November 14, 2015


The Virtue of Contradicting Ourselves (Adam Grant, 11/14/15, NY Times)

Leon Festinger, one of the great social psychologists in history, coined the term cognitive dissonance to describe the discomfort you feel if you say or do something that is inconsistent with one of your beliefs. In a series of classic experiments, he and his colleagues demonstrated that people will go to great lengths to avoid this discomfort. If you're against gun control and are paid $100 to give a speech in favor of gun control, your beliefs won't change; you can just say, I was paid so much, I did it for the money. But if you're paid only $1 to give that same speech, you'll actually convince yourself that gun control is a decent idea. If it wasn't, why would you have supported it for such a paltry sum? You lack external justification, so you have to convince yourself that you believe what you said.

To illustrate what Professor Festinger's team found, if you have to make a tough choice between two similarly attractive jobs, you'll feel some dissonance about getting stuck with the negative features of the job you picked and missing out on the positive aspects of the one you declined. That's inconsistent with your decision -- so you'll start rationalizing your decision by convincing yourself that the job you turned down was not so desirable. Inconsistency, begone. And if you've joined a doomsday cult that predicts that the world will end in a flood, when your prophecy doesn't come true, you won't give up on the cult. Unable to bear a change in your beliefs, you'll become even more committed and double down on your efforts to proselytize.

Yet there was a catch: Sometimes people weren't bothered at all by holding inconsistent beliefs. (This was deeply bothersome to many social scientists, who couldn't bear the dissonance of inconsistent studies.) At first it seemed that inconsistency was painful when it gave people a negative self-image, but that didn't explain why rats, monkeys and young children showed dissonance. Then it appeared that people felt dissonance only when their choices had negative consequences, but people still felt dissonance when they wrote something inconsistent with their prior beliefs and then threw it in the trash, never to be seen again.

For years, it remained a mystery why people would feel dissonance even when there were no negative consequences. But recently, it was solved by a team of psychologists led by Eddie Harmon-Jones, a professor at the University of New South Wales.

Using neuroscience to track the activation of different brain regions, Professor Harmon-Jones and colleagues found that inconsistent beliefs really bother us only when they have conflicting implications for action. People have little trouble favoring both abortion rights and tax cuts. But when it comes time to vote, they confront a two-party system that forces them to align with Democrats who are abortion rights advocates but against tax cuts or Republicans who are anti-abortion but for tax cuts. If I'm socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and I want to vote for a candidate with a decent shot at winning, my beliefs are contradictory. One way to reconcile them is to change my opinion on abortion or tax policies. Goodbye, dissonance.

This helps to explain why many people's political beliefs fall on a simple left-right continuum, rather than in more complex combinations. Once, we might have held more nuanced opinions, but in pursuit of consistency, we've long since whitewashed the shades of gray.

Thus the Right and the Left and their terror of deviation.

Posted by at November 14, 2015 5:41 PM