Cognitive Dissonance (Part 2): The Power of an Idea

Posted by News Express | 28 November 2016 | 2,912 times

Gmail icon


“Keep building your castles in the sky,” a friend quipped a while back after I sent him a couple of my articles. I could understand where he was coming from. After all, what’s the point of crazy new ideas when politicians can’t even manage to balance a budget?

That’s when I began to ask myself whether new ideas can genuinely change the world.

Now, your (very reasonable) gut response might be: They can’t – people will stubbornly stick to the old ideas that they’re comfortable with. The thing is, we know that ideas have changed over time. Yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s common sense. The question is not can new ideas defeat old ones; the question is how.

Research suggests that sudden shocks can work wonders. James Kuklinski, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, discovered that people are most likely to change their opinions if you confront them with new and disagreeable facts as directly as possible. Take the recent success of right-wing politicians who were already warning of “the Islamic threat” back in the 1990s, but didn’t get much attention until the shocking destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Viewpoints that had once been fringe suddenly became a collective obsession.

If it is true that that ideas don’t change things gradually but in fits and starts – in shocks – then the basic premise of our democracy, our journalism, and our education is all wrong. It would mean, in essence, that the Enlightenment model of how people change their opinions – through information-gathering and reasoned deliberation – is really a buttress for the status quo. It would mean that those who swear by rationality, nuance, and compromise fail to grasp how ideas govern the world. A worldview is not a Lego set where a block is added here, removed there. It’s a fortress that is defended tooth and nail, with all possible reinforcements, until the pressure becomes so overpowering that the walls cave in.

Over the same months that Leon Festinger was infiltrating Mrs. Martin’s sect, the American psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated that group pressure can even cause us to ignore what we can plainly see with our own eyes. In a now-famous experiment, he showed test subjects three lines on a card and asked them which one was longest. When the other people in the room (all Asch’s coworkers, unbeknownst to the subject) gave the same answer, the subject did, too – even when it was clearly erroneous.

It’s no different in politics. Political scientists have established that how people vote is determined less by their perceptions about their own lives than by their conceptions of society. We’re not particularly interested in what government can do for us personally; we want to know what it can do for us all. When we cast our vote, we do so not just for ourselves, but for the group we want to belong to.

But Solomon Asch made another discovery. A single opposing voice can make all the difference. When just one other person in the group stuck to the truth, the test subjects were more likely to trust the evidence of their own senses. Let this be an encouragement to all those who feel like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness: Keep on building those castles in the sky. Your time will come.

Long Was the Night

In 2008, it seemed as if that time had finally come when we were confronted with the biggest case of cognitive dissonance since the 1930s.

On September 15, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Suddenly, the whole global banking sector seemed poised to tumble like a row of dominoes. In the months that followed, one free market dogma after another crashed and burned.

Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, once dubbed the “Oracle” and the “Maestro,” was gobsmacked. “Not only have individual financial institutions become less vulnerable to shocks from underlying risk factors,”he had confidently asserted in 2004, “but also the financial system as a whole has become more resilient.” When Greenspan retired in 2006, everyone assumed he would be immortalised in history’s financial hall of fame.

In a House Committee hearing two years later, the broken banker admitted that he was “in a state of shocked disbelief.” Greenspan’s faith in capitalism had taken a severe beating. “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.” When a congressman asked him if he had been misled by his own ideas, Greenspan replied, “That’s precisely the reason I was shocked because I’d been going for 40 years or so with considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

The Lesson of December 21, 1954, is that everything centers on that one moment of crisis. When the clock strikes midnight, what happens next? A crisis can provide an opening for new ideas, but it can also shore up old convictions.

So what happened after September 15, 2008? The Occupy movement briefly galvanised people, but quickly ebbed. Meanwhile, left-leaning political parties lost elections across most of Europe. Greece and Italy more or less canned democracy altogether and rolled out neoliberal-tinted reforms to please their creditors, trimming government and boosting labor market flexibility. In northern Europe, too, governments proclaimed a new age of austerity.

And Alan Greenspan? When, a few years later, a reporter asked him if there had been any error in his ideas, his reply was resolute: “Not at all. I think that there is no alternative.”

Fast forward to today: Fundamental reform of the banking sector has yet to happen. On Wall Street, bankers are seeing the highest bonus payments since the crash. And the banks’ capital buffers are as minuscule as ever. Joris Luyendijk, a journalist at The Guardian who spent two years looking under the hood of London’s financial sector, summed up the experience in 2013 as follows: “It’s like standing at Chernobyl and seeing they’ve restarted the reactor but still have the same old management.”

You have to wonder: Was the cognitive dissonance from 2008 even big enough? Or was it too big? Had we invested too much in our old convictions? Or were there simply no alternatives?

This last possibility is the most worrying of all.

The word “crisis” comes from ancient Greek and literally means to “separate” or “sieve.” A crisis, then, should be a moment of truth, the juncture at which a fundamental choice is made. But it almost seems that back in 2008 we were unable to make that choice. When we suddenly found ourselves facing the collapse of the entire banking sector, there were no real alternatives available; all we could do was keep plodding down the same path.

Perhaps, then, crisis isn’t really the right word for our current condition. It’s more like we’re in a coma. That’s ancient Greek, too. It means “deep, dreamless sleep.”

Capitalist Resistance Fighters

It’s all deeply ironic, if you think about it.

If there were ever two people who dedicated their lives to building castles in the sky with preternatural certainty that they would someday be proven right, it was the founders of neoliberal thought. I’m an admirer of them both: the slippery philosopher Friedrich Hayek and the public intellectual Milton Friedman.

Nowadays, “neoliberal” is a put-down leveled at anybody who doesn’t agree with the left. Hayek and Friedman, however, were proud neoliberals who saw it as their duty to reinvent liberalism. “We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure,” Hayek wrote. “What we lack is a liberal Utopia.”

Even if you believe them to be villains who made greed fashionable and are to blame for the financial crisis that left millions of people in dire straits – even then, there’s a lot you can learn from Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.  

This is a part two of the write-up 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..

•Lawrence Nwaodu is a small business expert and enterprise consultant, trained in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with an MBA in Entrepreneurship from The Management School, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and MSc in Finance and Financial Management Services from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Netherlands. Mr. Nwaodu is the Lead Consultant at IDEAS Exchange Consulting, Lagos. He can be reached via nwaodu.lawrence@hotmail.co.uk (07066375847).


Source: News Express

Readers Comments

0 comment(s)

No comments yet. Be the first to post comment.


You may also like...