Cognitive dissonance

Voter turnoutSet the way-back machine for 1956.  A nice guy I will call Leon read in his newspaper about a message received from outer space by a woman walking on the beach.  The message indicated that the world would be destroyed before the dawn on December 21st.  Naturally, this woman started a sort of cult.

Leon, being an inquisitive sort of fellow and a psychologist, decided that he would join this group to see what happened when the earth was surprisingly not destroyed and the aliens did not come and rescue the true believers.  He and a few friends went through the necessary efforts to prove their true belief and were soon members of the group.  Here are the events of the night as described by wikipedia:

  • Prior to December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to Mrs. Keech’s house is only provided to those who can convince the group that they are true believers. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writing from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.
  • December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
  • 12:05 A.M., December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
  • 12:10 A.M. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
  • 4:00 A.M. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Mrs. Keech begins to cry.
  • 4:45 A.M. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Mrs. Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”
  • Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.

As an interesting side note:  Leon and his buddies had predicted this exact behavior.   This was the beginning of the understanding of a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.  It’s something that you do every day.  It’s what makes politicians slimy.  It’s why some people keep buying General Motors cars.  It’s why we stop our new-years diets on January 17th or so.  It’s the reason that I get up in the morning, put on my exercise clothes, then sit and watch television instead of exercise.  It touches our lives many times a day.  We’ll get to more of that in a second.  First a couple more stories.

Once upon a time, there was a lad named Willie Miller.  Willie was a baptist preacher.  One day he decided that the second coming of Christ was going to be before March 21, 1844.   Once that day came and went, Miller was quick to re-evaluate his research and say “Oh, I meant October 22nd.  Yeah.”

But October 22nd came, and October 23rd soon followed without any obvious second coming of Christ.

Thousands of “Millerites,” you may have heard of them,  left the movement in what was called the Great Disappointment.  Would you expect this to be the end of the Miller Movement?  I would.  (I remember the same thing happening to the polygamist cult that lives about 40 miles from my home town back in 1999.  I thought that they would leave their church once their prediction of the second coming failed.  I was wrong then, too.)  Did the Millerite movement end altogether?  No.  A few people remained with Willie, determined to resolve the two ideas that seemed so incompatible:  Either Christ came on October 23rd, or we were wrong.

What do you think happened? 

Put under this kind of pressure, the followers soon came up with a third option that would allow them to still be ‘right’ in a sense.  They concluded that the scriptures revealed not that Jesus would come again in 1844, but that the investigative judgement in heaven would begin in that year.  The church could move forward, the people found their beliefs validated, and all was right with the world.

Millerites gave spawn to the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.   How did these groups see the Great Disappointment?  Did either of them say “Yes, we were wrong,” or did they, too, ‘discover’ a justification?

(I don’t mean to sound so critical of other religions, but this whole essay is about inconsistancy.  I, therefore, find it useful to point out that these people can’t all be right.)

Seventh Day Adventists: Some careful study and some timely visions led to the belief by the early Seventh-day Adventists that Christ went into the second apartment of the heavenly sanctuary in 1844 to begin the investigative judgment of both righteous and wicked to see who is worthy of going to heaven.  This belief is so deeply held now that notable preachers of their faith have lost their positions for disagreeing. 

Jehovahs Witness:  An Adventist named Jonas preached the second coming would be in 1868… then 1873…  A fellow named Nelson agreed, but then had to revise his estimate, of necessity, to 1874.  This prediction also failing, Nelson was quick to recognize a pattern and instead claimed that Christ actually had come in 1874, but invisibly.  This doctrine was accepted by Charles Taze Russell, who could be called the grandfather of the modern-day Witnesses.

It seems easy, looking at other people’s follies, to ask why they acted in what appears to us to be such a stupid way.  Why didn’t they just say, ‘wow, I’m an idiot.  I was wrong.  I guess I’ll go back to the drawing board.  Everybody take five?’  It’s easy for us to criticize.  Yet there are those who would say, even today, that it wasn’t any insanity of man but the will of God that defined these people’s behaviors. 

One last story:

Muffy goes into the Forum Shops at Cesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.  There she sees a stunning leather jacket. (as I once did, myself!)  Muffy says to herself, Self, you really want that trendy jacket.  Self says to Muffy, Muffy, you are a vegetarian and somewhat opposed to the killing of cows.  Muffy is now experiencing Cognitive Dissonance.  She will now change in some way, however small, to eliminate this dissonance from herself.  Isn’t that amazing?  It’s not just a decision, but an actual change in the person that takes place.  There are several possible routes she could take, all of which justify buying or not buying the jacket based on who she is.

Muffy buys the jacket saying to herself, well, it’s already dead and one jacket isn’t going to make a big difference.  Or maybe she doesn’t buy the jacket, saying, I am not the sort of person who supports cow killing.  Or a hundred other possibilities.

I find this fascinating.  I’m sorry if you’ve read so much of this article and not found it interesting at all.  My bad.  But I hope that you enjoy examining this aspect of human nature as much as I do.  Maybe this comes from all those hours of ‘people watching’ at the mall. 

When we experience Cognitive Dissonance it seems that we are more likely to alter our entire perception of reality than to say that there was something ‘wrong’ with ourselves.  An experiment conducted by that same Leon guy showed that humans, when asked to lie without being given sufficient justification, will actually convince themselves that the lie they are asked to tell is true.   Why?  (and this is just me, not Leon) Because it is easier for us to accept a lie than to accept ourselves as liars.  We can accept failure as long as it’s not personal failure.  Blame allows us freedom from defeat, because then it’s not by our own fault, but the fault of those we blame.

I’m amazed by that.  I want to deny it, but all a person has to do is look around to see the evidence of the truth.  For heavens sake, look at the Bush administration.  How long did it take them to say that the war in Iraq was not, in fact, going well?  Why did it take so long?  Because in politics any failure, any flaw, any problem is always personal.

Once we become aware of our own choices and the reasons why we make them the way we do (reasons being this theory of cognitive dissonance) we gain power over ourselves.  My hope is that, by being aware of this behavior, we can learn to have some measure of humility and realism in our choices and changes.  We’ll be more likely to admit wrongness and be okay with it.  What kind of world would it be if humans learned to admit flaws with grace and a willingness to improve?

Well, if you made it this far, I hope you had some interesting thoughts that you will post below in the comments.



3 Responses to “Cognitive dissonance”

  1. anah Says:

    Though I didn’t have the vocabulary to know what it was, I had recognised this in myself. I’ve been struggling with it for a long time. My biggest fear is that I am sub-normal. (Not sub-normal as in weird or strange. many would then find comical relief in my statement.)It’s that somehow I will not measure up or be accepted because of my faults. I know that this post is not about faults (in a way it is), but I have noticed that rather than say “I was lazy today and didn’t get dressed until 2 pm because I Didn’t Want To”, I’d rather explain my actions by telling a lie (I’m not feeling well). Well, If I had gotten up first thing and showered and dressed, and ate breakfast, I’d be feeling Just Fine!

    I do this every day. Now I need to accept that I’m scum in the mornings and change it. Easier said than done, though. I’ve been working on that for a couple of months. I think I’m getting better. :-)


  2. Greg Says:

    yeah, but who among us is not scum in the morning? ;)

  3. Cornelius Says:

    I had an experience like this recently. I was closing at Domino’s and I was also not feeling well. I didn’t want to stay and finish. The only things left to do were sweep and mop, but I would have had to stay for an hour while the manager did his stuff. I asked the manager if he would do my work for me because I was sick and wanted to go home. He said ok. Now, I could have stayed and done it myself. One of the great gifts the Army gave me is the ability to muscle through stuff like this because Something Is Important. The other side of that is the question, “Is it really a good idea to stay?” People usually say you should lay down, or even call a cab, when they feel like I did. I resolved this conflict by saying that I was justified in getting out of it and the manager was ok with it. Even now I still don’t feel right about it, like I weaseled out of my job. What do you think?

    If I understand the concept of Cognative Dissonance correctly, I have a hard time with it. I am loathe to change my standards or myself to resolve something. I either accept or reject the “solution”, but I still know what is right and what is wrong and it bothers me so much to go against What Is Right that I go back to the decision until I re-make it The Way It Should Be. If I can’t re-do it, then it sits in my head. I still have stuff from my childhood that I need to go Make Right. I don’t think it’s even possible, but it’s unresolved and I can’t let it go. Does any one else have trouble with this, or am I wierd?

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