As reported in the October blog, I recently spent three weeks in a hospital bed in Iceland. This time allowed me the opportunity to observe and reflect on some fundamental dynamics of our society. My key takeaway is that Western society is not paying sufficient attention to how dramatically the world could change over the next few years. As we head into the holiday season, we should take a moment to give thanks for the social order we all value.
Western civilization appears to be facing a global inflection point. The stresses are widespread—political, social, environmental, economic, and technological. More problematic is that society seems to be overlooking critical warning signs. Those who seem to have their heads in the sand are falling victim to two cognitive pitfalls: assuming the future will closely resemble the past and expecting that change will be incremental. In this article, I explore changes that we as a society should be taking more seriously as well as strategies for countering these trends.
- Democracy Under Threat. The Congressional committee investigating the January 6 insurrection is finding increasing evidence that a concerted campaign had been launched to negate the peaceful transition of power to a new president. If Vice President Pence had not proceeded to count all the Electoral College ballots, then President Trump might have succeeded in propelling himself into an unconstitutional third term in office. Looking toward 2024, a serious concern is whether recent legislation in several states will result in state electoral boards countermanding the popular vote in their districts. Also of concern is a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll showing that 30 percent of Republicans believe further violence may be necessary to solve the nation’s problems.
- Burgeoning Non-rational Behavior. Cultish beliefs and behaviors are being displayed by a large percentage of the population–including unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, QAnon conspiracy theories, and COVID-19 vaccination falsehoods. Disinformation has proved far more impactful than most expected, and commercial pressures argue against social media giants taking strong measures to neutralize it.
- Accelerating Climate Change. The melting of ice in Greenland and permafrost in Russia are establishing negative feedback cycles that accelerate global warming in unanticipated ways. Some scientists are concerned that we may have reached a point where Greenland’s ice melt could spur a redirection of the Gulf Stream with dramatic consequences for Europe. The US Department of Defense released a study in October outlining 11 serious threats climate change poses to national security. The potential for climate change to have irreversible impact on current and future generations was underscored by the statement by the just-concluded UN Climate Change Conference that “no longer can anyone be under any illusion” that it is vital to “accelerate the momentum” globally for addressing the crisis.
- Reimagining the Labor Force. Substantial defections from the workforce may not be an aberration but a reflection that large segments of the workforce have permanently rejected corporate America’s hierarchical structures, salary systems, and established central workplaces. Could new mechanisms evolve for replacing current salary systems with arrangements such as bitcoin, cryptocurrency, or bartering?
- Accelerating Technological Change. Potentially explosive developments are fast approaching in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, quantum computing, big data analysis, advanced materials, biotech, energy production and storage, and space industrialization. Many of these areas will enable or accelerate change and prove highly disruptive to our economic and social activities. People will find it increasingly difficult cognitively to keep up with the challenges; many may opt out or angrily resist the changes.
So, what is to be done?
How does one mitigate the negative impact of these trends? How does one respond to the destructionists who are promoting division and undermining our institutions? Counter arguments based on science and logic appear to have little impact. Once people adopt a false belief that is central to their identity, cognitive science argues it is almost impossible to talk them out of their mindset. Admitting one is wrong creates unacceptable cognitive dissidence, especially when one’s false beliefs are reaffirmed by media feeds. If being proved wrong or ostracized is a core fear for the destructionists, isolating them will make it worse.
A more promising strategy may be to pay less attention to the obstructionists who want to emphasize our differences and refocus the national dialogue on what needs to be done constructively move the country forward. Can we work cooperatively to promote a more just, fair, and equitable society? Can we devise new mechanisms and processes that promote collaborative behaviors that are more efficient and have positive impact?
Progress is being made in this direction. Witness the growing corporate emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness; efforts to promote a meaningful dialogue on the local level to address neighborhood-police relations; and the work of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the US Congress. The challenge is to multiply such initiatives and not let the disruptive voices of destructionists distract society from what needs to be done to solve today’s mounting challenges. When you encounter negative destructionist rhetoric on the airwaves or social media, just turn it off. Focus instead on listening to and seeking positive solutions.
If our political leadership—and the media—fail to alert the general population to the dangers we face, civility and political order will start spiraling downward at an accelerating pace. Destructionism will come to predominate, with little hope of reversing the trends. The only viable antidote is to redirect our energies to implementing constructivist policies. The time for talk is over; each of us needs to commit to taking constructive action.
Two books that will help you gain a better understanding how cognitive pitfalls can “keep your head in the sand” are Heuer’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and Pherson’s Handbook of Analytic Tools and Techniques.