Thursday, 26 January 2012

Cognitive Dissonance

'Cognitive dissonance' is a term that I hear surprisingly often these days.

It is sometimes described as the discomfort we feel when we hold two ideas that clash or conflict with each other.  It can also describe the difference between an attitude we hold and a behaviour that is inconsistent with the attitude.

As Lewis Black once said, "When an environmentalist buys an SUV they might as well be filling the fuel tank with cognitive dissonance."

When we are confronted with such a discrepancy we either have to admit that we were wrong or dismiss the evidence.  Tragically most people dismiss the evidence.

If we are able to see how dissonance works in our own lives we  might be able to reduce the  tendency to suffer unnecessary stress.  For example, unhappy smokers have to do one of two things - quit smoking or justify smoking. (Happy smokers can just enjoy it of course!)

Stress!  (A picture rescued from the archives here!

In my case I found that I had to quit church or find a way to justify attending even though I could see all the gaps in the arguments for a belief in God.  Ultimately, and for me personally, quitting church seemed to be the more intellectually honest of the two.  Since that time I wonder whether I can claim that I have no cognitive dissonance relating to my religious views.  I presume that I am not the right person to judge that.

It has been said that everyone can see a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite.  They do it by reducing the dissonance in some way that allows them to continue to think well of themselves.  This does not just apply to bad or evil people, but equally to good people who can fall for the fallacy of 'confirmation bias' just as easily.

In fact, we all see that people behave in surprising ways.  When a prophecy fails, such as Harold Camping's end of the world in 2011, you might assume that his followers would have given up their beliefs.  But dissonance theory predicts the opposite.  You are much more likely to dismiss the contradictory information without a thought than to change a treasured belief.

Many of Camping's followers have probably come out of 2011 with a stronger belief in him.  They would find some sort of religious explanation.  "Thanks to the belief of our little band, God has spared the world again."

I wonder how many false biases I have self-confirmed today!

No comments: