Good company in an era of peak cognitive dissonance

I prefer to co-create good company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy. Often this is easier said than done, as we live in an era of extreme cognitive dissonance.

This article describes common symptoms of collective cognitive dissonance in industrialised societies, and it points towards tools for reducing cognitive dissonance. From an autistic perspective the dissonance manifests not in terms of contradictory beliefs, but in terms of complete alienation from the mainstream culture in industrialised societies. Most of the so-called foundations of our civilisation amount to a delusional level of wishful thinking. Our society is locked into paradigmatic inertia by fear and busyness.


A few years ago I facilitated a workshop on Anthropocentrism. Participants discussed the way we perceive and experience the civilised world  in comparison to the way in which pre-historic humans perceived the world. Today, with the help of modern communication technologies, the world we experience is more and more social and less and less non-human. Unless we scale back our use of communication technologies or we develop powerful technologies for perceiving the state of the non-human environment in ways that capture our attention as much as social signals, we become increasingly numb to the effect that we are collectively having on the biosphere.

Anthropocentrism is currently shaping our world view, and thereby leading us further and further into a world in which human ignorance, human errors, and human cognitive limits are capable of not only triggering the extinction of the human species, but also into a world where anything that is non-human or not human made is perceived either as worthless or as a threat.

The wishful thinking of enlightened or green capitalism

Those who put their hopes on enlightened or green forms of capitalism fail to understand basic principles of biological and cultural co-evolution. Biological, neurological, and cultural diversity are the evolutionary forces that have enabled humans to adapt to and thrive within dynamic environments – better than many other species. Enlightened capitalists easily underestimate the human capacity for altruism, intrinsic motivation, and mutual aid, and at the same time they overestimate the human cognitive capacity to understand and control complex dynamic systems. Human social, ecological, and individual behaviour is shaped to a large extent by internalised local cultural norms. There is nothing that somehow makes internalised norms relating to capitalism superior to other possible local arrangements.

The belief in the magic of the invisible hand is an ideology that confuses the energy and resources spent on direct competition with a positive evolutionary force. As a result, all forms of capitalism optimise for maximum busyness, i.e. maximum (mis)use of time, energy and resources. The fiction of homo economicus manifests itself in the belief in the need for external incentives and coercion.

Humans have a limited capacity for attention. Shifting the focus of busyness growth into the digital and social realm only further alienates us from our ecological context, and is not a viable strategy for perpetuating the delusion of infinite growth on a finite planet. Furthermore, the competitive ideology that underpins the growth imperative has led to a devaluation of all forms of physical labour and care work that does not or that should not involve social competition.

The mutual distrust that is created via a competitive labour markets reduces the human capacity for communication and shared understanding into a capacity for deception and direct social competition, distracting from the goal of delivering services and outcomes that are beneficial for wider society.

An ideological bias towards market based “solutions” obscures institutional problems. 250 years of industrialised civilisation have impaired our ability to understand and navigate the world in terms of trusted relationships. The climate of fear in an atomised society has shrunk the sphere of discourse to the point where the existence of most institutions is no longer questioned. All potential institutional problems are assumed to be addressable by adding further complexity to established institutions or by complementing established institutions with further institutions.

Myopic focus on individual mental health

In industrialised societies the topic of mental health is conceptualised as a concern pertaining to individuals, and accordingly, treatment is focused on identifiable symptoms at the individual level, and this in turn is reflected in the diagnostic and treatment manuals used by psychiatrists and psychologists. Our society pretends that relational problems between people can be broken down into individualised components of mental and physical health, and that these can be treated separately.

Furthermore mainstream healthcare systems treat social determinants (poverty, quality of housing, access to healthy food, local levels of inequality, etc.) as a secondary concern, resulting in a never-ending stream of mental health problems.

By design the established reactive and social context-blind paradigm of healthcare delivery creates incentives for maximising the funding that flows into the treatment of symptoms, and it minimises the funding available for a proactive and social context-aware approach. Also by design, systemic problems are delegated to the realm of politics. The lack of a holistic transdisciplinary approach creates an artificial barrier that isolates political discourse from the potential mental health impacts of policy decisions.

The topic of mental health is further complicated by a profound lack of understanding of neurodiversity across all the many disciplinary silos within the healthcare system:

  • Often mental health problems are not understood as inevitable downstream effects of a society that systematically discriminates against autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.
  • Many physical health problems are not identified as the stress responses of socially marginalised people, a problem that is compounded for hyper-sensitive autistic people who are marginalised along other dimensions as well – ethnicity, lack of access to trusted peers, lack of access to autistic healthcare professionals, etc.
  • The level of stigma associated with neurodivergence (in particular open displays of autistic culture) within the healthcare sector not only perpetuates the harm done by the pathology paradigm to patients, it also means that virtually all autistic (and many otherwise neurodivergent) healthcare professionals remain undercover, and are unable to assist neurodivergent patients and peers who are being discriminated against.
  • Furthermore, the manifestation of neurodivergence is dynamic, and the stress responses to sensory or social overload may change over time, in ways that are individually unique.
  • Post viral syndromes represent forms of neurodivergence that so far have received little attention within the neurodiversity movement. The COVID-19 pandemic has started to bring this topic into focus. In terms of the many potential triggers of sensory overload, post viral syndromes overlap with common autistic hypersensitivities.

Culturally prescribed cognitive dissonance

As I have described in-depth in earlier articles, W.E.I.R.D. societies systematically pathologise all those who are not fully “functional” and “culturally well adjusted” machines within the factory model of society.

The 10 W.E.I.R.D. axioms of the pathology paradigm:

  1. The W.E.I.R.D. social game is the pinnacle of “civilisation” achieved so far.
  2. The arrow of “progress” is advanced by playing the social game.
  3. The “purpose” of society is to perpetuate the social game.
  4. Every human who knows how and is willing to play the W.E.I.R.D. social game is equipped for a happy and “successful” life.
  5. Addressing individual “functional deficits” in relation to W.E.I.R.D. norms are the key to a healthy society.
  6. Non-W.E.I.R.D.-compliant notions of a fulfilled life are irrelevant and represent a threat to the “normal functioning” of society.
  7. Individuals with “functional deficits” must be grateful for all services and assistance that is made available to improve their level of “functioning”.
  8. Individuals with “spiky skills profiles” must be grateful for all “opportunities” to contribute to the social game.
  9. Individuals with “functional deficits”, and especially those who question the value of the social game, clearly “don’t understand the bigger picture”, can’t possibly have anything of value to contribute to society.
  10. The W.E.I.R.D. social game reflects the axioms of human nature, and researchers can safely assume the W.E.I.R.D. axioms to be true when designing research experiments, when conducting experiments, when designing and running computer simulations of collective human social behaviour, and when interpreting research results.

Cultural deficits

A society that systematically desensitises all its people to social inequality and that instead celebrates individual success based on material wealth and social vanity metrics creates a sick social environment that disables society as a whole.

The extreme harm caused is visible to anyone who is able to acknowledge the level of cognitive dissonance that constitutes the foundation of industrialised civilisation:

  • Our inability to adapt to environmental changes in a timely manner
  • Our inability to extend trust to others or to other groups
  • Our inability to understand each other
  • Our inability to meet basic human social needs

Cultural evolution

The following presentation from the ISC 2021 Summer School on Cognitive Challenges of Climate Change by William Rees, a co-inventor of the ecological footprint concept, offers a good summary of the current human cultural predicament in terms of where we are, but without any hint of how we might be able to to overcome paradigmatic inertia.

Other presentations from the same series offer a few clues, in terms of starting to do less by consciously reducing the complexity of design in our physical and social environments, via coordinated activism, and by empowering locally communities to define locally relevant multi-dimensional metrics of wellbeing.

Given the cognitive dissonance that characterises normality in industrialised societies, it is not surprising that none of these otherwise excellent presentations on cognitive challenges related to climate change examine the role of neurodiversity and autistic cognition in cultural evolution.

Autistic people don’t play social games, instead we actively resist them. We are primarily guided by our moral principles and are less prone to being corrupted by monetary rewards. And for this we are pathologised and vilified. It is not an accident that Greta Thunberg is autistic. A growing literature suggests that autists display reduced susceptibility to cognitive biases and exhibit more rational and bias-free processing of information. The enhanced rationality of autistic people has valuable implications for the understanding of human rationality and for understanding the role of neurodiversity in cultural evolution.

Within the bigger picture of cultural evolution autistic traits have obvious mid and long-term benefits to society, but these benefits are associated with short-term costs for social status seeking individuals within the local social environments of autistic people.

Neurological and cultural diversity is the reservoir of imagination of the human species. In a time of existential crises the collective creative potential of neurodivergent people and marginalised cultures has become more important than ever. It is well known that all major social change originates on the margins of society. We have to realise that in our hypernormalised global consumer culture transformational change can only emanate from indigenous cultures, from marginalised and sometimes criminalised groups, and from pathologised neurodivergent people.

The implications for co-creating good company are profound. Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics may allow us to avoid the fate of earlier civilisations, and to embark on a path of radical energy descent.

In my book on the beauty of collaboration at human scale I trace the journey of cultural evolution from the origins of humans right up to the latest significant developments in the early 21st century – including the role that autistic people have played and will continue to play in this context. Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise and collaborate accordingly.

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