On Cognitive Dissonance
There once was a boy, who was given a pet box turtle. He wanted it to come out of its shell, but it stubbornly refused. He tried knocking on it, squirting water in its face, prying at the hinge, yelling at it, but only got his fingers nipped for his efforts. His grandfather, seeing the difficulty, took the turtle and put it down in the grass, with some lettuce and strawberries nearby. In a few minutes, the turtle was out and crawling around in the sunshine.
It's not a metaphor I'm going to extend very far, but it's an image I like to keep in mind as I kick around the concept of cognitive dissonance. It's a subject I find fascinating, not least because it is stupefyingly ubiquitous. Essentially it is the theory that, when human brains contain two cognitions (ideas, observations, emotions) which are in conflict, we find it uncomfortable. Like having your shoes on the wrong feet, or being hungry, or being too cold, we are driven to resolve the discomfort. We take steps to ease our mental distress, typically by rejecting, trivializing, or compartmentalizing one of the conflicting ideas.
I was listening to a recent episode of the For Good Reason podcast, with Carol Tavris, co-author of Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, which I'm currently reading as a result. She pointed out something which in hindsight is blindingly obvious: dissonance is particularly acute when one of the ideas in conflict is tied into the perception of ourselves. By and large, we all think of ourselves as reasonably smart, kind, good-looking, and above-average drivers. When we screw up in one way or another, dissonance immediately kicks in and generates excuses, dismissals, mitigating circumstances, any kind of self-justification that will enable our self-images to remain undamaged. We rarely perceive the process, because not only are we very good at it, it is entirely unconscious and can even prevent the assimilation of conflicting ideas in the first place.
I can't speak to anyone else, but I have experienced this myself, to the point where the self-justification has even tampered with my memories. I was making a right-hand turn on a rainy night, I got sideswiped by another car, and I was found to be at fault in the accident. When asked by the police whether I saw the other car before turning, I said "No." But inside of a week, after dealing with police reports and insurance agents, I had become so convinced that I had done nothing wrong that I started remembering seeing the other car's headlights in the outside lane, directly in opposition to my statement at the time. It couldn't have been me; it must have been an inattentive lane change by the other car that caused the collision. Maybe I'm right. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm more upset with myself that I was too shaken and incoherent to realize my answers to the police were going to be used against me. The memory still galls; I still see myself making mental excuses. In ultimate hindsight, I recognize the entire incident is fertile ground for dissonance-induced self-justification, and I simply try and drive more carefully.
Cognitive Dissonance and Skepticism
The issues surrounding the Skeptic and Freethought movements are an absolute carnival of cognitive dissonance and self-justification. It's difficult to winnow down, but I'll take one example. Remember, we all carry the notion that we are intelligent and sensible, and disconfirmation of that notion is a prime source of cognitive dissonance.
Some family members of mine were sold a radical, frightfully expensive diet plan by their chiropractor, which involved a 500 calories-per-day food restriction, vitamin supplements and homeopathic hormone drops. It's safe to say no element of the program failed to set off its own skeptical alarm bells, and the research I did quickly indicated that this diet was based on bad science.
I had to proceed carefully, though. I knew I couldn't stand by, because starvation diets and rapid weight loss are not without risk. But I was looking up a very steep incline--not only was I denouncing visible results of 1-2 pounds per day of weight loss, but the outlay of money and professing of belief in its success are extremely potent generators of cognitive dissonance. Every possible incentive for self-justification was in place.
I need to be crystal clear (not least because they may eventually read this) and to repeat something which is crucial to understand: The very act of doubting, of presenting new information is what engenders conflicts in the mind, whether or not I actually say, "this is quackery." I am necessarily putting my relatives in a position to think "I am a smart and responsible person...who has wasted good money on a bogus treatment." Cognitive dissonance takes place, and the coping mechanisms are both reflexive and unconscious. It was entirely possible that the reaction would even damage our relationship. If it were not for the real medical and financial risks, I would have held my peace.
Originally, I thought I'd done well--nobody got angry, nobody got their feelings hurt. Though on a practical level, since then, I think it seems to have been a draw for science. I didn't convince them to resume a reasonable diet. I didn't convince them to stop taking the supplements. I didn't convince them to demand their money back. At best, I think I managed a little education about the fraud of homeopathy, and that once they finished the six-week course, they might not repeat it a year later, if they find that they've gained the weight back. Cognitive dissonance is the reason we have a phrase about "throwing good money after bad," and so I'm more than happy to simply wait and hope.
Cognitive Dissonance and Atheism
Soon on my reading list after Mistakes Were Made is likely going to be The God Virus, by Darrell Ray. In it, he discusses how many religions can be thought of as parasitic memes which takes advantage of cognitive dissonance in order to thrive and propagate. Fundamentally, he says, religion is not about goodness, but rather is about sin.
Consider the 7 Deadly Sins: Greed, Pride, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth. They fall into two categories: First, we have five flavors of thoughtcrime over which we have no conscious control. The last three are activities which not only are pleasurable but in some degree necessary to live. You have to eat when you're hungry. You have to rest when you're tired. You have to have offspring or you go extinct. Because you cannot help but sin, the cognitive dissonance between your concept of morality and your inevitable failure creates guilt, in what Ray calls "the Guilt Cycle." The only way to relieve the guilt is to return mentally to the thoughts and devotions described by the religion, thus priming you for the next failure which simply being human will inflict. It's a great racket.
I'm not going to kick that around much more that to say I'm sure it will be interesting reading, but in light of what I've already talked about, it does raise concerns about just what I am doing with my activism in the Skeptical and Atheist communities. If dissonance from self-concepts of general good sense meant I couldn't fully succeed with my own family, about something as simple as a screwball diet plan, exactly what am I going to accomplish by telling people their beliefs about their immortal soul and hope for salvation are not justified?
I'm not the least angry atheist you'll ever meet. I have days where I agree with Dawkins, Hitchens, P.Z. Myers and I'm ready to hoist the Jolly Roger when I see Bibles being shipped to Haiti, bowdlerized science textbooks and blasphemous attacks on worldwide free speech. But Tavris did say one thing on the podcast which stuck with me: "The one sure and certain way that you will not get anyone else to change their minds is to put them in dissonance...If you threaten their fundamental beliefs or self-concept, they will cling to that belief more tenaciously and reduce the dissonance by attacking you."
We need to ask ourselves, who's listening, and who are we trying to influence? On one level, we are rationalist members of an irrational species; we are atheists and agnostics in a very religious world: we imbibe more uncomfortable dissonance than it would appear just in our day-to-day lives, and we relieve it through socializing with the like-minded. Beyond that, I have no easy answers.
I see one immediate problem: both pseudoscience and religion share a common trait. Both of them fundamentally take their conclusion first, and then self-select facts which support their preconception, whether it be homeopathy, UFOs, or creationism. Under the best of circumstances, dissonance makes it difficult for potential conflicting information to be considered—so much the worse when the subject at hand is founded on that very process.
I don't think we, as a community, do ourselves too many favors sometimes. I think we need to think long and hard about who we want to reach, how we can do that, and what compromises we might be able to live with. Human nature isn't going to change, and we are fools if we don't recognize that people don’t change their minds easily, quickly, or if they can’t save face even in their own minds. If there is a direction I’m sure of, I’m going to let Charles Darwin say it better for me:
"I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follow[s] from the advance of science.”
I'm not siding with the "concern trolls" who keep telling the freethought community how much better off we'd be if we would sit down, shut up, and yield to religion in all things. Suffice it to say, there are people we are not going to reach. Our opposite numbers are not friendly pet box turtles, they are alligator snapping turtles who do not and never will tolerate us, the more so because we aim to drain the swamps of unreason that they live in. They must be opposed, because they are playing to win, and their attempts to corrupt the education of our children is no less than an attempt to ensure that another generation of freethinkers does not take place. We would do well, though, to consider our tactics.