Tag Archives: bias

Cognitive dissonance

Blue GoldfishLet’s say you think of yourself as a good person (bear with me for a moment if you don’t). Now you do something nasty to somebody. This leaves you with two contradictory thoughts in your mind: “I am good” and “I am nasty”. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “doublethink” is quite routine, but in practice conflicting thoughts are a source of discomfort. This discomfort is known as “cognitive dissonance”.

Even if you don’t think you are a good person, you are not immune from cognitive dissonance. It can arise in all kinds of situations: perhaps you hear a reasonable argument against one of your firmly-held beliefs, perhaps a decision you take turns out badly, perhaps someone you consider a friend lets you down or someone you dislike does something to help you.

Whatever the cause, our brains tend to work hard to “resolve” the dissonance and explain away the contradiction (that person really deserved the nasty thing you did). This tendency is the source of a wide range of irrational behaviour, many of which are explored in the book I am reading at the moment: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The title itself gives just one example, the fact that we tend to explain away our mistakes: there were, of course, mitigating circumstances and were really all the fault of others.

One interesting theory in the book relates to prejudice. Stereotypes, particularly racial or religious ones, are often considered a contributing cause of prejudice. The authors suggest that the causality in fact runs the other way. People have a strong tendency to form groups and then feel not only a bond with others in the group but an antipathy to those outside the group. Obvious examples are nation, race, religion or football team, but group identification can be made in all kinds of ways. The book relates an experiment in which subjects were asked to estimate the number of dots shown on a flash card. After a preliminary round, each person was told whether they were an “under-estimator” or an “over-estimator”. As further tests were conducted, the results were announced to the group and in no time at all, under-estimators were cheering the successes of other under-estimators and boo-ing the successes of over-estimators, and vice versa. While under and over-estimators would never go to war, it is sobering to see how rapidly people can divide themselves into the in-crowd and the out-crowd. With this in mind, Tavris and Aronson argue that prejudice comes first, the result of disliking those outside your own group, and the stereotype comes later to explain this dislike:

By understanding prejudice as our self-justifying servant, we can better see why some prejudices are so hard to eradicate: They allow people to justify and defend their most important social identities‚ their race, their religion, their sexuality‚ while reducing the dissonance between, “I am a good person”‚ and “I really don’t like those people”.

So perhaps prejudice causes stereotyping not the other way around.

Like so many cognitive biases, the tendency to resolve cognitive dissonance is something you can take advantage of. Although Benjamin Franklin was around well before cognitive dissonance was given a name, he clearly understood the phenomenon. He relates the following story in his autobiography:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he who you yourself have obliged.”

I am keen to try this trick myself, so if you don’t like me and want to keep it that way, think twice about doing me any favours.

Cognitive dissonance is a fascinating phenomenon, but simply studying does not make you immune from its grasp. Still, Tavris and Aronson suggest that there are ways to try to inoculate yourself:

We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.

That is advice I try to heed here on this blog. Whether I am arguing about property prices, government debt and deficits, climate change or any other topic, I welcome comments that argue against my position. I do not want to live in a bubble.