What connects resistance to new scientific theories,
religious persecution, racial prejudice, and political partisanship? The answer
is a psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. Although this
topic often comes up in the context of religion, few people seem to appreciate
that cognitive dissonance is not a rare event experienced only by those with
strong religious beliefs, but rather a known flaw in the operating system of
the human mind. We are all subject to its effects, to varying degrees, and a
widespread comprehension of this idea has the potential to be the greatest
advance for human culture in living memory.
Let us begin by looking at recent research
into the behaviour of people with strong political affiliations, as recently
reported in the Washington post:
Partisans who watch presidential debates
invariably think their guy won. When talking heads provide opinions after the
debate, partisans regularly feel the people with whom they agree are making
careful, reasoned arguments, whereas the people they disagree with sound like
they have cloth for brains.
Unvaryingly, partisans also believe that partisans on the other side are far
more ideologically extreme than they actually are, said Stanford University psychologist Mark
Lepper, who has studied how people watch presidential debates.
The article continues:
The result reflects a larger phenomenon in which people routinely discount
information that threatens their preexisting beliefs, said Emory
Westen, who has conducted brain-scan experiments that show partisans swiftly
spot hypocrisy and inconsistencies – but only in the opposing candidate.
When presented with evidence showing the flaws of their candidate, the same
brain regions that Kaplan studied lighted up – only this time partisans were
unconsciously turning down feelings of aversion and unpleasantness.
Although the brain
scans of political partisans are a recent addition to the body of published
research, the underlying issue has been an established part of psychology for
half a century.
In 1949, Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman
demonstrated that despite the aphorism ‘seeing is believing’, the reverse is
often the case – our beliefs can dictate what we perceive. The two psychologists
ran a unique experiment for which they created a deck of normal playing cards
with one subtle difference: some of the cards had suit symbols that were colour
reversed, that is, some of the hearts were printed black, some of the spades
were printed red and so forth. These altered cards were shuffled into a normal
deck and were then displayed one at a time to the test subjects, who were asked
to identify them as fast as possible. Initially, the cards were shown for such a
short time interval that accurate identification was essentially impossible,
then the display time was gradually lengthened until all the cards were
identified. Although all of the subjects were eventually able to identify all of
the cards no-one noticed that there was anything unusual about the deck.
When facing a black four of hearts, people
would see it either as a four of spades or as a perfectly normal red four of
hearts – their expectations about what a four of hearts should look like
dictated what they actually saw. As the display times lengthened, people
did eventually begin to notice that something was amiss, but they could not
determine what was wrong.
Quotes from the transcripts are particularly
revealing. One person, gazing at a red six of spades, responded: “That’s the
six of spades, but there’s something wrong with it – the black spade has a red
border.” Lengthening the display time increased the confusion and hesitation
experienced. One exasperated participant reported: “I can’t make the suit out,
whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what
colour it is now or whether it’s a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure what a
spade looks like. My God!”
In the 1950s, studies of this kind led Leon
Festinger and his colleagues at Stanford University to
develop the theory of cognitive dissonance. This holds that when a
person is facing contradictory cognitions there is a driving force that compels
their mind to acquire or invent new beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, in
order to reduce the conflict (or dissonance) between these thoughts. In
essence, cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling that people
experience when confronted by things that ‘should not be, but are’.
When the force of the dissonance is
sufficiently strong, it leads to intense emotional responses such as anger,
fear or hostility. Extreme responses may occur in pathological cases of
unresolved cognitive dissonance, such as incidents of people blowing up abortion
clinics in the name of Jesus. The drive to avoid cognitive dissonance can be so
strong that people sometimes react to disconfirming evidence by strengthening
their original beliefs and creating rationalisations to dismiss the
disconfirming evidence. This is especially problematic when people have
committed to a belief publicly.
There are three basic strategies a mind will employ to reduce cognitive
- Adopt what other people believe: this is related to what is commonly called peer pressure, and provides an explanation for the apparently irrational need children sometimes display for some item that their peer group has adopted. Even in younger children, the need to conform to social pressures is a powerful drive.
- Apply pressure to people who believe differently: this is what we can see underlying the case of Wilhelm Reich’s persecution by the FDA, and in all manner of religious and other persecutions throughout history.
- Make the person who believes differently significantly different from oneself: this is the psychological origin of the religious label ‘heretic’ and also the scientific notion of a ‘pseudo-scientist’. It is also the origin of such horrors as ethnic cleansing.
Of course, while we might be able to spot
these behaviours in other people, we are less likely to detect them in
ourselves. In particular, many scientists, secure in their belief in the
objectivity of the scientific process, never consider that science itself might
be subject to problems originating from this phenomenon despite widespread
documentation to the contrary.
The celebrated philosopher of science
Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
(1962), noted how the effects of cognitive dissonance applied to the scientific
...novelty emerges only with difficulty,
manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.
Initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under
circumstances where an anomaly is later to be observed.
Kuhn illustrated this state of affairs with
the case of William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus. It was observed
seventeen times by different astronomers from 1600 through to 1781, and none of
these observations made any sense if the object being observed was a star (the
prevailing assumption about most lights in the sky at the time). Herschel
suggested that the ‘star’ might have a planetary orbit, and suddenly it all
made sense. After this shift in perception, which was caused by a change in the
way astronomers thought about old observations, suddenly everyone was seeing
An equally famous example is the case of
Alfred Wegener, who in 1915 published a shocking new theory that the Earth’s
continents had once been contiguous. He claimed that over millions of years
this continent split into separate segments which drifted apart into their
current arrangement. This theory, dubbed ‘continental drift’ was supported by
extensive geological evidence. Still, British and American geologists laughed
and called the idea impossible, and Wegener died in 1930 as an intellectual pariah.
Today, Wegener’s theory is taught to every schoolchild, and when we look at a
map of the world we consider this once impossible theory to be self-evident.
Knowledge of cognitive dissonance is
relatively widespread among modern intellectuals, yet the benefit of this
knowledge has been severely limited by partisan effects. People are quite
capable of spotting cognitive dissonance in people with opposing
beliefs, but seem utterly unable to recognize it within themselves.
But make no mistake: whoever you
are, whatever your belief system, you have been affected by your own cognitive
dissonance in the past, and you will be affected by your own cognitive dissonance
in the future. It occurs with any and all belief systems, whether
religious, scientific or otherwise, and no choice of belief system allows you
to escape it since all mental states are founded upon beliefs. Even a diehard
agnostic still has beliefs locked up in their idiolect, and in their conceptions
of self and society.
The situation is not hopeless, however, as
it is possible to control and minimise the effects with experience and practice,
or by patching our belief systems with appropriate philosophies. To begin with,
however, you will need to observe or recall an instance of you yourself being
affected by your own cognitive dissonance.
Watch for situations that cause you to
react in an extreme fashion, or that trigger an unexpected fit of rage, or examine
cases where you have taken a mental step to make a group of people
significantly different from yourself (perhaps an opposing political party, or
contrary religious stance, or even people who like a particular sport or game
you hate). Until you perceive an incidence of cognitive dissonance in your own
life, you may struggle to believe that it affects you, but make no mistake –
you are human, and this phenomenon occurs as a consequence of having a human
mind. No-one escapes it.
The rise in the diversity of races,
cultures, religions and media in our pluralistic societies have arguably caused
a corresponding increase in the incidence of cognitive dissonance, expressed as
intolerances of all kinds. Fractious attitudes in religious matters and political
partisanship only intensify the problem. If we could truly get to grips with the
issue of cognitive dissonance in our modern world, we would gain the potential
to solve a great many of our global problems. Until we learn to effectively communicate
with each other despite the massive variations in our respective belief systems
there is little hope of serious social progress. And this communication will doubtless
flounder unless we manage to keep our own cognitive dissonance on a tight
Become someone exceptional – tackle this
problem within yourself. Debug the operating system of your own mind by working
on your responses when encountering dissonant beliefs, and try to avoid mental
models that create hostile ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions. Once we have all won our
own private battles, then we can take the fight to a wider stage, and perhaps
make a better world.
The opening image is Dissonance by Sungsook Setton, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.