On foxes, grapes and cognitive dissonance

Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.’ People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.

You probably are familiar with the story above. It is a translation of a latin version of the fable of the fox and the grapes, written by Aesop something like 2500 years ago. The bottom line of the fable is that “any fool can despise what he cannot get”, and it is impressive, I think, how certain aspects of humans haven’t changed one tiny bit in such a long time.

Aesop certainly didn’t know that his fable would have become an example of what, today, is known as cognitive dissonance: the mental distress of an individual who holds contradictory beliefs or whose beliefs are challenged by contradicting evidence. There are tons of examples that I could refer to, but I’m not going there for the sake of avoiding useless controversy. In a nutshell, when we really think that things are in a certain way but there’s proof of the contrary, or when we really want something but that something just isn’t obtainable, we experience feelings of distress that can get us quite uncomfortable, and we humans don’t like feeling uncomfortable: thus, when the dissonance strikes, we take countermeasures to put an end to, or at least reduce, our distress. There are different ways to do that. Quoting straight from the Wikipedia article linked above:


In an example case where a person has adopted the attitude that they will no longer eat high fat food, but eats a high-fat doughnut, the four methods of reduction are:

1. Change behavior or cognition (“I will not eat any more of this doughnut”)

2. Justify behavior or cognition by changing the conflicting cognition (“I’m allowed to cheat every once in a while”)

3. Justify behavior or cognition by adding new cognitions (“I’ll spend 30 extra minutes at the gym to work this off”)

4. Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs (“This doughnut is not high in fat”)


Now, our fox clearly held the belief that the grapes were good enough to satisfy its hunger (why would it try to get them in the first place otherwise?), but the fact that the grapes were far out of its reach—the conflicting evidence—wasn’t something the fox could ignore. So, to justify its giving up on the grapes, instead of ignoring the bleeding obvious conflicting evidence (4), the fox changes the conflicting cognition (2): the grapes go from good to sour without any valid reason to think so.
Well, all in all the fox still does well. It does behave somewhat irrationally, but at least it does that only once.
When it comes to the desirability of defeating ageing, humans fare way worse.

Humans do not want to age biologically (and I’d add they don’t want to die, either, but let’s stick to ageing), because when they do, they get fragile, sick and they lose independence. Unfortunately, for the time being, ageing is not something that can be avoided.
So we have the wish not to age one one side—the cognition—and the conflicting evidence that everybody ages, no matter what you wish.
Now how do your average humans behave with respect to that?

Until they’re young, they can afford ignoring ageing altogether and behaving as if the problem will never touch them (ignoring conflicting evidence, 4). At some point it dawns on them that they will age, like everyone else, and they’re quick to give up on the wish not to age (changing the conflicting cognition, 2), undoubtedly helped by the fact that their predecessors have had the exact same problem and came up with a collection of entirely groundless pro-ageing justifications that nowadays are basically part of the collective subconscious. This is attained by means of more applications of 2 , 4, and 3: first people will convince themselves that ageing isn’t all that bad—which is again number 2, changing the conflicting cognition—ignoring the bleeding obvious fact (4) that getting old implies getting sicker (they still think that not everyone gets the diseases of old age, which is crazy nonsense), and then they will sugarcoat it, by throwing into the mix (adding new cognitions, 3) either completely unrelated things (e.g. “with ageing comes experience”, except that experience bears no connection whatsoever with biological ageing) or by disqualifying the defeat of ageing with alleged reasons (3) that’d make it undesirable (the usual suspects we have dealt with in the Advocacy section: overpopulation, meaning of life, everliving tyrants and the lot. As a sidenote, how often is everlasting youth—let alone immortality— depicted as invariably having nefarious consequences without the smallest shred of first-hand evidence? I’ve lost track). It’s interesting to note that in order to be able to bring forward these “reasons”, they need to ignore the evidence that shows that they’re not valid reasons at all, i.e. they fall back again onto number 4.
That’s one intricate mess of logical fallacies right there.

Now, don’t get me wrong: as reiterated elsewhere, as long as we had no clue as to how can we defeat ageing, this still made some sense—it helped us coping with the inevitable. Today, though, we’d better flush 2, 3 and 4 down the toilet and embrace number 1: change behaviour. Admit that ageing is terrible, realize that there are no excuses for it, stop defending it and stop trying to convince oneself that ageing is desirable; start supporting rejuvenation research and push to make things happen.
At that point the wish for everlasting youth won’t be a conflicting cognition anymore—its fulfillment will be just a matter of patience.