Thursday, July 7, 2011

Afraid To Admit You're Wrong? It May Not Totally Be Your Fault

Cognitive Dissonance Is The Enabler For Self-Delusion

By David Miranda

Social psychologist, Leon Festinger, coined the term "cognitive dissonance" about half a century ago. It refers to "the state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent."

We have all been guilty of self-delusion at one time or another in our lives. Some more than others. Examples - While eating junk food on the couch watching TV, "I know I should eat healthier and exercise, but I'm too busy and, furthermore, I'm having a Diet Coke with these Cheetos."

Cognitive dissonance is pervasive, as well, in the business world. Businesses are, sometimes, self-delusional in justifying their performance, as in, "we outsource job overseas to help the economy" or "importing more and more goods from overseas helps keep the price of goods to American consumers affordable".

Elliot Aronson, a social psychologist and professor emeritus of psychology at UC Santa Cruz is co-author of a new book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). He says our brains work hard to make us think we are doing the right thing, even in the face of sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21.

They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group's leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20.

Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech's own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.)

Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren't going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.

At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. "And mighty is the word of God," she told her followers, "and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room."

The group's mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group's members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them.

What's the lesson here?

We're human, not sheep. Cognitive dissonance may explain the phenomenon, but doesn't justify self-delusion. It's called free will and conscience.

With proper attribution to Abraham Lincoln, "You can delude some of the people some of the time, but you can't delude all of the people all of the time.