise our behaviour as being consistent with our beliefs is extraordinary, and we usually achieve this by shifting our beliefs rather than our behaviour, even if doing so paradoxically flies in the face of reason. As Tavris and Aronson put it:
“All of us, to preserve our belief that we are smart, will occasionally do dumb things. We can’t help it. We are wired that way.”