We Don’t Want to Believe What We Know

In the words of The Doors, People Are Strange.

Take the phrase; ’face the facts.

We probably wouldn’t need a phrase for it, if there wasn’t any choice about it. Hard to imagine Star Trek’s logical Vulcan Mr Spock, or Lt Data ever choosing to do anything other than ‘facing the facts’. But we humans are strange.

It turns out that very often, we do exactly that – simply refusing to accept the facts. Rather than change our actions and behaviours in response to new information, we change our beliefs instead.

In 1954 the social psychologist Leon Festinger and a colleague infiltrated The Seekers, a small Chicago cult, which believed the end of the world was imminent. He wanted to document what happened when, presumably, the end of the world didn’t take place on December 21st 1954 as they had predicted. Expecting the disillusionment and fragmentation of the group, what actually happened surprised Leon and his colleagues – almost all the group changed their beliefs, deciding instead that the actions of their group had actually saved the world from destruction. Rather than accept their view of the world was wrong, they changed their beliefs to accommodate the ‘new facts’.

In his subsequent book ‘When Prophecy Fails‘, Leon coined the phrase Cognitive Dissonance to describe this process of the mind becoming aware that it holds two contradictory views at the same time, naturally wanting to resolve this ‘dissonance’, and so tending to modify the ‘less strongly held belief’ so it no longer contradicts the other – and very often this might mean refusing to accept new information that challenges a particularly strongly held belief.

We all do it.

- We don’t want to believe that eating junk food and not exercising will make us unhealthy, so we convince ourselves that there’s not that many calories in chocolate or wine, and anyway they has lots of other good health benefits.

- We don’t want to accept our holiday to our dream destination actually turned out a bit rubbish, so we focus on the positives, ignore the negatives and tell everyone how great it was.

- We don’t want to accept that we didn’t study enough for the test, so we tell ourselves the exam was particularly hard this year.

Leon wrote: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

It’s not that we ignore logic, just that our emotions work faster than our reason, so it’s our emotions that control our initial responses, and we just don’t like to admit to ourselves we were wrong . . .

It’s not hard to see how this applies to many of the world’s problems today – a couple of recent examples stand out:

- A group of climate sceptics in New Zealand have been legally challenging temperature records that show a warming trend.

- And in North Carolina legislators voted to ignore predictions of coastal impacts from sea level rise in planning decisions.

I can’t imagine there are too many climate sceptics who regularly read Next Starfish, and the rest of us might find it easy to scorn and laugh at stories like these, but perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so quick to judge.

Spend ninety minutes watching Yann Arthus Bernard’s exceptional HD film Home below (you’ll need to open it in new browser), and then ask yourself – is my lifestyle really in tune with my beliefs ?

Cognitive dissonance affects us all, to a greater or lesser extent – it’s part of the human condition.

The good news is ‘we all have the power to change, so what are we waiting for ?’


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Photo from NASA

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