Iraq and cognitive dissonance

July 21, 2007 | By | 2 Replies More

NPR recently interviewed psychologist Elliot Aronson, co-author, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).   Aronson worked closely with Leon Festinger back in the 1950’s “designing experiments to test and expand dissonance theory.”  Here is NPR’s plug for the interview:

We all have a hard time admitting that we’re wrong, but according to a new book about human psychology, it’s not entirely our fault. Social psychologist Elliot Aronson says our brains work hard to make us think we are doing the right thing, even in the face of sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I listened closely to the interview (you can listen on-line too by visiting the above link) because this was yet another serious attempt to apply psychology to a critical real-life situations.   Exhibit A during this interview was the President’s dysfunctional attitude toward to continued U.S. occupation of Iraq.  

According to Aronson, cognitive dissonance “is a drive, like hunger or thirst.”  It is directed toward the human need to define who we are in a good light in order to reduce dissonance, so that we can “sleep well at night.”  It is “a powerful and unconscious motor” that smoothes out our mental “rough edges.” 

We commonly refer to cognitive dissonance as “justification.” Regarding many simple mistakes, it’s no big deal to spin the incident in a way that deflects blame and embarrassment from one’s self.  If you spill wine on the carpet, you justify that that it was only white wine, or that the damage wasn’t noticeable, rather than thinking about the toxic (my word) thought that you were clumsy to spill the wine. Aronson warns that when we make serious mistakes, reducing dissonance “keeps us from learning from our mistakes.”   It makes us do the same mistake over and over again.

In the case of Iraq, cognitive dissonance invites neocons to convince themselves that that it was a good decision; those who have invested heavily in defending the invasion are thus likely to repeatedly come up with new justifications for invading.  Aronson goes so far as to state that President Bush engages in his specious justifications to allow himself “to sleep well at night.”  When cognitive dissonance is at work, ambiguous CIA reports filtered.  “You only pay attention to the helpful information.”  I would think that those people who have spent the most energy defending the President’s decision, thereby antagonizing their friends and family, would (because of cognitive dissonance) be those who are remain among the 20% of this country who still support the U.S. invasion.  They are the same people, I would surmise, most likely to claim that the U.S. is in Iraq “because of Al Qaida.”

Research shows that if a high investment is required to achieve something, cognitive dissonance will come into play, causing us to reach for justifications (even wild justifications) to paint ourselves in a good light.  Aronson discussed one experiment where those subjects who had to go through a severe initiation later claimed that that a boring group was worthwhile (compared to subjects who didn’t have to go through a strenuous initiation, who rated the group as boring and not worthwhile).  The bottom line?  It is too hard to justify doing a lot of work to get into a boring group.   The solution is to re-evaluate the group as worthwhile. That is cognitive dissonance in action.

What is the best solution to the damage often inflicted by cognitive dissonance?  Aronson advises that we need to first become aware of the process.  We need to scrutinize our most important decisions in order to make wiser decisions.  We should consciously surround ourselves with people who don’t agree with our opinions.  He gives the example of Abraham Lincoln, who appointed some of his staunchest political opponents to his cabinet and listened to them–they came to admire Lincoln.   Another solution is to summon up the courage to engage in contrition. To issue an apology where warranted.   Perhaps this is too difficult for many people because they are too attached to the frame of presenting themselves to others as “worthwhile.”  I can’t help thinking, though, that doing the preliminary groundwork of invoking a new frame would make contrition easier. When one decides that one would rather be known as a person who values an honest, self-critical and therefore functional social network over simply feeling good about one’s self, contrition will come much more easily.

How else is cognitive dissonance harmful?  Aronson gives the example that numerous people are languishing in prison even though DNA evidence shows up that they are innocent.  In many such cases, the prosecuting attorneys are refusing to re-opening the cases.  Why?  Cognitive dissonance. Those prosecutors have invested too much in the case to clearly see what obviously needs to be done: release these innocent people.

As I listened to this interview, I wondered about the connection between cognitive dissonance and the well-established doctrine of the confirmation bias.  It seems as though the former could be the driving force for the latter, though I wonder whether that is always the case.

Aronson was a bit hesitant to jump in when a caller asked whether cognitive dissonance helped explain the willingness of many people to follow religions that require adherence to beliefs that lacked proof, such as Mormonism.  I would agree with that caller.  Cognitive dissonance would seem to shed  light on the true function of all kinds of initiation rites.  What about the rituals, training, tedium, pain and energy one expends to become or remain a member in good standing of all kinds of political and religious clubs?  It would seem that this wasteful-seeming activity is food for cognitive dissonance, which compels the strangest claims out of the mouths of the faithful, whether it be a President’s claim we’re seeing progress in Iraq or a Believer’s claim that “Lehi, who, in roughly 600 B.C., was called by God to lead a group of Jews from Jerusalem to the New World.”


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Category: Iraq, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Newsweek also reviewed this book. That review included more details of additional cognitive dissonance experiments.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a lively video on cognitive dissonance, featuring Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale.…

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