Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cognative Dissonance

There are lots of ideas and concepts from psychology that I wish more people knew about.  I was reading the first post of a new blog recently, and I was struck by a thought.  The post talked about two propositions that were both pretty reasonable, but were seldom both believed by the same person because they had different implications for policy.  Someone only believing one or the other could go about their lives believing that their actions were perfect and had no downsides, but believing both meant that you would have to live with having made a trade off, whatever you did.  It occurred to me that this was a perfect example of what a psychologist would call Cognitive Dissonance and that since situations like this were so common that the human bias towards trying to resolve cognitive dissonance by changing one's beliefs was actually more problematic than I'd thought.

So what is cognitive dissonance?  Well, its when you have two beliefs that, when combined, make you feel bad so you try to resolve the bad feeling by changing your beliefs.  Take the famous Aesop's Fable about the fox and the grapes.  The fox sees some grapes hanging up high and thinks "Mmm, tasty".  He tries to get the grapes but he isn't able to jump high enough.  Torn by the ideas that the grapes were tasty and that he wasn't able to have the grapes, he decides that the grapes were probably sour.

"But Andrew!" someone knowledgeable about psychology may object, "isn't this effect well known?  Like since the 50s?  Why are you going on about something so basic and so well studied?"

Well, partially the reason is that I didn't appreciate the full significance of the idea until recently.  And partially I expect that many of the readers here won't have run into the idea before either.  Also, its always useful to be reminded about these things because it can be really hard to avoid them.  Recently I was involved in a debate about whether it was useful for people to learn about the law, or whether it was impossible to learn enough law to guarantee that you would never unknowingly commit a crime.  Of course, said like that its pretty easy to see that there's no contradiction, but none us participating saw that clearly enough to bring it up.

The easiest place to see this if you're looking is in politics, where people's intense desire to associate with a group is strongest.  A lot of political disagreement boils down to values, like whether we should have gay marriage or not, but a lot is still bound up in factual questions about the consequences of various decisions, like how we should regulate banks.  In the later case you should normally expect that there'll be consequences that are both good and bad to any policy decision, and if you find yourself thinking that the evidence goes all one way or all the other way that's a good sign that your probably deluding yourself.  It's ok to think that the benefits are lopsided, that happens, but you should be able to admit that some of your opponents points are valid without feeling the need to stretch your creativity to deny every last one.

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