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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

I drew the cartoon on the right for a page on Laraine's website, in which she introduces "cognitive dissonance" to readers of her books (as part of a larger effort to "build background knowledge bit-by-bit"). I'm picking up her thread because ever since I learned about this concept from psychology, it has been indispensable in my understanding of how a part of the population functions. All through my life, I have observed with wonderment people who are seemingly able to entertain simultaneously two conflicting opinions about themselves and to do this over extended periods of time. Cognitive dissonance gives a name to this phenomenon, and studies dealing with it investigate the mechanisms people employ to neutralize its effects.

A particular common one is "it's not my fault." This is very popular, for example, with obese people who know they eat too much, but are nevertheless unwilling to change their eating habits. A popular it's-not-my-fault ploy in this case is to blame one's genes—I actually have seen this used explicitly in a food ad! Of course, if genes were to blame for the obesity epidemic hitting the Western countries (the US is not alone in this), we would have to assume that some mega-sized mutations happened over the last two generations—but people looking for an excuse will never question its underlying premises (another common ploy is to dismiss the simple arithmetic underlying the relation between calories burned and units of physical exercise as "useless" or "questionable" math).

More of my musings on this topic (I mean cognitive dissonance, not obese people!) in the comments...

12 comments:

Ulrich said...

The psychologist L. Festinger coined the term "cognitive dissonance" in connection with observations he and two colleagues made when they infiltrated a doomsday cult whose leader had predicted the end of the world for a day that then passed, with the world still in existence. The explanation: The believers prayed so hard that God had mercy.

End-of-the-world hoaxes are indeed a fertile ground for studying cognitive dissonance in action. Since it's apparently difficult for people to admit that they fell for hoax--it would make them look stupid--they have to come up with different explanations. The preacher Harold Camping has made this his specialty, and it is indeed fascinating to hear what he and his followers have to say when yet another of his doomsday predictions failed (like yesterday)--the last time it was "I simply miscalculated".

Ulrich said...

Or what about Donald Trump, who once believed in single-payer health insurance as the most rational option for getting everyone insured, but came out against any government involvement as he tries to run for president on the Republican ticket. Did he really convince himself that he truly changed his mind? Or is he cynical enough to tell himself that this is what it takes to get the nomination?

What about TV evangelists, who, if they read the New Testament at all, must know that Jesus had an almost visceral dislike of the rich, but nevertheless amass riches through what I consider the longest-running scam on TV? Pat Robertson owns gold (or diamond or whatever) mines in Africa, which he visits on private planes. How does he live with himself? Perhaps he knows what all scam artists know: "There are gullible people out there who are just waiting to be milked out of their money, and that's the business I'm in." And in his case, it's paying handsomely--thank you very much!

Ulrich said...

Which brings me to my favorite candidates when it comes to cognitive dissonance--fundamental Christians who claim to believe in a literal interpretation of the bible, but violate, if not its letter, then its spirit as a matter of course. I mean, if you are against homosexuality b/c Leviticus says so, you must also advocate the stoning of adulterous wives, b/c Leviticus demands that, too. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, how can you respond to your political enemies with such venom and hatred when Jesus explicitly tells you to "love your neighbor" or "turn the other cheek"?

Ulrich said...

A follow-up on yesterday's non-happening rapture. A follower of Camping, who drove with his family all the way from Maryland to Camping's headquarters in California to witness the rapture, was quoted as saying "I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth." I understand this hope, in a way, and it's not a sign of cognitive dissonance, which only kicks in when the person is not able to admit the obvious after the fact, that he has been had by a charlatan.

Heika said...

Hi Ulrich,

What I find fascinating is that some of the people who were convinced May 21st would signal the end of the world haven't given up on the idea just because a doomsday prediction failed once again. They just started talking about 2012 as the year when the world would end. I don't know if that's cognitive dissonance or just plain old stupidity.

Ulrich said...

@Heika: Yes, indeed. It seems to me that stupidity is an iron-clad defense against cognitive dissonance: If you are too stupid to even realize the contradictions in your behavior and stated beliefs, you cannot be bothered by them.

And come to think of it, ignorance is as effective for practical purposes. It may well be that many fundamentalists do not see the contradictions between their behavior and what the bible says b/c they never read the good book in the first place--they simply take their reverends or evangelists at their word, and these folks are selective according to their own agenda.

fikink said...

Ulrich, check this out. http://www.thefilterbubble.com/ted-talk

I think this adds a real insight into what we are observing. As Pariser notes, algorithms have no embedded ethics.

Laraine Flemming said...

@fikink Wow, This video is so spooky. I've been vaguely aware of the filtering happening due to the way in which I would write something in g-mail and suddenly up would pop ads for things I had just written about.

And now I understand why some hot shot Google exec was saying, soon Google would know what we wanted to look for before we ourselves did.

As I see it, if this keeps up, there won't be any more cognitive dissonance because the "gatekeepers" will make sure we aren't exposed to anything that makes us uncomfortable.

I am so buying this book! Thank you for bringing this to Ulrich's attention and therefore to mine. (He does write the best posts if I do say so myself; I'm glad you are reading them along with me)

fikink said...

Bob Dylan, who turns 70 today, wrote a very interesting song back in '65(?) called Highway 61. In recent years, I've regarded it as a prescient view of the Internet. It can be insidious.

Heika said...

@Ulrich, I just read Camping's response to reporters asking him, so what's the scoop? The day of judgment came and went and we are still here. Apparently May 21st was the spiritual end of the world. The PHYSICAL end of the world will come on October 21st of this year. Write that down now on your calendar.

His comments deserve a direct quote. Talk about cognitive dissonance!

" 'When you study the Bible, you’re always learning,' said Camping. 'We had all of our dates correct, we had all of the proofs correct. … Every proof, every sign is all correct. The only thing is, God had not opened our eyes yet to the fact that May 21 was a spiritual coming where as we thought it was a physical coming.'"

The sad truth is that some of his followers believed him and sold everything. I wonder if they are still with him after this. Based on what I have read about doomsday cults, I suspect that they are.

Ulrich said...

@fikink: I, too, am grateful for the link, and I agree with @Heika that one can look at filtering as an attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance for people who cannot live with it, at least when it comes to news.

I would only add that private news providers, like network TV, whose earnings depend on the number of viewers tuned in, have been filtering for a long time in the sense that they try to attract viewers by presenting them with news they want to hear. That's why a public company like the BBC is so much more informative b/c they must, by charter, present (or try to present) news in an unbiased way. There is a deep irony in this...

As to Campion's followers: I'm ready to give up--this goes way beyond cognitive dissonance. He is a charlatan IMO, but his followers? I don't know--as I said before, I understand, to a degree, a person whose hope is for the world to go down, but how can one fall for the same hoax time and time again? It must be a sign of a deep psychosis.

And I didn't know Dylan was practically my age-12 days. Highway 61 is on my favorite album of his--haven't listened to it for a while, but will do this later today. BTW I just learned that the son of a step-cousin of mine will be playing (with his band) at a concert in Dylan's honor in Cologne.

fikink said...

Ulrich, I will be very interested in hearing your reaction to Highway 61's lyrics in the context of the Internet. I claim this as an original thought, if there is such a thing, and have never heard anyone describe it in these terms since the advent of the Web. But, of course, Dylan was a master of the ridiculous and the sublime, chaos and order. I have been listening to him since I was 15.