Why Smart People Believe Weird Things
June 21, 2004 6:45 AM   Subscribe

On Cognitive Dissonance
"As a behavioral psychologist, I have studied people's reactions to contradiction and inconsistency. We are capable of convincing ourselves of something, and the more evidence that builds up to contradict us the more we believe it.

For more than 40 years, social psychologists have studied the phenomenon of "cognitive dissonance" - what happens when people have pieces of information on the same subject that are inconsistent. The presence of contradictions is psychologically unpleasant, and people do whatever it takes to resolve the inconsistency."

Many in the field posit that tension between contradictory thoughts and feelings are what constitutes consciousness. It doesn't seem to me this qualifies as it appears to be highly dysfunctional and not a natural and normal tension. What say you who are more qualified?
posted by nofundy (31 comments total)

 
it's a very thoughtful and scholarly-SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP! IT'A ALL BULLSHIT SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP! NEENER NEENER NEENER! I'M NOT LISTENING!
posted by quonsar at 6:51 AM on June 21, 2004


"cognitive dissonance" is the new "all your base"
posted by techgnollogic at 6:57 AM on June 21, 2004


"...[the] tension between contradictory thoughts and feelings are what constitutes consciousness.
You don't need to be an expert to recognize that that is hand-waving of the highest-order.

If the idea is that consciousness is the process of the resolution of conflicting lower-level priorities, then maybe there's something to it. But even that restatement is a bit vacuous.

I disagree with your contention that dissonance in thoughts and feelings is highly dysfunctional and unnatural. Not because I think "consciousness" relies upon that dissonance; but because I think that dissonance is inevitable and therefore natural.

As it happens, I'd make a counter proposal: that what we call "cognitive dissonance" comes about as the result of people attempting consistency inappropriately. That is, they have a preferred mode of description which they attempt to apply indiscriminately. Reality bites back and that description is often less than useless. They ignore reality. Cognitive dissonance results.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:11 AM on June 21, 2004


THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO CONNECTION WHATSOEVER BETWEEN IRAQ AND AL QAEDA!
posted by hama7 at 7:19 AM on June 21, 2004


I knew it! This thread was a sly way to discuss Presedent Bush and his, ahem, "war" in "Iraq!"

You partisans are getting REALLY good at this, and I say, bravo dear boy, bravo.
posted by Quartermass at 7:40 AM on June 21, 2004


You don't need to be an expert to recognize that that is hand-waving of the highest-order.

EB, I don't think I've read anything about consciousness that didn't seem to involve at least low-order hand-waving.

Perhaps there are some areas of research that really are "conducted."
posted by weston at 7:40 AM on June 21, 2004


what we call "cognitive dissonance" comes about as the result of people attempting consistency inappropriately -- Ethereal Bligh
I agree with you Mr. Bligh. Nofundy's mistake is in thinking that anything is "natural or normal," or that consciousness is "supposed to be" one thing or the other. In other contexts, this is called narratizing, or trying to fit a unique information into a pre-existing story line. If the new information doesn't fit, it is congnitively dissonant, and has to be spun off into a new story line. Our consciousness may consist of hundreds, of not thousands of these story lines -- rather like the parallel universes of string theory.
posted by Faze at 7:47 AM on June 21, 2004


Yes, but something that is natural can still be dysfunctional. And in fact Ethereal's (we are on a first name basis) counter proposal describes a dysfunctional response, although you can argue that it is natural.
posted by sic at 7:55 AM on June 21, 2004


I like the string theory bit.

Faze, do you mean that nothing can be considered "normal or natural" because our perception of reality is helplessly subjective? Is it impossible to generalize human reaction to certain stimuli?

You find out that a loved one has died, normal reaction= sadness?
posted by sic at 8:06 AM on June 21, 2004


call me old fashioned but we called Cog Diss LYING
posted by Postroad at 8:24 AM on June 21, 2004


Many in the field posit that tension between contradictory thoughts and feelings are what constitutes consciousness.

Huh? Assuming I exhibit consciousness while making breakfast, how does that involve contradictory thoughts and feelings?

Maybe I'm just not obtuse enough to get it.
posted by beth at 8:42 AM on June 21, 2004


The trouble with Cognitive Dissonance is that it can be used to "explain" everything from Nazism to the willingness of otherwise intelligent people to sit in little boxes and be micromanaged by twits.
posted by tommasz at 9:10 AM on June 21, 2004


See also: Confirmation bias.

Please note that it can affect both sides in any debate.
posted by moonbiter at 9:17 AM on June 21, 2004


While cognitive dissonance is undeniably important in attitude change, in this case it seems more important to focus on the processes that can affect decision-making in small, insular groups, namely groupthink and group polarization.

Oh, and of course all these explanations are based on the (possibly too charitable) assumption that the Bush administration isn't just cynically lying to us.
posted by myeviltwin at 9:58 AM on June 21, 2004


If by "cognitive dissonance" one means to refer to the discomfort of learning that new evidence isn't entirely consistent with one's current ideas, then I think it's pretty safe to discuss it. Yes, I feel such discomfort. I don't like being wrong, and many of my ideas are interdependent, so if I learn something new about the prevalence and effects of global warming, say, I may have to reconsider and adjust my political opinions, my opinions of friends with whom I have disagreed on this and related topics, etc. I generally carry my opinions ready-formed in a bag to be pulled out unreflectively upon demand, and having to reflect upon and think through them all again is taxing and costly. The less I have to do it, the better.

tommasz is right, though - cognitive dissonance as a scientific theory of behavior is rife with problems, paramount among them being its inability to discriminate which course of action a person might take to resolve the dissonance. In fact, under the common paradigm, it is difficult to think of behaviors that would be inconsistent with the theory that aren't also ruled out by a much simpler theory of minimal consistency. Besides, there are intuitively compelling (and empirically consistent!) alternative theories of behavior. See Bem's Self-Perception theory (and its antecedents in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche!). Also, standard Bayesian theories of updating prior beliefs with new information.

Of course, cognitive dissonance isn't usually discussed as a theory of behavior but of motivation. I don't know to what extent the theory is useful or practical, but it is good for spinning anecdotes and writing comics.

On preview: what myeviltwin said.
posted by dilettanti at 10:14 AM on June 21, 2004


While we're (sort of) on the subject, it's interesting to read the political discussions here in the light of a recent social psych paper called "Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs." From the abstract:
Even under conditions of effortful processing, attitudes toward a social policy depended almost exclusively upon the stated position of one’s political party. This effect overwhelmed the impact of both the policy’s objective content and participants’ ideological beliefs, and it was driven by a shift in the assumed factual qualities of the policy and in its perceived moral connotations. Nevertheless, participants denied having been influenced by their political group, although they believed
that other individuals, especially their ideological adversaries, would be so influenced.
Unfortunately, the PDF doesn't seem to be available online, but I can email interested people a copy.
posted by myeviltwin at 10:53 AM on June 21, 2004


Consciousness can't be explained. You can categorize endlessly ("consciousness is a function of neural activity; neural activity is a function of X; X is a function of..."). Consciousness (and Existence) just is.
posted by Gyan at 11:01 AM on June 21, 2004


"Picture the scene: in November, as polls close across the United States, an anxious Osama bin Laden awaits the first predictions of the result. If President Bush loses, will the world's most famous terrorist claim victory? No. He will more likely be despondent. Bin Laden sees his struggle with the US in apocalyptic terms."
posted by homunculus at 11:12 AM on June 21, 2004


The recent foot & mouth crisis in British farming brought lots of farmers onto local radio, distraught at the fate that was befalling their beloved cattle (killed and burned) - whom they claimed to feel as lovingly toward as "foster children".

Call social services! There's a family fattening up their foster-child for slaughter so they can profit from the child's corpse!

If the delusion has great value for them, they'll compartmentalise the less desirable thought, section it off from what they wish to believe to further their desires, and live in delusion, not fully connected with themselves.

Maybe people like Bush, and (as has been widely speculated) Blair, can turn it on and off, in public and private, according to their need, living in a rabbit-warren of thoughts, never looking down on the horrble tangle of inconsistency they've created, and so never having to resolve any contradictions until much later when it nolonger serves their desires.

As for consciousness being dependent on the tension between contradictory thoughts and feelings - it's as ridiculous as suggesting you can only hear when you're listening to discordant music.
posted by Blue Stone at 11:29 AM on June 21, 2004


Consciousness can't be explained. You can categorize endlessly ("consciousness is a function of neural activity; neural activity is a function of X; X is a function of..."). Consciousness (and Existence) just is.
posted by Gyan at 11:01 AM PST on June 21


Strange Loops?

As for consciousness being dependent on the tension between contradictory thoughts and feelings

Not my supposition, paraphrasing Douglas Hofstadter, so you may be correct. Anyone care to expound?
posted by nofundy at 11:58 AM on June 21, 2004


nofundy: That still doesn't explain the essence of consciousness (I assume you're referring to GEB).

Consciousness is the agency by which we seem to exist. I don't think it is fundamentally possible for an observer to disassemble its self.
posted by Gyan at 12:03 PM on June 21, 2004


The Buddha said that "Consciousness is dependent upon that material thing." Which seems to have been taken to mean the brain.
posted by Blue Stone at 12:07 PM on June 21, 2004


"The commission agreed that there were contacts, but has found no evidence that these meetings ever led to any activity. So were Bush and Cheney lying or distorting the facts to suggest in the buildup to the Iraq war that such a link existed? Are they lying about it now? Not necessarily."


"Most experts have agreed that an action on the magnitude of a mass genocide, with the resultant possible ramifications, could not have proceeded without Hitler's personal approval. Until now, no written decision from Hitler has been found, although there are compelling indications that a verbal decision was certainly given. [9] The recent discoveries cannot be called a written decision (which, if it ever existed, was almost certainly destroyed by the end of the war), but they are certainly unequivocal confirmation that a clear decision was taken by Hitler. Even better, they help pinpoint the time it was taken."

Godwin away folks.
posted by clavdivs at 12:24 PM on June 21, 2004


I would say the essence of consciousness is the unique ability of self reference and self modification. I could easily be wrong as I am no expert in the field but this makes sense to me. (yes, I was referring to GEB)

An observer can only disassemble itself as far "down" as the levels which s/he is aware of and can never disassemble the neural, or "hardware" level, as it has a "built-in" set of rules.

Buddha was correct it seems BlueStone. But to say that consciousness cannot be explained just because it is built upon that platform appears incorrect to me.

BTW, thanks for the great input everyone.
posted by nofundy at 12:39 PM on June 21, 2004


clav makes a good post, what can be called cognitive dissonance over the Iraq / Al Qaeda situation may be more a matter of what worldview one takes. If I think that any contact between Al Qaeda and Iraq is incredibly dangerous, it will lead me to empahsize the contact and not the result. If I am looking for direct collaboration in regards to specific events, I will emphasize the results and not the contacts.

You can see it in this thread, for example Hama7 sees the news reports which say that Iraq / Al Qaeda had no meaningful relationship and reads it as "there is absolutely no connection", he then emphasizes the connections that do exist, which demolish the idea that they had no connection. Others will say, yes they have a connection, but that connection didn't result in anyting worth a war, but of course that's a whole different argument with even more dissonance.
posted by chaz at 12:48 PM on June 21, 2004


"The governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia helped set the stage for the Sept. 11 attacks by cutting deals with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden that allowed his al-Qaida terror network to flourish, according to several senior members of the Sept. 11 commission and U.S. counter-terrorism officials."
posted by homunculus at 12:51 PM on June 21, 2004


nofundy: I don't think we're referring to the exact same thing. By consciousness, I don't mean the mechanism of how qualia are processed and integrated "smoothly", but to the fact that there is such a thing as perception/observation in the first place.
posted by Gyan at 2:42 PM on June 21, 2004


There's a lot of confusion in this thread between being rationally unpersuaded of a thing and cognitive dissonance. The latter is irrational, immune to the most compelling evidence and grasping at the most tenuous. What clav seems to be saying is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: a truism if there ever was one but it's hardly a damn cassus belli!

Meanwhile, hama7 seems to be setting an example (rather than his intended counterexample) of c.d. (if I may be forgiven the abbreviation), in that he cites sources of exceedingly dim repute merely because they say what he wants to beleive, rather then the more abundant and often vastly more credible sources that do not.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:25 PM on June 21, 2004


Postroad call me old fashioned but we called Cog Diss LYING

In order to be lying, a person has to be aware that what they're saying is incorrect in some important way. If the speaker isn't aware of the incorrectness, which is what cognitive dissonance is all about, they're not lying.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:32 PM on June 21, 2004


In order to be lying, a person has to be aware that what they're saying is incorrect in some important way. If the speaker isn't aware of the incorrectness, which is what cognitive dissonance is all about, they're not lying.

Very true, but one thing this thread is missing is that a person can experience cognitive dissonance without either piece of evidence being provably true or false. Cognitive Dissonance is not Delusion. Delusion is one of the ways people often deal with the experience of Cognitive Dissonance. Different people deal with this experience in different ways in different situations. That's part and parcel of the human experience.

I think one of the reasons that professional psychologists allow this meaning creep is that it's less of a problem to say that you're studying cognitive dissonance in political thought than to say the president is delusional and you're looking for a grant about it.

I read a book by one guy (memory fails me here), saying that since edge detection in vision is such a crucial part of early brain development, that perhaps cognitive dissonance is the way in which we develop intelligence. Okay, it's just a theory, not proven.

The point is that the experience of (okay, let's just say CG) is not in any way bad or destructive. It's inevitable. The really interesting thing is how each person deals with it. It's those differences that make psychologists stay up late dreaming of research grants.
posted by lumpenprole at 8:11 PM on June 21, 2004


As one of the taglines at my World Famous Website has said for few years, 'cognitive dissonance' presumes the presence of cognition.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:59 PM on June 21, 2004


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