On Psychology

Changing a worldview is no small thing. Worldviews play a significant role in organizing and orienting our lives at multiple levels. There are basic psychological and social reasons why we often resist changing our minds about fundamental issues. And there are psychosocial reasons why we generally do not like having our basic values and viewpoints questioned, and may sometimes fight back in irrational ways when we perceive threats to our worldviews. Understanding how worldviews function psychologically and socially can help us understand why we generally dislike changing them.

Here’s something really worth knowing: forming and reforming your worldview is a very costly process. It takes a lot of energy and time. And changing your worldview can be accompanied by significant amounts of stress, uncertainty, and disorientation. We generally dislike stress, uncertainty, and disorientation, and so we generally do what we can to avoid such experiences. Forming, strengthening, and preserving a worldview can help accomplish this. But in order to understand why this is the case, we first we need to understand what psychological and social functions worldviews serve.

A worldview can be understood as the set of fundamental values, viewpoints, priorities, goals, and stories that organize and orient a person’s overall approach to life. As a result, a worldview partly functions like the combined tools of a “map” which provides a representational model of experiential reality along with a “compass” which orients a person in navigating the world’s many experiential geographies. Worldviews therefore provide us with purpose and direction, as well as deeply-felt standards for evaluating and engaging with the world we experience. A worldview is a more or less unified way of seeing our world. A functional worldview will provide a relatively unified map of reality that is reliable enough to help a person successfully, productively, and meaningfully navigate her way through life. A dysfunctional worldview, however, provides an unreliable, partial, and/or fragmented map of reality that tends to result in unsuccessful, unproductive, and meaningless navigation through life, often signaled to its user by excessive amounts of pain.

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As our basic maps of reality, worldviews play significant roles in structuring the minds, behaviours, and relationships of individuals, while shared worldviews significantly structure the politics, economies, societies, and religions of groups. We need worldviews in order to live and thrive. And there are many important potential benefits of having one that is relatively functional.

A functional worldview promotes multiple benefits for individuals and groups. For individuals, a functional worldview organizes and orients a person’s mind in ways that support healthy psychological order and direction. This includes regulating emotions and productively guiding behaviour around the pursuit of worthwhile goals. This further promotes internal stability and motivational focus, while limiting undesirable amounts of emotional stress and behavioural immobility.

And at one of the most profound psychological levels, a functional worldview instills an incredibly deep orientational sense of what ultimately desirable goods are “upward” and “above” (reaching their absolute limit mythologically in the perfect heights of the highest heavenly realms) and what undesirable evils are “downward” and “below” (reaching their absolute limit in the dreadful depths of the lowest regions of hell), along with what leads us “forward” (toward ultimately desirable goods and goals) and what leads us “backward” (toward degeneration and decline). Whether we believe in the existence of God or not, our minds are deeply structured around the existential realities depicted in ancient mythology as heaven and hell. This creates an orientational sense that acts like a lens through which we automatically evaluate all of our experience for the purpose of acting meaningfully within the world we encounter. It is so essential to how we see “our world”  and behave within it that we can easily take its ongoing presence and influence for granted.

Then there are the social benefits as well, since shared worldviews organize and orient social relationships. Having a shared worldview helps to further promote social predictability, stability, trust, productivity, and group-cohesion, while limiting the stress, fears, and uncertainties associated with excessive amounts of social unpredictability, division, and disorder. Worldviews therefore play a role in meeting many important needs, such as our need for stability, order, predictability, purpose, direction, values, social belonging, group cohesion, productivity, and more.

Somewhat like building and maintaining and renovating a house, forming, maintaining, and reforming your worldview requires a lot of work. Changing the paint or installing new floors are low-cost jobs compared with replacing the foundation or building a brand new house. Likewise adjusting minor opinions and interests takes a lot less work than changing your most basic values and outlooks on life.

Changing one’s worldview can result in significant psychological disorganization and disorientation, as well as potential social rejection and exclusion. So whenever we are faced with the choice of modifying our fundamental viewpoints and values, we intuitively ask ourselves if making these changes is worth the psychological disorientation and emotional stress along with the potential for social rejection and exclusion.

Whenever our worldview is challenged in some significant way, we instinctively ask ourselves if it is worth the costs associated with changing it. More specifically, is it worth experiencing potentially severe psychological disorientation and meaninglessness? Is it worth experiencing prolonged emotional stress and pain? Is it worth possibly being socially rejected by the groups I now belong to? Is it worth having to potentially find new friends or live in isolation? And is it worth the behavioural change required by adjusting my basic orientations and commitments in life? In other words, is it worth the struggles and distress of changing my whole life around? Presented with this, many of us answer no. Because we know that changing an opinion can be just the tip of the iceberg.

Psychological habit and social conformity (along with their desired benefits) are powerful forces. We need to maintain some mental stability and we need close relationships and groups to belong to be healthy. As a result, we will often sacrifice many other things in order to preserve some psychosocial consistency, even if this requires us to rigidly maintain a worldview shared with our family and friends for the purpose of maintaining valued outlooks and relationships.

For a person who has resisted change as much as possible and rigidly maintained the same worldview for a long period of time, there’s a much lower chance he will be able to successfully reform his worldview, even if he is forced to against his will. If somehow the integrity of his worldview is compromised by factors outside of his control to the point that he can no longer maintain his worldview despite doubling and tripling down on it, he will likely be plunged into a hellish state of anxiety and disorientation that he may never successfully come out of. Such an event can destroy a person. From the perspective of ancient mythology, this is associated with a descent to the underworld. Sometimes people come out of this journey changed and stronger than they were before. But sometimes people don’t.

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Sometimes a person goes down into the underworld and never makes it out. Sometimes he’s stuck there for good. While death can be a pathway to resurrection, sometimes a person doesn’t make it all the way through. Not everyone who dies is resurrected anew. Sometimes people just die.

And we know the risks and costs of dying, and so we resist voluntarily journeying into it, including the many deaths involved in changing one’s basic worldview. In summary, we know our worldviews provide us with psychosocial organization and orientation—even if it is faulty and less than ideal—and we know this helps create necessary psychosocial stability, predictability, purpose, direction, and cohesion, without which we would be subject to overwhelming complexity, stress, and disorientation leading to dreadful immobility. And we know the risks and costs and many deaths involved in changing the worldview structures we have learned to live by.

Indeed, changing a worldview is no small thing.

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