What UFO cults & killers reveal about our moral blind spots

by | April 30, 2012

How can people gleefully slaughter 800,000 people in 100 days using nothing but machetes?

The same way we justify poor health habits and irresponsible credit card use, and for the same reasons we scream in rage at referees when they make a call against our team, then cheer raucously when they make a call against the “enemy.”

Whether we’re talking about genocide, heated political debates, or little white lies, our daily justifications and rationalizations are explained by cognitive dissonance, a phenomenon labeled in 1956 by social psychologist Leon Festinger.

Wikipedia defines cognitive dissonance as:

“a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. The theory¦proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.”

Put simply, it is a psychological mechanism that drives us toward internal consistency between our beliefs and behaviors.

Festinger coined the term after observing the reactions of a UFO cult when their prophecy that the world would end on December 21, 1954 failed to materialize.

Rather than conforming their beliefs to reality, they simply changed their beliefs: Their founder proclaimed that they had spread so much light that God had decided to save the world from destruction.

Tribal Hutus during the 1994 Rwandan genocide performed similar mental acrobatics to justify the slaughter of 800,000 defenseless men, women, and children with machetes in a 100-day period.

Rakiya Omaar, director of the human rights organization African Rights, explains:

“In Rwanda they referred to Tutsis as cockroaches. They were not human beings…[They said,] ‘Don’t worry, you’re not killing humans like you. You are killing some vermin that belongs under your shoe. You’re killing cockroaches.'”

The cognitive dissonance aroused by killing another human being is far too vexing for anyone to handle. But no one thinks twice about killing cockroaches. Problem solved.

Yes, I understand that you and I have not engaged in genocide. But our daily justifications are merely a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

The twisted mental process used by the Hutus is the exact same we use to justify overspending, overeating, mistreating others, and other selfish and destructive behaviors.

Ironically, rather than being a mechanism for self-deception, cognitive dissonance could be leveraged as a powerful tool of improvement.

Yet human nature being what it is, we take the path of least resistance.

It’s easier to assure ourselves, when buying clothes with credit cards, that a pay raise is forthcoming, rather than waiting to pay cash for the clothes.

It’s easier to believe we can fix our bodies later, rather than to exercise regularly and eat right.

It’s easier to believe that others were in the wrong in disagreements than it is to see our own faults and to forgive.

It’s easier for die-hard conservatives to believe that liberals are completely wrong on all points (and vice versa) than it is to study all political perspectives in depth with an open mind and find the truth in all.

Cognitive dissonance usually makes our lives simpler, but worse.

So how can you leverage it to your advantage to actually become a better person? By aligning beliefs and behaviors with a standard of moral absolutes that transcends both.

Cognitive dissonance is not concerned with what’s right, good, or true. It simply seeks consistency between beliefs and behaviors.

Thus, cognitive consonance is achieved and discomfort alleviated when the two align, even if either or both of them are morally reprehensible.

Insert a third component of moral absolutes and it changes the whole equation. Now, rather than simply trying to align two limited and incomplete components, they two are guided by a transcendent standard.

And how do we find moral absolutes?

A friend of mine provides one answer with what she lists as her religion on her Facebook profile: Absolute adherence to conscience.

In other words, we already know what’s right and wrong. It’s inside us in that still, small voice. We must live to be worthy to hear that voice, and follow it without question or hesitation.

Secondly, we must be lifelong, committed truth-seekers. We must develop an insatiable appetite for learning and personal growth.

We must earnestly seek out what Aristotle, Plato, C.S. Lewis, Leo Tolstoy, James Allen, and countless other thinkers reveal about moral absolutes.

We must study history to see where Nero and Caligula went wrong, to understand how the Holocaust happened, to grapple with the intense moral dilemmas faced by leaders.

This is the essence of liberal arts education, and why it is so vital for every citizen.

Righteousness and cognitive consonance are not the same thing. Mere consistency between beliefs and behaviors is a poor and misguided substitute for legitimate moral rectitude.

UFO cult followers and murderers are crazy. And so are you and I when we fall prey to cognitive dissonance in the absence of moral absolutes.

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