I often tell my wife that cognitive dissonance makes the world go round. When people encounter facts that are opposite their beliefs, they adjust their mental model to rationalize things, or simply ignore the new facts. There are plenty of Arabs and Muslims who believed that Saddam Hussein wasn’t such a bad guy, mainly because he opposed the Americans and because he was a staunch backer of the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel. Cognitive dissonance enabled (or, rather, forced) them to rationalize the fact that he horribly mistreated his own people, fellow Muslims, because he was probably the Arab leader who most strongly stood against things that they wanted to someone powerful to stand against.
Last night I had the horrible misfortune of watching 15 minutes or so of Fox News while waiting for takeout. They cited a poll in which 62% of Americans said that we can declare victory even if “weapons of mass destruction” are never found. Of course most people say that — the war is already all but won and who doesn’t want to declare victory at this point? Just as we can look at the typical Arab reaction and see cognitive dissonance is the prime mover, so too can we look at these poll results and see exactly the same thing. The poll also shows that 81% support taking military action against Iraq. Again, what’s the surprise there? We’ve already taken military action and we have, for all intents and purposes, already won. Again, cognitive dissonance at work. Is it too much to ask for polls that actually give us some illuminating information?
Anyway, once I learned what cognitive dissonance was, I became almost infinitely fascinated with it. In fact, my favorite moments come when I realize that it’s having an effect on me. When someone I admire does something really stupid, embarrassing, or malicious, and I start making excuses to myself on their behalf, I always get a little chuckle about good ol’ cognitive dissonance. Try it, you may enjoy it too.