As we watch the conflict unfolding in the streets across our country, I’m compelled to offer one component of a mental health perspective. I certainly have my own personal view on the morality of what has and is happening, but one of the many lenses through which we can choose to view America’s “next great conflict” is through the clinical context. I don’t pretend to know if this mental health/clinical context is a more important perspective than those offered by geo-politics, religion, economics etc, but its one of the many available, so why not have a look? (That’s a rhetorical question by the way). Second chance to tap out before you invest the next five minutes of your life. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Hate and evil are mind-numbingly simple constructs. If you look closely at hate and evil, you’ll see the same basic repeating patterns made over and over and over again. And yet, like any simple construct, there is an elaborate logical or cognitive underpinning that supports these belief systems. Mental health is predicated on some degree of functional understating of these underpinning cognitive structures.
With this in mind, consider that much of what we are seeing is explainable and understandable through a well-known and, in my opinion, under-appreciated theory of cognitive dissonance. In truncated form, the theory of cognitive dissonance supposes that the brain has its own language for testing the consistency and structure of its world (internally and externally). When we receive new information that doesn’t fit within our pre-existing cognitive structures, a tension arises. The brain seeks to mitigate that tension by either discounting and dismissing that new information or by adapting and incorporating it into our belief structure. For example, if I believe that all people with purple skin are physically and mentally inferior, when I encounter purple people who do not fit that belief structure, my brain responds in one of two ways (there are more than two, but despite the length of this post, I’m not writing a book here, so we’ll keep it at two): I either engage a confirmation bias or I change.
A confirmation bias works like this: I see a purple person who is smarter and stronger than me and instead of thinking “Wow, I must be wrong about all purple people”, I think: “See, I knew those purple people would cheat to get stronger and smarter than me. I’ve been right about all purple people all along”. In short, my confirmation bias enables me to take my experience of finding stronger and smarter purple people as clear evidence that all purple people are inferior.
The reason a confirmation bias is more tempting than changing my beliefs is that a confirmation bias is the figurative warm blanket on a cold dark night. It’s soothes that tension (cognitive dissonance) and allows me to continue believing that all is right with the world. Ahhhhhh – the blessed relief. My second option, change, is often much less palatable cognitively because I risk remaining in and prolonging a state of tension (anxiety is the more common expression of this tension) until things normalize in my brain. This tension is untenable for some people at any level while some can tolerate higher levels of dissonant pressure. And in a world filled with cues for anxiety, I may not have room for another. Confirmation bias offers a linear route to chill my shit out, and yes, “chill my shit out” is a clinical term. By the way, a confirmation bias is something all human thinkers do. It is not left, right, racist, liberal, etc – it is a cognitive bias common to all humans who think and it is one of many biases that shape how we experience our world on a daily basis
So, how do we facilitate this individual change in a world where every week brings us worse news and suggests ever more sinister peeks into the darkest corners of our humanity? Because I make my living providing some form of mental health care, the more business savvy answer would be to suggest that what we need to do is get the people marching in the streets into the office of the nearest therapist, specifically the one located at 5984 South Prince Street, Suite 200A just one easy block south of downtown Littleton, CO. Unfortunately, and this is the dirty little secret of modern mental health, is that therapy alone is generally a poor conduit for a surprising number of maladies. Instead, what’s required is the right combination of real-life experiences ALONG WITH the right forum for processing those experiences (the right therapist’s office for example). Here’s a dramatically over-simplified version of how that works: I think all purple people are inferior. I then meet a purple person who is smart, strong, and capable. Cognitive dissonance occurs and I adapt, but only a little. I now recognize that there is at least one purple person who is not inferior, but this purple person is the exception who proves the rule (confirmation bias). I still believe the rest of them are “less-than”. I then continue to interact with this one purple person, though luck I encounter more, or through open-mindedness seek them out, and eventually I meet other purple people. Because we aren’t screaming at each other or trying to bust one another’s faces, I find some of these purple people are OK. We talk with one another. We share meals. We learn about each other and find common ground, interests, etc. We take greater relational risks and eventually I find that some are smarter than me, some are stronger than me, some are less so in both ways, and in others I still see the very qualities and behavior that have helped me maintain my belief that purple people are inferior. I then go to my therapist’s office and I share this experience. My therapist says, “Wow. You found purple people who weren’t inferior to you? That must have been a trip! What happens now?”. I pay my therapist a bunch of money and I leave the office thinking my belief that all purple people are inferior may be a little off and that it’s not overly threatening to me to allow that there are at least some purple people who equal. This process repeats itself until an interesting evolution happens – As I am continually exposed to purple people (and them to me, by the way), I gradually learn that it no longer serves me to see all purple people as inferior. Through experience and the facilitated challenges to my old beliefs, I now know that purple skin is not a reliable assessment variable, so there is a greater psychological cost to maintaining this old belief. In short, through my experiences and guided processing/challenging of those experiences, I am more cognitively dissonant when I try to cling to this old belief that purple skinned people are inferior. Eventually, I come to a new normal. I may always see purple people as different because in the barest sense and most basic usage of the word “truth”, they are different from me. After all, not only do I not have purple skin, I have different parents, life experiences, skills, fears, etc. And, those “differences” may continue to cost me some amount of discomfort because they are psychologically challenging on some level. But with skin color, or gender, or sexual orientation, or religion, or whatever difference we want to use to differentiate “me/us” from “not me/them”, rendered neutral as a polarizing variable, I can rely on more stable factors for assessing them as humans (i.e. behavior). Such as whether or not you are a Bronco fan…
All that said, it’s just one man’s opinion which means take it or leave it. Peace my brothers and sisters. I’ve got your back and I know you have mine.