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Cognitive Dissonance (Part 1)

By News Express on 21/11/2016

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In the late summer of 1954, a brilliant young psychologist was reading the newspaper when his eye fell on a strange headline on the back page:





His interest piqued, the psychologist, whose name was Leon Festinger, read on. “Lake City will be destroyed by a flood from the great lake just before dawn, Dec. 21.” The message came from a homemaker in a Chicago suburb who had received it, she reported, from superior beings on another planet: “These beings have been visiting the earth, she says, in what we call flying saucers.”

It was precisely what Festinger had been waiting for. This was a chance to investigate a simple but thorny question that he had been puzzling over for years: What happens when people experience a severe crisis in their convictions? How would this homemaker respond when no flying saucers came to rescue her? What happens when the great flood doesn’t materialise?

With a little digging, Festinger discovered that the woman, one Dorothy Martin, wasn’t the only one convinced that the world was ending on December 21, 1954. Around a dozen of her followers – all intelligent, upstanding Americans – had quit their jobs, sold their possessions, or left their spouses on the strength of their conviction.

Festinger decided to infiltrate the Chicago sect. Right off, he noticed that its members made little effort to persuade other people that the end was near. Salvation was reserved for them, the chosen few. On the morning of December 20, 1954, Mrs. Martin was beamed a new message from above: “At the hour of midnight you shall be put into parked cars and taken to a place where ye shall be put aboard a porch [flying saucer].”

The excited group settled in to await their ascendency to the heavens.

The Evening of December 20, 1954

11:15 p.m.: Mrs. Martin receives a message telling the group to put on their coats and prepare.

12:00 a.m.: Nothing happens.

12:05 a.m.: One of the believers notices another clock in the room reads 11:55 p.m. The group agrees it is not yet midnight.

12:10 a.m.: Message from aliens: The flying saucers are delayed.

12:15 a.m.: The telephone rings several times: journalists calling to check if the world has ended yet.

2:00 a.m.: One of the younger followers, who expected to be a couple light years away by now, recalls that his mother was planning to call the police if he wasn’t home by 2 a.m. The others assure him that his departure is a worthy sacrifice to save the group, and he leaves.

4:00 a.m.: One of the believers says: “I’ve burned every bridge. I’ve turned my back on the world. I can’t afford to doubt. I have to believe.”

4:45 a.m.: Mrs. Martin gets another message: God has decided to spare the Earth. Together, the small group of believers has spread so much “light” on this night that the Earth is saved.

4:50 a.m.: One last message from above: The aliens want the good news “to be released immediately to the newspapers.” Armed with this new mission, the believers inform all the local papers and radio stations before daybreak.

When Prophecies Fail

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.” So opens Leon Festinger’s account of these events in When Prophecy Fails, first published in 1956 and a seminal text in social psychology to this day. “Tell him you disagree and he turns away,” Festinger continues. “Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

It’s easy to scoff at the story of Mrs. Martin and her believers, but the phenomenon Festinger describes is one that none of us are immune to. “Cognitive dissonance,” he coined it. When reality clashes with our deepest convictions, we’d rather recalibrate reality than amend our worldview. Not only that, we become even more rigid in our beliefs than before.

Mind you, we tend to be quite flexible when it comes to practical matters. Most of us are willing to accept advice on how to remove a grease stain or chop a cucumber. No, it’s when our political, ideological, or religious ideas are at stake that we get the most stubborn. We tend to dig in our heels when someone challenges our opinions about criminal punishment, premarital sex, or global warming. These are ideas to which people tend to get attached, and that makes it difficult to let them go. Doing so affects our sense of identity and position in social groups – in our churches or families or circles of friends.

One factor that certainly is not involved is stupidity. Researchers at Yale University have shown that educated people are more unshakable in their convictions than anybody. After all, an education gives you tools to defend your opinions. Intelligent people are highly practiced in finding arguments, experts, and studies that underpin their preexisting beliefs, and the Internet has made it easier than ever to be consumers of our own opinions, with another piece of evidence always just a mouse-click away.

Smart people, concludes the American journalist Ezra Klein, don’t use their intellect to obtain the correct answer; they use it to obtain what they want to be the answer.

When My Clock Struck Midnight

I have something to confess. In the course of writing my defence of a 15-hour workweek, I stumbled across an article titled “Shorter Workweek May Not Increase Well-Being.” It was a piece in The New York Times about a South Korean study which claimed that a 10% shorter workweek had not made employees happier. Additional Googling led me to an article in The Telegraph which suggested that working less might be downright bad for our health.

Suddenly I was Dorothy Martin and my clock had struck midnight. Immediately, I mobilised my defense mechanisms. To begin with, I had my doubts about the source: The Telegraph is a somewhat populist newspaper, so how seriously should I take that article? Plus, there was that “may” in The New York Times headline. How conclusive were the study findings really? Even my stereotypes kicked in: Those South Koreans, they’re such workaholics – they probably kept working off the clock even when they reported fewer hours. Moreover, happiness? How exactly do you measure that?

Satisfied, I pushed the study aside. I’d convinced myself it couldn’t be relevant.

I’ll give you another example. I have elsewhere laid out the arguments in favor of universal basic income. This is a conviction in which I have invested a lot over the past few years. The first article I wrote on the topic garnered nearly a million views and was picked up by The Washington Post. I gave lectures about universal basic income and made a case for it on Dutch television. Enthusiastic emails poured in. Not long ago, I even heard someone refer to me as “Mr. Basic Income.” Slowly but surely, my opinion has come to define my personal and professional identity. I do earnestly believe that a universal basic income is an idea whose time has come. I’ve researched the issue extensively, and that’s the direction the evidence points.

But, if I’m being honest, I sometimes wonder if I’d even let myself notice if the evidence were pointing another way. Would I be observant enough – or brave enough – to have a change of heart?

*This write-up was culled from the Evonomics publication (2016, July 15) the new intellectual drive to change economics in order to change the world. It was written by Rutger Bregman, the author of Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek. We will continue next week, from where we finished off. However, you can contact me for business advisory services and training – send me a message via WhatsApp or SMS.

Source News Express

Posted 21/11/2016 9:00:25 PM


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