I used to believe that we lived in the age of reason. An age when we learn from experience and an age where we change the way we do things as we learn. I believed that science and technology could lead us to a world of prosperity for all; where wars would cease as scarcity diminished. But that was years ago.
Even though technical changes occur at a very rapid rate the human race doesn't change in step. In war we used to kill each other one at a time, but now we kill each other en masse. Slavery appears to have died out in the Western world, but we have learnt the art of economic slavery. We still have slaves but they are slaves in their own country, which has removed the need to transport them, and house them in a new country. Technology changes but we do not.
My focus changed from believing that the human race was rational to trying to understand why it is not. To my surprise I found the paradox that while the human race is not rational there are well documented rational reasons why it is not rational.
The human race lives according to paradigms. In the social science context this means we have collective belief systems. In the hard sciences the meaning as applied to experimentation is slightly different.
We have the Christian paradigm, the Islamic paradigm, the Jewish paradigm, and so on for each country and subgroup. There is a white Anglo Saxon paradigm and the Arab Islamic paradigm and so on. Each group has a mass belief system that is as stubborn to shift as any belief we are likely to find in an individual.
Paradigm is the polite word for collective group thinking patterns. The less polite term used in psychology is “groupthink.” Groupthink would be applied to a group with “disturbing” group thinking patterns such as the German people in the Nazi period.
One of the factors that seems to be involved in the maintenance of paradigms is Wolfe's Linguistic Theory:
B.L.Whorf, a student of American Indian languages, translated ideas from one Indian dialect to another. In many cases, he was incapable of carrying out the translation. One Indian language made no distinction between nouns and verbs; another had no term to distinguish events from the past from those in the present or the future; still another used the same word for different colours. From this experience, Whorf formulated a controversial thesis: Thought is relative to the language in which it is expressed. The Whorfian Linguistic-Relativity Hypothesis concludes that:
- the world is conceived very differently by those whose language is different;
- the structure of the language is the cause of these different ways of conceiving the world.
Everything is perceived in the language we think in. It is the thinking language that matters, not the spoken language. If a Jewish person talks to a Palestinian in a common language they still perceive in their thinking language. Within “common” language groupings the use of the same word can have different meanings. The reason men and women do not always understand each other could be that there is a “male” language and a “female” language even though the words are the same.
We live in groups who see things differently to other groups. But surely if we were in fact rational beings we would learn from each other and form a human paradigm? Would not a collection of paradigms converge towards a single point of humanity?
Paradigm shifts do occur, but unfortunately they usually occur explosively with no guarantee that the new paradigm will be any better than the last. Paradigm shifts are revolutionary rather than evolutionary and throw out the good with the bad. The paradigm shift of the Bolshevik revolution did not bring peace and prosperity to Russia.
So why is that we only change when we are forced to, and often destroy everything in the process, instead of learning and making changes as we learn? The answer is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive is basically perception, and dissonance is conflict. It would be helpful if psychologists spoke English. But since cognitive dissonance is the official terminology I had better stick to it.
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