The Overview Effect and Cognitive Dissonance

May 29, 2011 at 6:26 pm by Frank White
Tags: Cognitive Dissonance, Space Exploration, the Overview Effect

At the most recent ISDC conference, I made a "virtual presentation" on the Overview Effect and Cognitive Dissonance. (My colleagues at Kepler Space University, Bob Krone and Sherry Bell, actually made the presentation for me as part of KSU's "Living in Space" track.)

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term used to describe the state that a person enters when they are holding two conflicting thoughts in their minds at the same time. This is especially painful when the conflicting thoughts are around self-perception. The argument of the paper is that there is a conflict between how the Earth is seen from orbit or the moon as one experiences the Overview Effect (serene and beautiful) and how it is so often seen from the surface as one experiences what some have half-jokingly called "the Underview Effect" (chaotic and not very attractive). I am beginning to think that this dichotomy has been an underlying force of human history for the past half-century, as some 500-plus individuals have gone into space and a network of satellites has created the underpinnings of technological overview.

With six billion people living on the planet, only .00000008 percent have directly experienced the Overview Effect. As one of the astronauts put it to me when I was writing The Overview Effect, it's like a "drop in the ocean" when they come back to describe their experiences. However, with the advent of large-scale commercial spaceflight, this will inevitably begin to change, and the percentages will eventually hit one percent, two percent, and then increasingly much higher numbers. Over time, it is my expectation that a quantitative shift produces a qualitative shift and the cognitive dissonance will be reduced as we gain a new sense of human identity as "Citizens of the Universe."