Cognitive Dissonance: Why Mass Delusions Persist

I recently read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts on Dr. Eades’s recommendation. The book centers on cognitive dissonance theory (read this link for a good overview), which is ripe with insights into why people hold irrational beliefs. The essence of the theory is that when people are confronted with dissonant beliefs such as “I’m a good, smart person” and “I just made a bad mistake,” they tend to rationalize the latter so that the former is not undermined. Such a person might convince himself that it wasn’t a mistake, or that somebody else was responsible for it. Likewise, when people with poor self-esteem do something good, they tend to rationalize it away, e.g., “It would have happened without me anyways.” This rationalizing process can take someone step-by-step to the point of justifying things that they would have considered crazy at the outset.

A good example is the Milgram Experiment: the volunteers proceeded to deliver more and more powerful “shocks” (up to what they believed were dangerous levels) because they justified it one shock at a time. Once they had delivered the first shock, it wasn’t a big leap to justify giving the second shock, nor the third, and so on. But if they stopped for fear of harming the person, they would have to justify the previous few shocks, which weren’t much weaker. They faced the dissonance of admitting that they were wrong to be giving the shocks in the first place, which is why many people rationalized the shocks and continued as instructed. (Interestingly, this suggests that it was the incremental nature of the process that led so many to deliver dangerous shocks, and not just obedience to an authority figure, as commonly believed. Had the authority figure ordered the volunteers to deliver a dangerous shock right from the start, a lot more of them would have refused because they wouldn’t have had any dissonance to resolve.)

Confirmation bias plays an important role in rationalizing our beliefs, allowing us to discount or ignore disconfirming evidence and focus on the confirming evidence. People can become entrenched in the craziest beliefs via this process of step-by-step justification with confirmation bias, e.g., flat-earthers, vegetarians, and religious people. Take vegetarianism: let’s say you object to the cruel treatment of animals on factory farms. From there, it’s only a small step to the belief that killing animals is wrong. And from there, it’s a small step to the belief that eating meat is wrong. Confirmation bias smooths each step: you ignore or discount the counter-arguments and convince yourself with all the supporting arguments. Step-by-step, you slide further and further. By the end of the process, you’ve gone from the reasonable belief that animals shouldn’t be treated cruelly to the absurd belief that eating animals is unhealthy. The lesson here is that once we become committed to a belief, we become motivated to justify it. Confirmation bias helps smooth the process, and step-by-step we can end up strongly believing something that we previously would have considered ridiculous.

Cognitive dissonance theory offers some interesting practical advice. For instance, if you’re considering making a big purchase, don’t base your decision on the opinion of somebody who just made that purchase. They’ll be motivated to rationalize the purchase and you’ll tend to get biased advice. Another tip: if you want to win somebody’s friendship, get them to do a favor for you. They’ll be motivated to justify the favor by telling themselves that you’re a good person and you deserved it. Conversely, if you harm someone, you’ll be motivated to justify the harm by convincing yourself that the person deserved it. So venting your anger at someone is counter-productive: you’ll come to hate that person even more.

Cognitive dissonance theory has much to say about the mass delusions, which have the veneer of legitimacy because of their sheer number of believers. The main three are religion, statism, and mainstream health (or god, government, and grains.) To non-believers, these are completely loony beliefs that only persist because of cultural momentum. Because of this, a believer faces great dissonance in admitting that such beliefs are foolish. It would be very difficult for them to admit that their religion is nothing but a fairy tale; they would experience strong dissonance between “I’m intelligent and rational” and “I strongly believed in a fairy tale”. The dissonance would be even worse for intellectuals, who play a crucial role maintaining the legitimacy of widespread beliefs. To admit error is to admit that they misled countless people—a terrible thing to do—so there’s a strong motivation to rationalize the belief and convince themselves that they’re right. The dissonance becomes extreme in fields where the ideas have horrible real-world consequences, such as mainstream health or the social sciences. It would be extremely difficult to accept that “I promoted ideas that caused misery and deaths for countless people.” In these cases, the motivation to rationalize is tremendously powerful, which explains why conversions among these intellectuals are practically non-existent.

It’s important to understand this when working to explode mass delusions. Erroneous beliefs are rarely dropped right away—if they are at all, it’s often through a step-by-step reversal of the process that led there in the first place. One important conclusion we can draw is that if we want to convince someone of their error, we should respectfully and humbly point out their error. If we viciously attack their position as though only an idiot would believe it, then they face the dissonance of admitting that they strongly held an idiotic position and will be motivated to further entrench themselves in their position. Of course, we don’t always aim to convert the other person, in which case vicious attacks on their position can motivate other critics and win over undecided people. But when we really do want them to change their position, we would be wise to recognize that it will take time for them to correct their beliefs and that respectful criticism will go much further than head-on assault.

Perhaps most importantly, understanding cognitive dissonance theory can help us overcome our own biases and avoid the dangers of rationalization. The motivation to rationalize is quite difficult to escape, even for the authors of the book. We may always be susceptible, but we can protect ourselves by being aware of when we rationalize and stopping the process before it goes too far. It can be difficult and even humiliating to admit error, but a strong commitment to truth can provide the motivation. In the long run, a cultural shift in our attitudes towards mistakes would solve the bulk of the problem. If mistakes were considered normal and admission of error honorable, it would be much easier to admit error from the start, before rationalizing our way into delusion.

About Autor

I’m an undergrad student ultimately aiming for an economics PhD. In a nutshell, I’m an atheist, market anarchist, and paleo health enthusiast. In other words, I reject God, Government, and Grain.
This entry was posted in Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Cognitive Dissonance: Why Mass Delusions Persist

  1. Ben says:

    Not sure when this was written? Just thought it was interesting you used religion as something that causes dissonance. Not sure if you've seen Ben Stein's documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed", but the amount of dissonance seen in that film by evolutionists that deny the existence of God is extremely high. They have swept the clear evidence of intelligent design away, afraid of the implications.

    Just food for thought… you really should watch the movie.

    • Toban says:

      No, I've never seen it and don't plan on it. Evolution has been so solidly established as fact that it ranks up there with heliocentrism and the spherical earth theory. No serious biologist doubts evolution. Check out Dawkins's book, The Greatest Show on Earth.

      • Ben says:

        Your comment about "no serious biologist" is exactly what the documentary is about. The film documents case after case of scholars/researchers being censored or fired for suggesting that evidence they've discovered leads to the necessity of having an intelligent designer. The point of Stein's movie is not to get those watching to believe in creation. The point is to show that the realm of academia has systematically made it impossible for any "serious biologist" to doubt evolution since they're fired or black-balled.

        Now, if you'd like some material that deals with the individual aspects of the evidence concerning intelligent design, I suggest Lee Strobel's "Case for the Creator"

      • Ben says:

        I might read Dawkins book if I can find it at a library.

        Just a note. In his interview in the film, Dawkins says that if evidence were brought forth that pointed towards intelligent design on earth, what would he conclude?

        Dawkins answered he would conclude that an alien race had seeded the earth.

        That sounds like more of the fairy tale talked about in this article.

  2. Jeromie says:

    I've read The Greatest Show On Earth and I think it was better than The God Delusion. I would probably consider myself more Pantheist: "promotes the idea that "God" is better understood as a way of relating to nature and the Universe as a whole – all that was, is and shall be – rather than as a transcendent, mental, personal or creator entity" Dawkins calls it "sexed up atheism" in The God Delusion. The two arguments from The Greatest Show On Earth that stand out to me are the argument of the design of our eye, and the argument of the laryngeal nerve. A human engineer could've designed a better eye (rods and cones and an upside down backwards image?) and better route for the nerve (it loops from the brain stem down and wraps around the aorta I believe and comes back up to the larynx instead of straight to the larynx! Same with giraffes who have about 6 feet of poorly designed nerve). Our eye is unique because of millions of years of evolution. Our nerve goes that route because that's how it's designed in fish.. Meaning we evolved from sea creatures. We weren't magically created by a god, there's too much evidence against it..

    • Ben says:

      The problem I have with those who argue for evolution is that like your arguments, Jeromie, they never answer the questions that creationists ask. Evolutionists, at least in my opinion, without fail resort to attacking creationism, by calling it "magic", or attacking the design of the designer. Evolutionists remain unable to answer questions posed by creationists.

    • Ben says:

      By the way, Michael Behe, who authored "Darwin's Black Box" answers the evolutionist's argument about the eye in this way in Lee Strobel's book.

      "The point of irreducible complexity is not that one can't make some other system that could work in a different way with fewer parts. The point is that the system we're considering right now needs all of its parts to function. The challenge to Darwinian gradualism is to get to my system by means of numerous, successive, slight modifications. You can't do it."

      • Toban says:

        This is the fallacy of argument from personal incredulity: "I can't see how it could have evolved, therefore it couldn't have evolved." Scientists have already figured out how an eye could evolve gradually. The eye has evolution written all over it, e.g., retina installed backwards creating a blind spot.

        • Ben says:

          This is just false. Scientists have not "figured out" how the eye could have evolved. They may have come up with some scheme that they published, but they certainly haven't figured out how the eye evolved.

          Evolutionists, like yourself Toban, invariably say that they could take the components of the eye and form a better designed eye. What evolutionists can't and haven't done, is take natural elements and develop an eye, through small, successive changes, each one having to have produced an advantage to cause them to be the fittest to survive.

          • Toban says:

            No, I really mean that they actually have shown how an eye could have evolved incrementally, with each step being an improvement over the last. Starting from a patch of light sensitive skin cells, moving to a cup-eye, a pinhole eye, and finally a camera-lens eye. Of course they don't know the specifics of each step (too complicated), but they've proved the concept.

            • Ben says:

              You've just proved what I said. Yes, they may have conceptually developed the path that led from "light sensitive skin cells". But when it comes down to the specifics, i.e. the science, they don't know, they just make something up.

            • Puzzled says:

              The ID claim is that there is no path from no eye to the present eye such that each change is small and evolutionarily positive. Any story of how it could have happened refutes this claim, even if there is no reason to think that this particular story is how it actually happened. The ability to come up with multiple contradictory stories is an even stronger refutation, even though both could not have happened. For the ID argument on irreducible complexity to make sense, you need to claim precisely that this cannot happen, not that scientists don't know exactly how it happened. The latter does nothing to refute evolution – we have plenty of evidence for the general theory, so a successful objection has to show something that can't evolve.

              Other answers to irreducible complexity are: gradualism takes place at the genotype, not the phenotype, and it's possible for small genotype changes to be positive and only later add up to the phenotype of the eye.

              Complexity theory

            • Ben says:

              I'm saying that they've conjured up theories that have the "steps" but they have no idea how to get from step to step. The reason they don't know is because it can't happen, plain and simple.

            • Puzzled says:

              I once saw a Far Side cartoon where a scientist, unable to explain a certain step, wrote "then a miracle happens." (Actually, I once wrote that on a math prelim when I got stuck on a proof – I failed.) Yes, it's a problem when a scientist resorts to "then a miracle occurs." However, it's not as if the opposition in this case doesn't also rely on it – in fact, in the ID theory, "a miracle happens" is the whole theory.

            • Ben says:

              Exactly, we both believe it was a miracle. I believe that miracle happened because and ID made it happen. Seems evolutionists just think it happened, and (at least in my mind) are too afraid of the implications to accept that something had to have made it happen.

  3. Ben says:

    Below is an answer to your "badly designed eye" THEORY

    The invertebrate eye is much simpler and is quite different, especially in the design of its retina. The invertebrate retina is composed of the photoreceptors, which face the incoming light, followed by the neural layer, and the underlying layers that supply nutrients and oxygen through a capillary bed. However, the vertebrate retina is said to be "inverted," since the neural layers face the light and the photoreceptor cells actually face away from the incident light. Evolutionists say that this arrangement was the result of improvised evolution in which obvious errors in "design" were accommodated through successive mutational alterations to make the apparatus work in a functional manner. According to Richard Dawkins, a leading proponent of evolution:

    "Any engineer would naturally assume that the photocells would point towards the light, with their wires leading backwards towards the brain. He would laugh at any suggestion that the photocells might point away, from the light, with their wires departing on the side nearest the light. Yet this is exactly what happens in all vertebrate retinas. Each photocell is, in effect, wired in backwards, with its wire sticking out on the side nearest the light. The wire has to travel over the surface of the retina to a point where it dives through a hole in the retina (the so-called ‘blind spot’) to join the optic nerve. This means that the light, instead of being granted an unrestricted passage to the photocells, has to pass through a forest of connecting wires, presumably suffering at least some attenuation and distortion (actually, probably not much but, still, it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer). I don’t know the exact explanation for this strange state of affairs. The relevant period of evolution is so long ago."4

    Dawkins doesn't know why the vertebrate retina is designed this way because he doesn't really understand how the eye works. In fact, the retina is designed with slightly suboptimal light gathering abilities so that it will be functional for at least several decades. If it were designed according to Dawkins' "tidy-minded engineer," it would not work at all, as we shall see.

    First, we need a short introduction to the physics of light. The electromagnetic spectrum emitted by the sun is composed of many different wavelengths, a small percentage of which are visible to our eyes (370-730 nanometers). The near-visible wavelengths include the longer wavelengths (infrared) and the shorter wavelengths (ultraviolet). The amount of energy within each wavelength is inversely proportional to the wavelength. Therefore, electromagnetic energy that consists of shorter wavelengths (e.g., ultraviolet light) is more energetic.

    Although the visual apparatus cannot detect the high energy wavelengths, it is still affected by them, since the entire system is exposed to the full spectrum. In contrast, the rest of the body is protected from high energy light by pigment (melanin) in the skin. Even so, a lifetime exposure of the skin cells to this light can result in DNA damage, which may lead to the development of cancers. The eye contains a special layer of cells, the Retinal Pigment Epithelium (RPE), which has complex mechanisms for dealing with toxic molecules and free radicals produced by the action of light. Specific enzymes such as the superoxide dismutases, catalases, and peroxidases are present to eliminate potentially harmful molecules such as superoxide and hydrogen peroxide. Antioxidants such as a-tocopherol (vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are available to reduce oxidative damage.

    Because of continuous damage caused by light, the discs (along with the photopigments) of the photoreceptor cells are continuously replaced by the RPE.5, 6 If this were not the case, the photoreceptors would quickly accumulate fatal defects that would prohibit their function. In addition, the RPE cells contain the pigment melanin, which absorbs stray and scattered light to improve visual acuity. The RPE is in contact with the choroid layer, which contains a very large capillary bed, which has the largest blood flow per gram of any tissue in the body. Why is the blood flow so high in the choroid? Since the RPE and photoreceptor cells are in constant regeneration, they require a high rate of exchange of oxygen and nutrients. In addition, it appears that the high rate of blood flow is required to remove heat from the retina to prevent damage resulting from focused light (the old magnifying glass in the Sun phenomenon).7

    So why is Dawkins' "tidy-minded engineer" design such a bad idea? Dawkins thinks that the neural layer should be under the photoreceptors, putting them between the photoreceptors and the choroid. Where would the RPE (which is required to regenerate the photoreceptors) go? If it were between the neural layer and the choroid, it would be too far away from the photoreceptors to constantly regenerate them. In addition, this design would put another layer between the photoreceptors and their blood supply, reducing the exchange of oxygen and nutrients, and minimizing the effectiveness of the choroid in removing heat from the receptors. Dawkins' idea of "good" evolution would prevent the photoreceptors from being regenerated and would likely lead to heat damage. Such a design would certainly fail within the first year of use. It's a good thing that God does not design the way evolutionists would!

    • Toban says:

      This only makes sense in the context of evolution. The backwards-retina path was taken and couldn't be undone, so it was improved upon and made use of the "wires" to block UV radiation. If an intelligent agent were to design an eye in one shot, it would be much better to have a specialized UV screen (like the extra eyelid of polar bears), rather than the makeshift method of putting the retina in backwards and then using the wires as a screen. Evolution builds kluges, engineers don't. This is a great example.

    • Puzzled says:

      Who made the laws of physics and biology? Why not put the photoreceptors in the front and have them not wear out? This is God we're talking about, isn't it?

      For that matter, why do I have blood running around my body in vessels? If vessels break, this blood runs out, or into internal places, and I die. What kind of design is that?

      Why do I need oxygen (and why doesn't the Bible say anything about oxygen)? Why do I suffocate?

      Don't bother telling me about overpopulation – why not make an expanding Earth, or have a different law so that we don't run out of space? Regarding food – why make people require food?

      • Ben says:

        Again, this falls into what is described in the article above. Using the idea that something is designed differently than you would have done it does nothing to prove your side of the argument, nor does it do anything to disprove ID.

        • Puzzled says:

          So you mean to tell me it is inconsequential that I can think of improvements to a design supposedly made by an all-knowing, all-powerful creature? Obvious design flaws don't make it reasonable to question the thesis that this is the handiwork of a perfect being?

          • Ben says:

            I am not saying it's inconsequential. I just think you're ideas are flawed, and untestable, unless you have the ability to create a living eye and test your hypothesis.

            Second, if you are correct and we all did evolve from nothing, how smart would I be if I trusted the random firings of synapses in your brain. Further, if I just evolved to where I am now, do I have the ability to believe something?

            • Puzzled says:

              It has nothing to do with an eye. It's been pointed out that other models work better. My point is not this – my point is that your response takes the laws of physics, reality, etc. to be given, but this is simply not true if God is designing everything. You can't talk about "well, the eye would get damaged" if God can just fix that without making the eye upside down.

              The ability of the brain to reason is independent of the process by which it was made. If you want to say that brains cannot reason, you need an argument other than the process by which it was made – particularly since reasoning properly would have great evolutionary value.

            • Ben says:

              I guess what I'm saying is that we can believe there are better ways of doing something, but since we can't test it, we can't know…

  4. Ben says:

    I would love to continue to discuss the finer points of evolution/creation with you, but I can see it will amount to little for either of us. The fact that you say "no serious biologist doubts evolution" and refuse to watch Stein's documentary demonstrates this. In my eyes, you've bought into the mass delusion of evolution, and won't permit yourself to be challenged by watching a documentary.

    • Toban says:

      Yes, this debate will probably go nowhere. I'm sorry, but I just can't take creationism seriously… like Dawkins, I'd sooner go with "alien seeding" than a supernatural explanation. Documentaries are a terrible way to learn about something since they're almost always shallow and biased. Is there any scholarly work on the topic?

      • Ben says:

        Plenty of stuff if you're willing to read.

        Lee Strobel's "Case for the Creator" is probably the best place to start, because he interviews experts in just about every field of science. At the end of each chapter, Strobel lists the works of the person he's interviewed.

        Toban, do you not think it is a little disingenuous to decide beforehand that if you found evidence for design you would attribute it to aliens? To me, making that type of decision before looking at the evidence will lead to more confirmation bias/ mass delusion effect.

        • Toban says:

          I have to draw the line somewhere. Some things I just don't take seriously, no matter how earnest the proponent: unicorns, flat earth, geocentrism, Santa Claus, etc. I also include the supernatural. Hence, if there were evidence of design, I would favor the alien seeding theory (since it is not supernatural). It really isn't that far out (for an evolutionist), considering the vastness of the universe, there is a good chance of extraterrestrial life arising. Just to be clear, I don't think terrestrial life was seeded exogenously. As a Darwinist, I think life arose from self-replicating molecules and that all living things descended from a common ancestor.

          Thanks for pointing out that book. While I'm occupied with other stuff, if I decide to delve into the debate I'll check his references.

          • Ben says:

            While I am fairly earnest in my proclamation that there is a Creator. That's not my plea to you. My plea is rational and non-emotional… that you should look at all the evidence before you conclude that there is no intelligent designer.

            Just to point out… (and I'm not trying to be arrogant). I'm a pharmacist, have gone through significant courses in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, etc…. There is no such thing as self-replicating molecules, that is, without the help of enzymes, proteins, etc. There is no way for a molecule to suddenly replicate. Enzymes and proteins must come from some type of DNA or RNA that has the design of enzyme embedded into the sequence of nucleotides. Furthermore, RNA and DNA themselves cannot be formed without the help of enzymes. So you've got a paradox (chicken and the egg) DNA cannot exist without enzyme, and enzyme cannot exist with DNA.

  5. Ben says:

    I mentioned this above, but I'll further ask here.

    Science has shown that there is a part of humans that is non-material. Call it a spirit, soul, whatever you want. But there is plenty of evidence that confirms it.

    Science fiction movies would have us believe that as computers become more and more complex, they will eventually become conscious and start making judgements, holding beliefs, etc. But it just won't happen, and it's nothing but make believe that consciousness comes at a certain point of complexity. How does something "spiritual" arise from mere matter.

  6. Seth says:

    Mass delusion persists for one reason and one reason only, non-interactive mass media. From Gutenberg to Farnsworth people gradually became more educated (indoctrinated), and less capable of independent critical thinking. Only the rise of the interactive education qualities of the Internet have help, a little bit, to reverse this trend — specifically blogging and commenting. Unfortunately, I suspect it is too little too late. At this point, the average human has lost so much mental capacity that the wheel couldn't be reinvented in the absence of directions from an authority figure.

  7. Jay says:

    In your section on confirmation bias, you lay out this sequence:
    factory farms are cruel –> killing animals is wrong –> eating animals is wrong (immoral)
    Then you switch to a different one-step sequence with a completely different end-point:
    factory farms are cruel –> eating animals is unhealthy
    Please go back and read that section and I am sure you will see the problem in your argument.

    Also, a vegetarian diet adds one to two years to one's life. Guess you'll have to find a different example all together.

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