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Living Comfortably with Hypocrisy and Negative Evidence
The Google Define:Hypocrisy command returns the following definition: “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense”. Hypocrisy can be conscious or unconscious. People can be aware that their beliefs are contradicted by their daily behavior or not. In this latter case, hypocrisy is often obvious to observers.
Have you ever wondered how people can live comfortably with hypocrisy? For example, have you ever wondered how good people who believe strongly in the American creed and constitution that holds that all men are created equal with inalienable rights can engage in extreme racism, as was once openly practiced by well-respected southern white gentlemen and is practiced to a lesser extent by many people today? Or, have you ever wondered how good German citizens could support Hitler’s persecution of the Jews?
Likewise, have you ever wondered how people can live comfortably with massive negative evidence against what they do at work or how they live their lives? For example, have you ever wondered how tobacco executives and their families live comfortably with the fact that smoking causes lung cancer worldwide? How do oil company executives and their families live comfortably with mining and burning fossil fuels in light of climate change and the devastation that it will cause? How can people confidently elect politicians who in fact vote against clean air, clean water, and healthcare for their families? Denial and dissonance reduction are the two standard psychological explanations.
This article originally appeared on Psychology Today. Click here to read the original article or continue reading below.
Two Cognitive Explanations
Denial is commonly inferred when people refuse to face facts. Denial can also be inferred when there is reason to believe that someone holds a belief that differs markedly from their behavior or acknowledged feelings. However, denial is stressful because it entails an active struggle to keep content that would create unconscious conflict. Most people who live with hypocrisy do not appear to be constantly under stress. Living comfortably with hypocrisy and negative evidence therefore suggests that some more easy to live with process is involved.
Hypocrisy and negative evidence are expected to create dissonance, except that people who behave hypocritically don’t seem to be upset. Perhaps dissonance reduction has already taken place in the form of conscious rationalizations. Kahneman (2011) distinguished two levels of cognition that he called Systems 1 and 2. System 2 is effortful and fully rational. System 1 is intuitive, automatic, comfortable, and never stumped but prone to over 50 types of mistakes of which people are largely unaware. Both cognitive systems are recruited to provide reasons that justify and thereby reduce dissonance so that they can live more comfortably with hypocrisy and negative evidence. But what role does emotion play?
Living comfortably with hypocrisy and negative evidence would seem to require more than cognition. People need to feel good about their lives while engaged in hypocrisy and when confronted with negative evidence. Whereas cognitive psychology suggests that feelings are entirely the result of cognitive processing, the field of cognitive neuroscience has clearly demonstrated that there is an unconscious subcortical origin for our emotions that are further processed consciously by cortical neural networks. The work of Kunda (1987, 1990) and others reviewed by Tryon (2014) on motivated inference, also known as hot cognition, reveals that emotions can modify cognitions without the person being aware that this is happening. Here we can see that people frequently reach conclusions that they want to reach. How can this be?
Evolution superimposed higher cortical brain centers on top of lower subcortical ones. This suggests that the older subcortical brain centers where emotions originate have priority over the newer cortical ones. Supporting evidence for this claim comes from neuroanatomical evidence concerning the amygdala; the subcortical structure that initiates anxiety, fear, and avoidance behavior. The fibers that transmit amygdala activations to the cortex are more numerous and substantial than the fibers that enable the higher cortical centers to moderate activations arising from the amygdala. This asymmetrical neuroanatomy explains how emotions can have priority over cognitions. Because the amygdala operates unconsciously, one can expect that unconscious emotional processing will modify conscious cognitive processing.
Denial is understood to be emotionally motivated. The motivation here is to falsify claims that constitute the contradictions that generate hypocrisy and to dismiss negative evidence. Denial is emotion in the service of cognition. This view of denial is widely endorsed and fully consistent with psychodynamic theory. Nevertheless, I suggest that this understanding is at least partly wrong. In the next section I propose an alternative emotion-based view that avoids psychic struggle altogether by affirming and customizing truth based on feeling, wanting, and desiring to where it is quite easy to live with hypocrisy and negative evidence.
Emotions Can Function as Cognitions
Duncan and Barrett (2007) replaced the classic distinction between cognition and emotion with a neural network consideration. They presented neuroscience evidence showing that “The circuitry that instantiates a core affective state is widely distributed throughout the brain, and includes so-called ‘‘cognitive’’ areas. This circuitry projects to and modulates sensory processing” (p. 1201). This report that the neural networks that mediate emotion are extensively intertwined with those that mediate cognition means that emotion-free cognition and cognition-free emotion are not possible. Cognition and affect interact anatomically. Duncan and Barrett further concluded “that affect is a form of cognition” (p. 1201). This recognition provides an important conceptual bridge that enables us to better understand how cognition and affect interact to produce behavior. I develop this idea further below.
It is possible to explain how people can live comfortably with hypocrisy and negative evidence using cognitive factors alone. It is also possible to explain their anger as a learned cognitive response. But such an approach is likely to result in an incomplete explanation given the importance of emotions to people.
Emotion as Foreground and Background
Duncan and Barrett (2007) stated: “We suggest that core affect can be a central or a background feature (figure or ground) of consciousness, depending on where and how attention is applied” (p. 1202; emphasis added). This observation, combined with their view that affect can be understood as a form of cognition, advances our understanding of how cognition and affect interact to produce behavior.
Emotion as Foreground
We are consciously aware of emotions when they constitute the foreground, when people are actively emotional, because our attention is directed towards them. Other people are also aware of our emotions because all of the typical cues are present. When happy, people act joyous. When sad, they cry or withdraw. When angry we see them behave aggressively. The attitudes and opinions that people form when emotions operate in the foreground, when people are actively emotional, are obviously influenced by their emotional state.
Emotion as Background
We are mostly unaware of our emotions when they constitute the background, when people are passively emotional, because our attention is directed away from them. Other people are less aware of our emotions because most of the typical cues are absent. People don’t appear to be emotional when emotion operates mainly in the background. The attitudes and opinions that people form when emotions operate in the background, when people are passively emotional, are possibly more influenced by their emotional state but in a peculiar way that people are largely unaware of. I refer here to the concept of Truthiness (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness) where feeling, wanting, and/or desiring something to be true renders it true with certainty for the person, even if it isn’t. If you want something to be true then it will seem to be true with certainty even though it isn’t. If you feel that something is true then it will seem to be true with certainty even though it isn’t. If you desire something to be true then it will seem to be true with certainty even though it isn’t. These claims are consistent with and supportive of the fact that truth transformation happens unconsciously. Truthiness results when unconscious background emotions interact with cognitions because then we can mistake what we want to be the case with what is actually the case. Emotions can function as cognitions without our awareness when they operate in the background. But because emotions are inherently unreasonable, the positions that they support are also unreasonable. Anger is the main rapid reaction when these unreasonable positions are challenged. Anyone can become angry when sufficiently frustrated by difficult and prolonged argument, but in the case of truthiness, people will exhibit anger shortly after even a casual dismissal of their viewpoint. And no amount of evidence generally convinces them that they are wrong. People would undoubtedly deny that feeling, wishing, and desiring actually makes things true. For example, if you were to ask people if closing their eyes, feeling, wanting, and desiring something to be true would actually make it true upon opening their eyes I expect that they would say no. But, as comedian Stephen Colbert’s numerous witty insightful examples clearly illustrate, the opinions and beliefs of many people are based in truthiness, i.e. in what they wish were true.
There are two ways to know if someone’s attitudes and opinions are based in truthiness. The first clue is that their views are not modified in the least by negative evidence regardless of how extensive and compelling the evidence is. They will summarily dismiss all of the evidence in some sweeping way. The second clue is that anger soon follows when their summary dismissal of negative evidence fails to persuade others. Consider the likely outcome when confronting the creationist claim that evolution is just one perspective, and not a very credible one at that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Consider the likely outcome when confronting the claim that climate change either isn’t occurring or that, if it is, humans have nothing to do with it — even though virtually all scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that global temperature has risen far faster and well outside of natural variation since the industrial revolution. Consider the likely outcome when confronting the claim that President Obama is a Muslim and not a US citizen even though both claims are certifiably false. Consider the likely outcome when confronting the claim that vaccines cause autism even though they don’t. Challenging these views with evidence rarely persuades but predictably produces anger which is how one knows that these cognitions are grounded in emotion rather than reason.
The psychological benefit of truthiness is that it enables people to live very comfortably with hypocrisy and negative because it modifies and/or creates facts to fit with and support existing feelings, wishes, and desires. There is no constant struggle to suppress unconscious material from reaching awareness as is the case with denial. Truthiness is far easier to live with than is constant defensive denial.
Truthiness can support unfounded conclusions regarding personal responsibility. For example, belief in the American creed that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights implies a level playing field for all where outcomes are entirely determined by personal decisions. With this belief firmly entrenched, people can believe that those who consistently find themselves in poverty are obviously there entirely because of bad decisions or flawed character traits. Hence, there is little if any reason to help poor people. It is but a short step to further conclude that such people morally deserve to be at the bottom of society. Conclusions regarding racial inferiority are also easy to reach from here.
Individual differences undoubtedly exist regarding the extent to which emotions operate in the foreground or background of a person, just as individual differences in the extent to which cognitive processing involves System 1 and 2 exist. These individual differences may be learned during the course of psychological development but may also be due to how the brain is wired; i.e., individual brain connectome differences. These individual differences become characterological, which means that they are not very modifiable in adults. These individual differences strongly influence many aspects of life including the selection of marital partner, whether or not to vaccinate children, whether or not to home school children, and political choices.
Denial and dissonance reduction are the standard explanations for how people can live comfortably with hypocrisy and negative evidence. Denial implies a continuous stressful struggle to keep certain things from reaching conscious awareness. However, the “truthiness” emotion as a cognition alternative supported by Duncan and Barrett (2007) provides a conflict free way to live comfortably with hypocrisy and negative evidence. Upon this view, wanting, feeling, and desiring makes the “truth” what you want and need it to be. These synthetic truths dissolve hypocrisy and dismiss negative evidence in a way that is easy and stress free to live with. Positions that are held in this way can easily be recognized because they are rigid and because challenging them produces anger.
- The Missing Link Between Psychology and Biology
- Clinical Implications of Dissonance Induction and Reduction
- Clinical Implications of Consonance and Dissonance
- Clinical Implications of Reactivation in Psychotherapy
- Clinical Implications of Learning and Memory
Warren’s book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code “STC215” at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy.
About the Author
Warren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy.
In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.
His academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.
Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at www.fordham.edu/psychology/tryon. This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog and all others by Dr. Warren Tryon can be found on his Fordham faculty webpage.
- Duncan, S., & Barrett, L. F. (2007). Affect is a form of cognition: A neurobiological analysis. Affect is a form of cognition: A neurobiological analysis. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 1184-1211.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
- Kunda, Z. (1987). Motivated inference: Self-serving generation and evaluation of causal theories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 636-647.
- Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498.
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