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On changing minds

October 13, 2008

The presidential election, among other things, have brought a book that I read a year or so ago to the forefront of my brain. The book “Mistakes were made (But not by me)” talks largely about Cognitive Dissonance. During an election season the avoidance and resolution thereof is practically a daily affair.

I really find that understanding cognitive dissonance and how humans deal with it is valuable as a debate tactic both in politics and the quest for fat acceptance. (There was also an excellent podcast by Carol Travis that I now cannot find.)  I often hear tell of conversations where, if someone was approached more appropriately they might have allowed more new information to begin to change their minds.

The first thing to understand is what cognitive dissonance is, Wikipedia says:

cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling or stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a fundamental cognitive drive to reduce this dissonance by modifying an existing belief, or rejecting one of the contradictory ideas.

This is true. So ideas like “the sky is blue,” and “the sky is red” have to be resolved by one or the other being correct. We cannot think that the sky is both blue and red, so we are forced to reconcile those ideas by rejecting one of them. (This is a really dumb example and I apologize.)

What I find incredibly interesting about cognitive dissonance is where it gets wrapped up in our own self worth. And this is where it causes Serious Problems. So, lets say that we have been believing for a long time that the sky is red. And out of the “red” someone one day undertakes to prove to us that NO, the sky is NOT red it is, in fact blue. In a simple world we would evaluate the evidence and change our minds.

In a complex world we have other beliefs to deal with. Lets say we hold not only that “The sky is red” but also that “I have an excellent perception of color.” So, by accepting that we were wrong and the sky is blue, not only do we have to resolve dissonance as to the color of the sky, but we also have to resolve that pesky idea that we have an excellent color perception.

It is our preconcieved notions of ourselves that cause us to respond to “The sky is blue” with “NO YOU IDIOT THE SKY IS RED!” It is much easier to resolve dissonance about ourselves by confirming that we are right, and therefore a good person, a smart person, a non colorblind person and that other people are wrong, than it is to adjust our own beliefs.   It depends largely on how tightly held the beliefs are in the first place, clearly, someone who doesn’t care about the color of the sky or their color perception may simply acknowledge their mistaken beliefs immediately.  (My colorblind boyfriend, for example)  However someone who is very proud of their color perception, or very committed to a red sky may actually become even more tightly bound to their previous beliefs.

This is so important for groups like the fatosphere or feminists to recognize. When we try to tell people that there is nothing wrong with being fat, that we are not inherently bad or lazy people, that we deserve respect, that we aren’t all going to die from TeH FaTz0rZ they often react with violent, vitriolic and irrational objections. This is because to accept that the fatosphere is correct they would have to acknowledge that they were wrong to make fun of or scorn fat people, or that they are wasting their time dieting and desperately pursuing thinness for the sake of their “health.” Acknowledging that they are wrong about hating fat people, or starving themselves would mean to acknowledge that they are bad people, or foolish, and no one wants to be either one of those things.

The key, In my opinion, is to find a way to allow people to change their minds about a topic, without forcing them to change their fundamental opinions about themselves. They have to be able to blame their exsisting views on something outside of themselves, the media, society at large, their overbearing parents, SOMETHING, so that they can change their mind without having to acknowledge they are not a good person.  (But, y’know, I could be wrong.)

For example, to go back to the earlier sky example, suppose that it was framed so that the perception of color wasn’t the problem, but that so and so had given us the wrong label for Red, so long ago, and we had been misinformed all this time.  Then it isn’t our fault, we have a good perception of colour, we just didn’t know any better.  Viola, we can still have a good perception of ourselves and change our minds.

(The unfortunate fact is that we probably DON”T have a very good perception of color, but I think we are pretty unlikely to acknowledge that. )

Now that probably still won’t work a lot of the time. Unfortunately some people are so afraid of being wrong that any evidence they may even be slightly incorrect is greeted with *fingers in ears* “LALALA I”M RIGHT YOU’RE DUMB LALALALALA.”  I hope that if approached in the right way though, some people may be more willing to change their minds.

If you find this even remotely interesting I cannot recommend the book I listed above enough. There was also this interesting research done this year about political misinformation and a “backfire” effect.  I believe this is rooted in the same mental ministrations.


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  1. Shinobi – this made me think of this great quote from J. K. Galbraith:
    “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so,
    almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

    I’ve read good things about that book – I must put it on my Amazon shopping list…

  2. Excellent quote.

  3. littlem permalink

    I love your blog so much right now.

    “The key, In my opinion, is to find a way to allow people to change their minds about a topic, without forcing them to change their fundamental opinions about themselves.”

    That do be the tricky part, don’t it? Of course, if it weren’t, life wouldn’t be as scintillatingly interesting as it is.


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