In the 1840s a physician named Ignaz Semmelweis had been witnessing an alarmingly high incidence of a condition known as childbed fever that caused women to die shortly after giving childbirth.
Semmelweis noticed a correlation between the doctors who were assisting in these childbirths and their frequency of other medical duties — notably, autopsies. Semmelweis hypothesized that their work with cadavers in the morgues were spreading the disease to mothers in the delivery room. He proposed that doctors simply wash their hands with a cleansing solution before each child delivery.
Of course this all took place before the advent of germ theory, a time when most medical science was mired in a medieval paradigm fixated on bodily humors. Semmelweis’ breakthrough was laughed at and rejected by the medical community. Patients continued dying. It eventually drove him insane.
The Semmelweis Reflex would eventually be used to describe the tendency to ignore information simply because it does not fit within one’s world view. It’s been applied to recent controversies surrounding climate change, religious freedom, sexual orientation, gender roles and foreign affairs.
So why do we perpetuate all this madness? Is it stubbornness? Is it ignorance? Is it some sort of cultural conditioning?
In the 1950s, Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues led some fascinating research on why human beings often reject reality. His research suggests that the denial of facts, especially when those facts contradict our existing pre-packaged perception of the world, is just as much a result of neuroscience as it is our own hard-headedness.
Denial is, as Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan describes it, a “basic human survival skill.” It fulfills our psychological needs. As a recent piece from Pacific Standard explains:
“If our desire for security requires us to perceive our society as fair and just, we’re likely to dismiss complaints about economic inequality or police brutality. Entertaining such ideas would mean challenging a comforting premise that fulfills a deep-seated need.”
Interestingly, the emergence of more objective facts doesn’t necessarily mean the emergence of greater understanding and acceptance. New research from the American Psychological Association postulates that, “if options such as relying on biased sources of information prove insufficient, many of us simply rely more heavily on “unfalsifiable” assertions—ones that cannot be definitely proven or disproven.”
On a collective level, widespread denial can lead to some pretty devastating emotional, social, political, economical, spiritual and institutional consequences.
But on an individual level, it’s not only dangerous. It’s also a bit heartbreaking. Denial is a defense mechanism. It’s not so much an irrational rejection of the world as it is a deep-seeded human fear that the world will or is, in some way, rejecting us.
Denial. It’s part of our psyche, it’s part of our species, it’s part of who we are. And it’s something we shouldn’t be in denial about.
By the way, that dude is completely gay. But he doesn’t need to be changed or “saved”. He just needs to be accepted.