Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Handy Concept #2 — Cognitive Dissonance

     Intellectual Toolbox Week continues, with a concept that is something of a flashlight, to help understand a woefully common condition. 

Cognitive dissonance

"A man with a conviction is hard to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point."
                                   -- When Prophecy Fails
     Cognitive dissonance is why you should never argue with Tea Party members. 
     It is the established psychological phenomenon that, in the face of being shown to be wrong, many will cling to their error even more tightly, and shut out the conflicting information, to avoid the grating clash of having their core beliefs scrape against reality (hence "dissonance.")
     “Presented with evidence unequivocal and undeniable” that a certain belief is mistaken, they nevertheless “frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than even before," wrote three psychologists from the University of Minnesota, Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter in their classic study, When Prophecy Fails. 
     Published in 1956, the book was written by researchers who infiltrated a cult led by an Oak Park housewife, Dorothy Martin, who believed—and convinced her neighbors to believe—that the world would end on Dec. 21, 1954, and she and her followers would be swept up to heaven by flying saucers.  You can read my column about the Oak Park doomsday cult by clicking here.
     The world didn't end, but Martin and certain of her crew believed even harder in the saucers, and in a doomsday that had been postponed. In fact, they worked harder to win new recruits. 
    Why? The personalities of many people are closely intertwined with their fallacious beliefs— their faith, their prejudices, their extreme political positions are accepted as givens and beyond evaluation of question. On the other hand, the non-existence of angels, the desirability of a certain policy of the president's, the need for gun laws, are not ideas they can entertain, because to do so would threaten what they see as the core of their existence. It's a matter of pride, and maintaining inner harmony. They'd rather be wrong than admit to being wrong and adjust their attitudes.
     This is why I stopped debating politics with a lot of people. I am not the Idiot Police, and if someone wants to cling to folly, that is their business, their misfortune. Sure, it's tempting to do otherwise—it's our misfortune too, since they often insist their error become our dogma. When you see someone posting on the dangers of vaccines, you want to say, "Surgery is dangerous, too. People die. All the time. Are you against surgery too? What about car travel?"
     It gets you nowhere. 
     By the way, the flying saucer cult that Dorothy Martin founded, the Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara, still operates to this very day, in Mount Shasta, California. Delusion takes on a life of its own. You can't stop it, you can only recognize it and try to give it a wide berth.


  1. Neil,

    When you are dealing with "true believers", then you probably are wasting your time since their view of themselves is so invested within what nonsense they believe that they are simply not able to change their minds. These are the kinds of people Jesus had in mind when he talked about not casting pearls before swine. On the other hand, there are the "lurkers". These are the people who may not take part in online forums but read the comments and their views can be influenced. I often engage in online debate not for the sake of convincing the opposition but for convincing the onlookers.

  2. David: I do the same thing but am getting a little tired of being called stupid by people who suffer from the Dunning Kruger Effect.

    1. Oh, that's a good one. I of course have experienced it plenty. But didn't know it had a name. Thanks.

  3. No, but people who believe idiotic things passionately sometimes are. Don't blame me for pointing it out.

  4. And also, belief isn't on the table. What I said was they cannot entertain the thought. They prefer to imagine a wildly exaggerated version of the thought -- as you do -- and then condemn that, so they can continue on, their smugness unruffled.

  5. There are smart, brilliant conservatives who deny global warming is a strong possibility or that Obama is actually a political centrist most of the time. It's how smart, decent people in the past could also have idiotic racist or sexist beliefs that were obviously false. Logic and evidence are of no use when two people begin arguing with different assumptions or world views.

  6. Cognitive Dissonance defined.


  7. Nell, the basic belief of conservatives is that the government cannot feed and give the people free money for non-performance. It leads to dependence and laziness. Better to teach fishing than leaching.

  8. The basic belief of conservatives it that government money not spent on themselves is wasted. In attempting to hoover up as much money as possible for themselves, it excludes minorities ("lazy") and the poor ("dependence") from the realm of humanity. I'd let your hypocrisy pass if you were even interested in education ("teach fishing") but you aren't, either. Notice the "anonymous" part. People who aren't full of shit tend not to be ashamed to express their feelings.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.