Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On cognitive dissonance and how it ruins conversations

   Last night I stumbled upon a long, 64 or 65-comment thread on Facebook, which started with asking a question along the lines of "Why is it so hard to have a discussion about religion?" My answer essentially comes down to cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment.

   It occurred to me this morning that I spent a lot of time responding to a comment left by a theist than I did explaining cognitive dissonance. It also occurred to me that this would be great for a blog post. I also want to discuss another tread I encountered back in late November/early December where dissonance was on display, only related to politics instead.

   Continuing... As the Wikipedia article points out, dissonance is a discomfort. One important point that I did not notice in that article is that the more one is invested in their belief, the more dissonance any contradicting information will create. Now let's throw in a second important factor with religious belief—people often obtain their base religious beliefs when they are children. This already makes religious believers quite invested by the time they are adults just due to the years of holding the belief alone. Then add in time spent in church activities. It should be obvious that the more time spent, the greater the investment, and hence the greater dissonance any dissenting views will create. This is why it is hard to have a discussion—having one causes discomfort for the believer.

   Next I want to take a look at the ways people deal with dissonance. In that long Facebook thread, I recall someone pointing out that discussions typically devolve into ad hominem attacks. Indeed! There is also a reason for this. In order to reduce dissonance, the person experiencing the dissonance needs to somehow manage the conflicting data. One way to do this is to discredit the new information that has produced the conflict by discrediting the source of that information. In other words, if the source of the information is not trustworthy, neither is the conflict-producing information they present! Once that information is discredited in their view, dissonance is reduced.

   In addition to ad hominem attacks, the person experiencing dissonance may also stroke their own ego (I briefly explain why this is important in the next paragraph), though, it is worth noting, that this can also be done through the ad hominem attacks. That is where the conversation I encountered around late November plays in. Here was a conversation where one person was supporting torture and the other person's response was something along the lines of "Are you trolling?!?" The person in support of torture came back with the excuse of "desperate times call for desperate measures," which is actually a dissonance reducing statement in itself (again, see the next paragraph for more on this). The other part was an ad hominem attack, which, as I recall, involved calling the person against torture a "pussy" and implying that they were un-American by suggesting they should leave the country. This is also a way for him to stroke his own ego. By presenting his opponent as an un-American pussy, he conversely presents himself as a strong patriot.

   The above is explained in the book "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)" which I highly recommend, primarily in Chapter 7: "Ricardo Orizio interviewed...other dictators, including Idi Amin, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Mira Markovic (the "Red Witch," [Slobodan] Milosevic's wife), and Jean-Bédeal Bokassa of the Central African Republic (known to his people as the Ogre of Berengo). Every one of them claimed that everything they did — torturing or murdering their opponents, blocking free elections, starving their citizens, looting their nation's wealth, launching genocidal wars — was done for the good of their country." The book also talks about "the ticking-time bomb" and how those who are capable of exhibiting the most dissonance think highly of themselves. Why is this? Those with low self-esteem are more likely to admit they are wrong because that fits their personal view of themselves.

   That is cognitive dissonance in a nutshell. Thoughts?

UPDATE 1: There are two things I want to add to this. First, an ad hominem attack may not automatically be a sign that someone is dealing with dissonance, though I have noticed that it does seem to be quite a good indicator. Second, sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between an ad hominem and a straightforward personal insult. An example I've seen to demonstrate this involves person A calling person B a dumbass. Is A doing this to dismiss B's argument or is B's argument so pathetic that only a dumbass could think it was a good argument? The former is an ad hominem while the later is not. Now, if A is not making an ad hominem, they should follow up by pointing out the flaws in B's argument. Without this, I find it would be best to give B the benefit of a doubt (in other words, that A is making an ad hominem attack).
   (I have also personally experienced frustration having to tell some theists the same thing multiple times and then see them still fail to grasp what should be fairly simple concepts...or just seeing them fail to grasp concept after concept is frustrating itself, never mind the need to repeat! It can be tough to not start insulting their intelligence. I have certainly failed in restraining myself now and then, and I know other atheists struggle with this same problem. So, do we sometimes make personal attacks? Yes. Ad hominem attacks? Not so much.)

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