January 12, 2011


Cognitive Dissonance (Jonah Lehrer, January 11, 2011, Wired)

That’s right: the demonstration of fraud has made [Jenny] McCarthy even more convinced that vaccines cause autism. (It’s hard to imagine, then, what kind of evidence might shake her conviction.) I bring this up not to pick on McCarthy, but because I think her paradoxical response reflects a deep seated facet of human nature, an irrational quirk that we are all vulnerable to. This is the theory of cognitive dissonance, first proposed by Leon Festinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota. (I’ve blogged about this before.) In the summer of 1954, Festinger was reading the morning newspaper when he encountered a short article about Marion Keech, a housewife in suburban Minneapolis who was convinced that the apocalypse was coming. (Keech was a pseudonym.) She had started getting messages from aliens a few years before, but now the messages were getting eerily specific. According to Sananda, an extra-terrestrial from the planet Clarion who was in regular contact with Keech, human civilization would be destroyed by a massive flood at midnight on December 20, 1954.

Keech’s sci-fi prophecy soon gained a small band of followers. They trusted her divinations, and marked the date of Armageddon on their calendars. Many of them quit their jobs and sold their homes. The cultists didn’t bother buying Christmas presents or making arrangements for New Years Eve, since nothing would exist by then.

Festinger immediately realized that Keech would make a great research subject. He decided to infiltrate the group by pretending to be a true believer. What Festinger wanted to study was the reaction of the cultists on the morning of December 21, when the world wasn’t destroyed and no spaceship appeared. Would Keech recant? What would happen when her prophesy failed?

On the night of December 20, Keech’s followers gathered in her home and waited for instructions from the aliens. Midnight approached. When the clock read 12:01 and there were still no aliens, the cultists began to worry. A few began to cry. The aliens had let them down. But then Keech received a new telegram from outer space, which she quickly transcribed on her notepad. “This little group sitting all night long had spread so much light,” the aliens told her, “that god saved the world from destruction. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” In other words, it was their stubborn faith that had prevented the apocalypse. Although Keech’s predictions had been falsified, the group was now more convinced than ever that the aliens were real. They began proselytizing to others, sending out press releases and recruiting new believers. This is how they reacted to the dissonance of being wrong: by becoming even more certain that they were right.

It’s easy to laugh at the alien cultists, or to criticize the empirical ignorance of those pushing the autism/vaccine link. But it’s also important to realize that everyone is vulnerable to cognitive dissonance, that we all recoil from information that contradicts a deeply held belief. We live in a world overflowing with information and yet we’re still saddled with a brain that knows exactly what kind of information it wants. When the information cuts against our desires, we can’t help but double-down. We will believe almost anything to keep our beliefs from being wrong.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 12, 2011 5:19 PM
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