Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Cognitive dissonance

A reddit discussion came up recently, in relation to a recently-surfaced suppressed World Health Organisation report on global cocaine use, which concluded that the western "War on Drugs" is overblown, and that automatically criminalising all prohibited-drug users[1] was counter-productive and unsupported by scientific evidence.

A comment was posted asking why - in the face of evidence, and after a conclusions by the experts tasked to investigate this very topic - governments and supporters would not only disregard the conclusions and evidence, but actively seek to suppress the report and the evidence it contains.

The answer is simple, and generalises to many different opinions and topics. Largely, it's because they're making decisions subconsciously and emotively, instead of consciously and/or rationally.

People holding these positions claim to be pro-prohibition because it "saves lives" (and that may well be how they initially started believing in it, or how they justify the belief to themselves and others), but when you believe something strongly enough for long enough it ends up becoming part of your identity. Then, if you're confronted by evidence your long-cherished belief is in fact wrong, you have one of two choices:

  1. Reject the belief, and accept that - by some measure - you've wasted your life and been an idiot for however long you've held the opinion (possibly as much as your whole life up to that point!), or
  2. Reject the evidence, and continue believing you're right.

Believing you're right is comfortable and safe, but believing you're wrong (and moreover, have been for years) is uncomfortable and scary. It's like having the rug yanked out from under you - first you have to find a defensible new position that you can take, and then you have to revisit every single opinion you hold that depended on the "wrong" one, and see if any of those also need changing in light of the new information.

This process takes effort, and may involve discarding many other ideas that you hold dear. This is - needless to say - highly unnerving and uncomfortable for most people.

Although it's irrational to the point of complete intellectual bankruptcy, when faced with this choice many people will simply (and irrationally) ignore the evidence to the contrary. They might go quiet and try to change the subject, they might bluster and try to shout you down, or they might declare that the contrary evidence or reasoning "offends them", and demand you stop out of politeness.

All of these things are simply tactics to get the inconvenient evidence to go away - believing something you know at some level to be false is normally easy when you don't think about it, but gets increasingly difficult and uncomfortable the closer the dichotomy rises to your conscious mind.

By offering counter-indicative evidence you force the cognitive dissonance closer to their conscious mind, so they become increasingly irritable and uncomfortable. However, the rationalisation process is almost entirely subconscious, so they often don't realise why they're getting worked up - all they know is that you're the cause of it, so they tend to become frustrated and irritated with you.

This is also why you can't easily persuade people out of irrational ideas, and why it's hard to have a good conversation about politics, religion or the like which doesn't end in offence or shouting.

The key problem(s) in the irrational person's psyche isn't saving face, it's one or more of:

  • Laziness - the person doesn't want to have to undergo the effort of re-evaluating all their beliefs, so they just don't.
  • Egocentricity - the person doesn't want to admit to themselves how wrong (or stupid, or duped) they were.
  • Excessive attachment to their present identity - the person is too attached to their present identity (for reasons of comfort, personal gain, etc) to allow themselves to accept that part of it might need changing.
  • Centrality of the opinion to who they are - the threatened belief is so central to the core of the person's identity and beliefs that re-evaluating it might leave them a largely different person (effectively, the current version of them might "die" in the process).

This approach explains many, many things that otherwise seem inexplicable - why it's so hard for people to leave religions, why it's so hard to convert people to another political party, why people continue to back politicians who violate the very tenets they espouse and why people will stick to comfort beliefs even in the face of absolute proof to the contrary.

The only way to cure someone of this kind of egotistical, emotive self-deception is to bring the cognitive dissonance to the surface, and show them how irrational it is.

Nevertheless, they'll fight you every step of the way, and if you force the issue they just end up seeing you as the enemy and disregarding what you show them.

It's a knotty problem, because you can't "cure" someone of identity-related emotive irrationality unless they want to be cured... but there are literally billions of people with these kind of incorrect or irrational opinions, and they're materially retarding the progress and development of the entire human race.


[1] Of course, legal-drug use - like caffeine, alcohol or tobacco - is usually considered perfectly ok, and ingesting any of these three is a right that would cause rioting in the streets if a government tried to ban it.


Joshua said...

Great article.