Thursday, 13 August 2009

Cognitive dissonance

I'm in the middle of Paul Mason's book on the crisis. It's written in a nice style, more a bit of reportage than analysis so far though. However one thing that immediately grates is his incorrect use of the term cognitive dissonance. I know I've moaned about this before, but it's quite an important thing to get right.

What it is not: The ability to hold contradictory beliefs, or some variation of this

What it is: The feeling caused by contradictory beliefs

Actually this should be pretty obvious, since the term roughly translates as thinking that isn't in harmony, or is discordant. Unfortunately Mason compounds his error by including a definition of cognitive dissonance in his glossary which is cobblers (though the study mentioned did focus on this subject).

I think what happens is that people jump to stage where the individual/group develops a strategy to reduce/eliminate the dissonance, and think this is cognitive dissonance itself rather than the response to it.

Ho hum.

UPDATE: Actually Pete points out that I haven't quite nailed this one myself! See comments...


Tom Freeman said...

He presumably means doublethink, which is the ability to hold contradictory beliefs without cognitive dissonance.

Charlie Marks said...

I must say, I didn't notice that.

What I liked about Paul's book was that it dealt with the labour/capital dynamic - similarly, the book I'm reading at the moment by Graham Turner does the same. I like the outline of a socialised banking system, too.

Paulie said...

He should use the term 'cognitive polyphasia' instead.

Tom Powdrill said...

yep definitely a good read Charlie, and as you say some overlap with the Graham Turner book. I still don't think the definitive Left book on the crisis has been written yet, but you can already see the outline of what the core critique is. (And personally I think one issue that sticks out like a sore thumb is the declining puchasing power/demand of labour and how it has had to be supplemented by credit.)

Charlie Marks said...

Have you read Larry Eliott and Dan Atkinson's The Gods That Failed? I would recommend it, even though much will be familiar.

Pete said...

Well, Tom, I hate to nit-pick with your nit-pick but Cognitive Dissonance isn't a feeling either. Certainly it's associated with feelings of discomfort, but the Big Idea is that we seek to unify our ideas. C D happens when we try to hold conflicting ideas (such as Relativity and Quantum explanations of the physical universe) or when our ideas clash with reality. We can relieve the tension by focusing on the contradictions and trying to resolve them ( search for a Unifying Theory in Physics) or by ignoring reality or, interestingly, reinterpreting reality to fit our (wrong) theory.

Here's an example of the latter and a bit about why I think there's more to CD than you say from an explanation here
Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen. While fringe members were more inclined to recognise that they had made fools of themselves and to "put it down to experience", committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

Which has a better explanation of CD. The examples here are bad as well - but the Dilbert cartoon is closer - and very funny (IMHO).

And I think this matters, because it seems to me we are going through pretty much the opposite of Festinger's 'end-of-the-world cult. We believed there never could be a flood again but now we're mopping up and hoping the peak has passed it seems to me that our politicians and (dare one say?) economists are relieving the scary feelings associated with CD and beginning to deny relity - it didn't happen, or if it did, it's exactly what we expected according to our theory of the way the world economy works. No need to change anything.

All of which makes it very important that the facts are grabbed - maybe with as little interpretation as possible at this stage - for the benefit of we 'fringe members' (party members, voters, unemployed)...

Cheers - and thanks for the post (and the blog)


Tom Powdrill said...

Hi Pete

thanks for the comment - very enlightening! I'll add a little update to my post.


Nope, but I read Fantasy Island and was unimpressed, so have given it a wide berth so far.