Bookmark & Share Subscribe to Feed
Cultural Psychology | curated by Kevin Goodman

Unlocking the Mystery

To any of you that read my out-of-character post last week. If you’re wondering, I’m still sane, of course sanity is relative and my own standards–for myself ;-)–are necessarily quite liberal. Every once in a while I feel a need to think differently and this need grows and grows and grows, until…BOOM.

I’m assuming that somebody read my little story and is still wondering what the hell it meant. Well frankly, I’m not sure it means anything too specific. I began with a loose concept and then took to automatic writing. Yes, it really was that spontaneous. However, I did sit on it for a day or two and played with the words a bit.

Assuming there is a deep-rooted structure to the chaos and you’re interested in decoding the mystery, you’ll need some empirical basis in which to begin; that is, if you wish to arrive at a theory that is grounded to any external reality beyond your own imaginings (in this case you need to know more about my imaginings). Interested? Well then, you’ll need a little background information about what inspired me.

I began the story by wanting to write something that put the concept of associative networks (as used in cognitive psychology) to an allegorical plot of self-discovery. I like the associative network model of cognition and see culture as a macro reflection of that. My inspiration for this comes from Bakhtin’s dialogism. Bakhtin proposed a literary theory in which he insisted that no work is an island but rather an intertextual dialogue. I take both mind and culture to exist in a state of response—that there is no such thing as an isolated idea—and I take this as the basis for sociocultural evolution. Social psychologists may not be very familiar with Bakhtin but they might recognize my conceptualization of associative networks and heuristic processing.

That is all I’ll say on the matter 8-)

Why We Stubbornly Cling to Our Attitudes

In my prior post, I discussed how I had changed my attitude about welfare and began questioning some of my original libertarian assumptions. The details of which are not important as I make a point to be as apolitical as possible but I did promise a discussion on why people are so stubborn in their opinions. Attitude change is a major research program in social psychology, marketing, and communication studies.

An attitude is an internalized value judgment about an object, person, group, or idea. It’s proposed that attitudes are formed by either systemic processing or heuristic processing. Systemic processing is a thorough investigation of the matter in which the opinion is being formed. The problem with systemic processing is that we simply don’t have time to carefully weigh the pros and cons of every judgment. The result is a theory called heuristic processing in which we make decisions by general rules of thumb. In heuristic processing, we respond to experience according to how we can categorize it according to prior experiences (a nonconscious process). The problem is that heuristic processing is based on personal bias, pure and simple.

If we relied on systemic processing we would change are minds often as we receive new information, but very often we hold to attitudes despite good evidence to contradict them. When our attitudes face an incongruity that threaten them we experience cognitive dissonance. When we change our attitudes, it’s because of dissonance, but very often dissonances causes the reverse, a stubborn dismissal of the evidence, an assertion of the truthfulness of the prior attitude.

I believe that the degree to which we resist attitude change in the face of good evidence depends on the degree to which the attitude affects our self-concept. A large part of our self-concept derives from social identity and cultural constructs. Attitudes tend to be dimensional, meaning that we form them based on our self-concept along with the norms of our romanticized peer groups and culture. If, for instance, I consider myself a businessman and consider Donald Trump to be the quintessential businessman I would likely value wealth and assertiveness while having less or no respect for poverty.  My self-concept as a businessman will be formed by others’ successes and their attitudes, this will affect my general attitude about a whole lot of other stuff.

Part of social identity theory is that we gain self-esteem by social comparison. We want to think of ourselves as better than others, or other types of people. Self-esteem is such an important human need that it’s become an important research program in a number of sub fields within psychology. One theory within social psychology, called terror management, is that the unique human awareness of our own eventual demise leads to an underlying anxiety, which for the most part is unconscious; this causes us to look for meaning, to contribute to our cultures and our societies, to try to become important to those who are important to us. However, differences in worldviews threaten our symbolic immortality, our culture, and so we lash out at different others to protect our ideological supremacy, the good name of our ancestors, and the greatness of our way of life. While that’s a large proposition it is supported by lots of experiments that demonstrate that mortality salience leads to greater identification with one’s own heritage, religion, and ethnicity while creating an increased wiliness to withhold resources or punish people from different backgrounds.

What does all that mean? It means that the more damaging a potential attitude is to your self-concept the more strongly you’ll cling to it. It means that threats to our self-concepts, to our social identities, our cultures, though only a threat to our symbolic selves, can be felt as having existential force. It means we have contempt for any attitude that challenges our ideological supremacy.

When we face dissonance, we will likely change our attitude if the change doesn’t threaten our self-concept. If, however, an attitude change also forces us to reexamine our self-concept (and most attitudes are informed by our self concept), it becomes more challenging. In many cases, it leads to extreme denial.

It’s for these very reasons that I try to be apolitical. However, I live in a political world and it’s equally immoral of me to be completely apolitical as it is to hold steadfast to a single position. My priority is to understand human nature, and therefore truth has a higher priority than pragmatics. My self-concept derives from being reasonable, by being thorough, and by giving priority to uncovering the truth. I am therefore quite capable of changing my mind, given the right evidence, because it’s part of my self-concept, because I don’t believe in any absolutes—however, I am only human.