Even the very way we tend to approach events in life can run counter to our ability to improve. The good things in life are taken to be the individual’s responsibility, whereas the poor things to occur in the world are a consequence of the environment. (Carver et al 1980; Greenberg et al 1982; Muller and Riorden 1988) This self-serving attributional bias makes it more likely that an individual would repeat behavior to lead to the same problem in an insane manner. If one cannot honestly look at the reason that one is in the situation one is in – for good or ill – then one has little chance of changing that situation.
An example of this is the beauty standard of areas with easily available food and areas without easy to access food. In the areas without easy to access food, there was a greater tendency of individuals to prefer more voluptuous women. (Anderson, Crawford, Nadeau, and Lindberg 1992) These women got that way both through biology and through personal choices. While appearance isn’t the only thing that is considered in a relationship (thankfully kindness and intelligence seem to be primary according to Vitzthum et al 2022), that craving will be expensive and difficult to satisfy in a society where food is hard to come by.
The way that we adjust to situations in life also can make a bad environment worse. One of the ways that this can happen is through the mere exposure effect (Zajonc 1968; Bornstein 1989; Montoya et al 2017). Through a variety of rationalizations, one can adjust the goalposts of an acceptable situation to excuse an abusive relationship, a changing climate, or declining wages compared to corporate profits or inflation. The excuses can range from a thought of it could be worse, this is temporary, or simply pretending not to see the water slowly being turned up on the proverbial frog.
As a martial artist, I am always trying to control my breath. This is for many reasons, making a stronger punch, engaging the diaphragm, and to keep my heart rate low. Getting one’s blood pumping too much in a fight causes tunnel vision, which happens when the pupils dilate. If one slows the breath, one slows the heart. The same thing happens when we get angry. Fighting while angry is a terrible idea. In that situation you also are likely to misconstrue an act to be aggressive in nature, perhaps leading to violence when that isn’t necessary. (DeSteno et al 2000; Huber et al 2015; Keltner et al 1993) I tell all my students that there are three ways to win a fight, first through words, next with our feet, and finally with our fists. The first two ways come first.
Another way that our behavior can make situations worse for ourselves is through some of the patterns that have been noticed when within a group. The deindividuation that occurs allows for a more instinctual response, the direction of which the knee may jerk in a dark manner. For example, an increase of 200% in suicide baiting has been observed (Mann, 1981) when the individuals are in a group as opposed to as an individual watching such a tragic event. Groups allow for horrific excuses of behavior, up to and including genocides (which are only perpetuated by groups of people given a reason to consider themselves a group or nation separate from another).
There are many possible reasons that the deadening of an internal moral compass occurs when someone attends a party, protest, or simply chooses to follow a club of some variety. One possibility is that because one becomes part of a mass, then one believes oneself safe from individual consequence either by passing from individual to collective guilt or by the difficulty of being pinpointed as the perpetrator of whatever previously abhorred act. Another possibility is that one can give up responsibility to individuals higher up in a group with a more clearly defined hierarchy. One way of testing this may be to compare the types and number of egregious acts performed by a strict hierarchical organization like the NKVD or the Einsatzgruppen to that of a more disorganized group like the Tulsa Race Riots or the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. I believe that shocking scientific assumptions about authoritarian styles and the connection to abusive behavior could be made from studies about orders though. (Milgram, 1963)
Irving Janis examined the dangers of groupthink in the 1950s. Groupthink stems from shallow examination of info, not considering alternatives, and a sense of invulnerability or moral superiority. It is more comfortable to remain within information that confirms one’s worldview, especially if the other worldview is evil. If there is a strong leader, that also provides a focal point that the group can organize around and take orders from. It is more efficient to just follow the order of the approved authority with one’s peripheral processing system and avoid using the central processing system to carefully consider one’s actions every step of the way. If one is in a group, it often leads to self-censorship to keep oneself toeing the party line and in the good graces of other members of the tribe, faction, or party. This perpetuates the problem of filter bubbles aggravating confirmation bias. Also, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, the person will eventually start to rationalize away the opposing perspective.
I wonder if it is possible to change one’s behavior completely just through an intellectual knowledge of the cognitive biases that human beings tend to engage in. Due to the slower speed of central processing compared to peripheral processing, I am not sure that it is possible to have complete free will in a changing world and society. Even when we didn’t live in the cyber age, we still had to react to someone asking for spare change, subtle advertising, or detours on a commute. So much of our life is instinctual and habitual reaction to the world we’ve created. I’m not a full determinist, but I also think that the biological impact of events in life from our childhood which even affect our attachment styles and self esteem far into our middle age. (Klohnen and Bera, 1998; Fraley and Spieker, 2003) If these things don’t change much except in our own mind, then how much can we shape and change who we were going to be? In my opinion, we are unfairly born into a world that constrains the sandbox within which we can each individually play by the circumstances of our birth. This biology affects everyone from Elon Musk’s children to those of a dalit of India and can make the instinctual reactions of daily life detrimentally affect the paths that one chooses to walk down in life, unless by learning about them we can overcome our limitations.