Monday, December 4, 2006
"Cognitive dissonance" refers to the practice of resolving a conflict between our observations about the world and our beliefs about the world. The usual interpretation is that we resolve that conflict in favor of our beliefs. That is, we do not alter our beliefs to fit new observations about the world.
Leon Festinger, a professor of psychology at Stanford, developed the notion and study of cognitive dissonance in the late 1950s. In today's Wall Street Journal Cynthia Crossen has a wonderful column about Festinger and cognitive dissonance, available here. The column contains a marvelous story about a 1950s cult centered in Chicago and led by Marion Keech. (Professor Festinger had two infiltrators in the group, something that would surely not pass muster under current IRB understandings.) Mrs. Keech and her followers believed that she was receiving transmissions from a planet called "Clarion" and that those transmissions were telling her that the Earth was to end on a date certain through a worldwide flood. The inhabitants of Clarion informed Ms. Keech that they would send a spaceship at midnight on the cataclysmic day to pick her and her followers up and carry them to safety. So, the faithful gave away most of their possessions and gathered on the appointed day and waited for the arrival of the spaceship. Midnight came and went. No spaceship. At 4:15 am Ms Keech reported a new transmission --this time apparently from God -- informing her that the faithfulness of her and her followers had so impressed Him that He had decided not to unleash the flood.
One might have thought that this experience would have caused some of the faithful to question their beliefs. Quite to the contrary. Almost all the faithful fit the observations into their beliefs (as vindication of their beliefs) and returned to their proselytizing efforts with a new energy.
I can't help but contrast the notion of cognitive dissonance with this marvelous quotation from John Maynard Keynes, who had been chided for changing his position on some important issue: "When my information change, I change my opinion. What do you do, Sir?"