Broken Cognitive Dissonance

Over 40 years ago I started a university psychology major, but gave it up for other interests.  But I never lost my fascination with human thinking, and in particular the bizarre beliefs people hold, and actions they take, which often display very little critical thought process.

Over the years I have come across many psychological theories which seem to have applicability in the real world such as  Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the learnings from Milgram's obedience to authority tests.  Anyone who paid even superficial attention to Zimbardo's prison experiment would not have been surprised by the Abu Ghraib torture scenario.  All salesmen know the persuasive technique commonly called the foot-in-the-door theory.

This missive will deal with cognitive dissonance, which I view as a subset of self deception.  This is not an educated treatise on the subject, just one layman's observations.  Since it is my blog I will present the material (as usual) with my usual mix of opinion, irony, and ridicule.  People these days rarely respond to logic alone, and need to be given some emotional content to get their attention.

So how did the cognitive dissonance theme arise?  Someone I know remarked she was applying for two jobs, one that she wanted and one that she didn't.  Seeing the apparent contradiction, she hypothesized that her cognitive dissonance feature must be "broken".  I offer an alternate hypothesis.  She had recently been to the United Slackminds of America where there is a dearth of cognitive dissonance.  Hers may have been stolen.

Let's look at the a basic cognitive dissonance, that of a smoker presented with evidence that smoking is harmful to one's health as in the following graphic.

You no doubt know a smoker who has pointed something like "My granddad smoked until the day he died at the age of 97, and my granola-eating non-smoking cousin died of a heart attack at age 39, and my brother was killed in a car accident at 20.  So there!"  By this reasoning, the scientific studies don't apply to individuals -- death is random.  Or you may know someone who points out there are degrees of harm, and smoking helps him/her control weight (excess fat kills) or relax (stress kills).  Or you may know someone who has used a false equivalency argument:  "At least I don't use drugs."  The rationales that people will use to decrease the cognitive dissonance inherent in the smoking habit are endless.

Want to experience a small amount of frustration similar to that found in cognitive dissonance?  Follow the instructions in the graphic below.

Here's how Scott Adams treated cognitive dissonance in some of his Dilbert cartoon strips.

Now let's look at some real life examples, most drawn from the United Sensationalists of America.  Remember the right wing furor over President Obama bowing to Saudi King Abdullah?  

I can't find nearly as many conservative commentators criticizing George Bush's "friendly treatment" of the same guy.  The following two photos were taken in 2005 when Bush was pleading with the Saud family to do something to decrease the price of oil, and at the same meeting the Saudis criticized America over the war in Iraq.

The above image no doubt caused some neurons to short-circuit in the minds of hardline conservatives.  Some criticized the journalist who published the photo as being on a smear campaign against Bush.

Here's another from the same meeting.

I think Dick Cheney had his 14th heart attack when he saw this.

But in my mind this scenario may have gone further.  Note:  this is purely hypothetical.

In the hypothetical scenario, after the cameras are sent home, Bush and Abdullah casually stroll off hand-in-hand into dense foliage, exchanging the occasional smooch along the way.  They don't re-appear for some time, while security personnel surrounding the area appear quite agitated.  

Some days later a rumour (in my mind only) surfaces that Bush allowed Abdullah to commit indignities upon him.  Whitehouse spokesmen mutter things like, "The President was on vacation.  You know how one thing can lead to another.  We're all human.  Nothing illegal happened.  There's a bigger picture here; sometimes you have to take one for the Gipper."

When asked specifically whether penetration was involved, all Whitehouse spokespeople stated that to their knowledge that was not the case.  However, they were fairly consistent in stating the non-existent hypothetical penetration would have been only this much:

Anything for oil.  It was the hypothetic patriotic thing to do.


There has to be considerable cognitive dissonance in America over the numerous wars for profit.  I suspect much of the angst is covered up with anti-depressants.   I know people who served in Viet Nam and some of them still maintain they won the war.  Some of them claim it wasn't a clear win, but would have been if the pansies in the Whitehouse would have let them bomb more (as if that was even possible).

Others admit they lost.  Some acknowledge they were lied to by the government throughout the war, and even understand the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a false flag incident designed to stampede the Congress into voting for war.  Many were exposed to agent orange and other chemicals while being told the chemicals were not harmful to humans.  Veterans with disabilities struggled getting treatment for their injuries upon return.  The movie Born on the Fourth of July portrays the life of Ron Kovic, and the way Americans approached the war and the impact it had on individuals and families.  (By the way, the real life Ron Kovic has absolutely no use for Colin Powell.  That would be due to Powell's early career "whitewash" study of American war atrocities in Viet Nam, followed by many other Powell misrepresentations of American military aggression and covert operations as he climbed in rank, culminating in his misrepresentations to the United Nations to justify the war in Iraq.  Note the article in the previous link does not deal with the Gulf War of 1991 where Powell was heavily involved in misrepresenting the true state of affairs.)

What boggles my mind, and is giving me my own cognitive dissonance, is how seemingly normal people who served in Viet Nam can encourage their kids to serve in Iraq.  This absolutely dumbfounds me!  They seem to view it as their patriotic duty to "defend their freedoms" by each generation bombing some nearly defenceless people to smithereens.  The attitude was displayed well by Lieutenant Dan in the movie Forest Gump.


Here's a personal anecdote of where I sucker-punched (mentally) an American I met in a campground in an unnamed State in 2007.  He was quite voluble, not very bright, and had a strong opinion on every issue others introduced, including those he had minimal knowlege on.  

This guy was from Minnesota, about 280 pounds, beer gut much in evidence.  He had a huge truck with duallies and a fifth wheel attachment and was towing a trailer that would adequately house three families of undocumented alien labourers.  He was a strong supporter of the US military, and was one of those ignoramuses who brings up every (mostly incorrect) stereotype Americans have of Canadians, and seem to find hilarious.  His attitude was very similar that portrayed by this annoying guy, only the Minnesota guy was almost twice as big.

So at one point the Minnesotan was pontificating on terrorists and national security.  He unwisely brought up the canard about "All Muslims aren't terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims."  Without missing a beat, I politely interjected, "Oh, I didn't know Timothy McVeigh was a Muslim.  When did he convert?"  Game, set, and match!  (Mental fist pump!)

You could literally see the cognitive dissonance richocheting through the rather empty spaces of this guy's brain.  McVeigh, the highly intelligent American war hero killed 168 Americans in Oklahoma City.  So for a short while this guy just sort of gaped and tried unsuccessfully to say something, similar to a carp out of water.  Then he just ambled off to his trailer.

There was one other Canadian there that I knew although we weren't travelling together, and he was of the opinion I shouldn't have done that.  The American probably had a handgun in his trailer, and just might decide to return with it.  I hoped the Minnesotan would return so I could ask him if he knew the real reason Americans were dying in Iraq.  After listening to the normal propaganda about "fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here", etc., I would patiently explain, "No, your military is in Iraq because too many people like you drive gas-guzzling vehicles.  It's all about stealing Iraqi oil."  But he never came back.

By the way, from a purely technical point of view, Timothy McVeigh could be viewed as a slightly more efficient killer than the 9/11 terrorists.  McVeigh killed 168, whereas the Muslims killed fewer than 3,000.  If each of the 19 Muslims had killed 168, the total would have been 3192.  I'm leaving Terry McNichols' assistance out, as it was minimal, as well as the network assistance to the Muslim terrorists because that is hard to quantify.  So once again the superiority of American military training is demonstrated.


Today the ECRI Leading Index came in at -10.5% year-over-year.  This index is widely followed by economists and investors.  Whenever it has dropped 10% year-over-year in the last 40-50 years the American economy has either been in recession or entered one shortly thereafter.  It was widely accepted as predicting an upturn in the American economy last year when it turned up.  But now for some strange reason the developers of the index say it doesn't predict a double dip recession, despite its 100% accuracy in the past.  I suspect there is considerable cognitive dissonance going on there.

Follow up, Monday July 26.  David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff posted the below chart on the ECRI today.  The horizontal axis is year, vertical axis is ECRI year-over-year percentage change, and vertical green bars are recession periods.

Many Canadians are quite optimistic about the Canadian economy.  After all, we're special and our banks are the most conservative in the world.  Everyone wants to live in Vancouver so median house prices at 10x median income seems normal, even though the long term historical standard worldwide tends to be 3x-4x.  Toronto prices are high also, but they, too seem sustainable (to Torontonians). Canadians are conservative and the banks won't let them take on more debt than they can manage.  We don't have subprime loans.  Our governments aren't heavily indebted.  We can't experience a nation-wide housing collapse like America, just a little 5-10% pullback on rare occasions.  Or at least that's what we're told by the government and media.  All those warm and fuzzy statements are untrue.  It'll be interesting to see the cognitive dissonance across Canada when the gullible public find out what happens when reality sets in.  It has already started, but most people will be in denial.

After writing the above paragraph I thought I would check to see if Garth Turner had a new post on his blog.  He did, and I agree with his comments of the Canadian housing market being over-priced.  I disagree that the US housing market is due for a rebound next year, and to be even more argumentative predict that the US will be statistically indistinguishable from other third world countries by 2020.  

What most professional economists and money managers fail to understand is that energy underlies all potential growth, not interest rates or access to capital.  No growth in energy supply = no economic growth.  Rise in energy supply, but at cost in excess of inflation rate = no growth, low growth, or recession.  Decrease in energy supply = depression. While they can pontificate on future price movements based on past cycles, they fail to understand the present situation is nothing like anything we have experienced in the past.  The cognitive dissonance in the minds of economists will be enormous as their models of the world are increasingly at variance with reality. 

I'm not sure if Garth is looking at increasing income and wealth disparity in America, but I certainly am.  Canadian numbers are similar, but not quite as bad.  Our economies are based on consumer spending providing 65-70% of the impetus.  Check the graphs in the preceeding link, or Cenk Uygur's YouTube discussion of the same graphs.  North American consumers have been decreasing their savings rates for years, and taking on increasing amounts of debt.  The consumer debt has reached unsustainable levels and not all can be paid back.  The same applies for Government debt, which is just citizen debt by another name.  Citizen and government debt has increased dramatically as corporations have transferred their debt to the public; that's what all the bailouts were about.  These are the manifestations of a dysfunctional society.  That which cannot continue won't; expect social unrest and blood in the streets before we start a new cycle.  Think of the French Revolution as the closest analogy.
In the remote possibility that my analyses are wrong, it will be because a plentiful and cheap energy source has been found to supplement oil.  There is considerable hype on "green renewables" which in most cases is a euphemism for "we're dumber than rocks and never studied math, chemistry or physics, and don't even know the physical constraints inherent in our hair-brained schemes".  However, there is one potential renewable energy source that Americans are overlooking.  I think it has the potential to make America energy self-sufficient.  The source?

Liposuction biodiesel; the fuel of the future!

1 comment:

  1. wonderful. thank you.

    cognitive dissonance explains everything.