Cognitive dissonance and Peak Oil

A classical example of cognitive dissonance is the experiment carried out by Festinger and Carlsmith in 1959. They took a group of persons –subjects- and they were asked to work on a very dull and monotonous task. After finishing their task, a small group of these subjects was asked to talk with another subject and try to convince this person that the task was, actually, very interesting. As a reward for this lie, some of them were paid $10 and some others $150. Finally, the subjects were asked to rate the task according to the degree of satisfaction in doing it. Surprisingly, those who were paid only $10 rated more positively the boring task than those who were paid $150. These results were explained by the researchers as “cognitive dissonance” because the subjects were actually finding the task very boring but, at the same time, they told to someone that it was really engaging. Those subjects that were well-paid ($150) didn’t need a justification for their behaviour, whereas the subjects not-so-well paid ($10) couldn’t justify their lies with that small amount of money so they start to believe that it was true.

A similar “cognitive dissonance” situation –but at much large scale- is happening nowadays in our society. We’re continuously told by mass media that North America is entering in a new era of cheap energy. USA will be the next Saudi Arabia in a few years and it will become self-sufficient – thanks to fracking and related techniques – and we all know that Canada has the world’s third largest oil reserves, only after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Well, if this is true, how is it possible that the fuel is at its maximum historic price in all western countries? Why are we paying more and more each time that we have to fill the car’s tank? How come this world economic crisis will never come to an end? Did someone say cognitive dissonance?


EROI: Energy returned on energy invested per fuel (Source: Wikipedia)

In fact, what is happening is that tar sands, shale oil and shale gas are not the miracle that we’ve been told. These energy sources have lower energy density than crude oil, which means that one barrel of crude oil from Saudi Arabia provides much more net energy than the same barrel full of Canadian tar sands. This is because huge amounts of energy and materials are needed as inputs to obtain one barrel of shale oil, whereas a barrel of crude oil requires fewer inputs. And this is without even taking into account the ecological impact of the techniques. Figure above shows the EROI -Energy returned on energy invested- for North America and per fuel source.

But this is not only a matter of net energy, it is also a matter of energy flow; it makes little difference to have a huge amount of oil in reserves if you can only extract few thousand barrels per day. It’s like if I have millions of dollars in my bank account but I’m only allowed to take few hundred per day. Would I think that I’m a millionaire? So, yeah, maybe Canada is the third country by oil reserves, but we’re still the 10th by oil exports and we need to import almost 50% of our total oil supply so we’re far from being self-sufficient.

Imports by country

Rank of countries by oil imports. Bbl/day means billions of barrels per day (Source: Wikipedia)

Oil is what fuels the economy in the industrialized world. Transportation, industrial agriculture, pesticides, and many everyday plastic products are made from crude oil. So now that cheap oil is over, it’s very likely that the economy and our highly-dependent-on-oil way of life are somehow going to be affected. Don’t you think that it would be better to be prepared for this change? Join Transition Kitchener-Waterloo and finish with your cognitive dissonance.


Edited by Sylvie

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  • Yep, You’re 100% correct. We are experiencing “Cognitive Dissonance.” In fact many people believe the media and hype of the “Alleged Certainty” that we are awash in oil. They also believe in “Normalcy Bias” that the world will continue on “normally.” The Old timers believe in “Hereditary Bias” and we haven’t run out yet and we therefore never will. Then we have those people patting each other on the back with their “Confirmation Bias,” and they say “”I agree with me and I always have”. Finally we have “Force Multiplication” leveraging all social factors to our supposed decision.

    I can’t really believe all that stuff because I’ve based my decision on the facts. The Geology facts point towards a real and urgent problem. Thanks.

    • Angel Rodriguez

      Exactly! And the same happens with climate change, the other side of the coin. The question is for how long will society able to ignore the facts.

  • bruce

    Good stuff Angel. Keep the faith. It’s fact-based pieces like yours that will spread the message.