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World In Conflict
Cognitive Dissonance

Some really depressing news from the Washington Post

Poll shows war fever still running strong

In the messy little details, 24% of the U.S. population is dangerously deluded (see question #8)


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Poodle leaves sinking ship

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Iraq's WMD:  Case Closed

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Stripping Plame of cover

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Polycentric Iraqi Nationalism

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Thinking about the Iraqi resistance

Public Baffled by Terror Alerts

Normal Failures

Bush in Free Fall

INC and Blowback

Google finds Weapons of Mass Destruction

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The Timothy McVeigh Finishing School

Reinforcing an opinion



Orwellian Centenary

Cognitive Dissonance

Heaven and other things

Polls, Polls, Polls

Where are they now: Eugene Hasenfus

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NRA rules in Iraq:  Gun confiscation flops

About that Anthrax...

Another Fine Mess

Chaos in Iraq

June 24, 2003

Warbaby says:

The term "cognitive dissonance" is popping up more frequently in reporting about the war in Iraq.  In a perfect example of newspeak, the contextual meaning is usually the exact opposite of what the phrase means.

Cognitive dissonance.  What's that?

The term is showing up often because is captures what is happening to both the establishment and the public as reality continues to play a stronger hand.  The underlying assumptions about the war in Iraq are wrong.  It makes little difference to the audience if they players are liars, fools or deluded.  But when received knowledge is disconfirmed by experienced realities, funny things start to happen.

"Cognitive dissonance" is a term invented in the late 1950's by Leon Festinger.  Festinger was a sociologist who got interested in a UFO cult that believed the world was going to end, but that true believers would be "saved" by a flying saucer that would take them to new worlds.  Sound familiar?

What caught Festinger's interest was the response of the true believers: despite the collapse of their collective fantasy, their belief was intensified by the failure of prophecy.  Not what most people would expect.  This bizarre form of ideological abreaction got the name "cognitive dissonance" and the whole sordid tale is laid out in Festinger's book, When Prophecy Fails.

Later, Festinger fluffed up his observations into a full blown "theory of cognitive dissonance" and it became part of the received knowledge of sociology -- the softest of the soft sciences.  However, a strange thing happened as this new "theory" spread.  (I'm putting quotes around it because "theories" in sociology, economics and political science are rarely that.  More often they are hypotheses stated vaguely enough to be generalized, but never strongly enough to be conclusively tested for falsifiability -- the benchmark of a true theory.)

The idea that received knowledge (i.e. the "everybody knows" sort of knowledge) is reinforced by disconfirmation (the belief gets stronger the more it is shown to be false) is a little hard to swallow by people who want to believe in the received knowledge of their own rationality.  Such are the difficulties of the insufficently skeptical...

As a result, Festinger's important observation of what happens in certain types of irrational group situations gets watered down to a sort of mushy individual psychology explanation that when beliefs and behavior are in conflict, something has to give.  (Note that this is so mushy that it totally flunks the falsifiablity test for a scientific theory.)

That's the academic hedge.  Then things get worse.  As the phrase got popularized (usually without the least trace of information about what Festinger actually observed among the UFO cultists) in order to preserve the widespread, but delusional, received knowledge ("everybody knows") that people make rational decisions when confronted with irrefutable facts, the popular notion of "cognitive dissonance" mutated into its exact opposite. 

The popular definition of "conitive dissonance" becomes something along the lines of "when belief and action are in conflict, people change their beliefs to continue acting the same way."  And then a little more of a change and "cognitive dissonance is the discomfort felt when beliefs and facts do not agree."

Note what has happened to the concept: from a strong statement of the strength of irrational belief, it slowly mutates into a confirmation of universal rationality.

OK, Warbaby, you're probably saying, what's that got to do with anything?

Simply this:  In a country in which 24% of the population is in the grip of a delusion that U.S. soldiers were attacked with Iraqi chemical and/or biological weapons during the invasion of Iraq and in which only 3% of the population believes there were no WMD in Iraq immediately before the war, what would you expect to happen when the available evidence becomes stronger and stronger that the Iraqi WMD stockpiles were destroyed years ago?

If you guessed that people would come to their senses, you guessed wrong and don't understand what cognitive dissonance is all about.  But you probably really enjoy watching Fox News.  And the notion that Bill Clinton succeeded in disarming Saddam Hussein probably sends you into a rage.  Have a nice day.

If you guessed that people's beliefs in non-existent Iraqi WMD will be strengthened as the delusion is disconfirmed, you didn't waste your time reading this far.  You might even be part of that 3%.  Too bad for you.  You must be some sort of weirdo.

Isn't this a great country?  It makes me proud to be an American.