July 22, 2008


He meant to do that.

In the 1950s, members of a UFO cult were convinced that the world as we know it was about to end at a given date (sound familiar?) When the date came and went, members were in a quandary.

They were in the distinctly uncomfortable situation of holding two conflicting ideas at the same time. On the one hand, they believed strongly that the aliens were going to come at a given time--except that the aliens didn't show.

They could have said, "Jeez, what was I thinking?"--but they didn't. Instead, they began to proselytise aggressively for their new religion, something they had never done before. After all, the saucer people were nice enough to spare us, right?

You can read about all this in psychologist Leon Festinger's engaging book, When Prophecy Fails.

Festinger called that conflicted state of mind "cognitive dissonance." It's a complicated idea but a commonplace reality. Here's the abbreviated Goat Rope version:

People don't like to think they were really, REALLY wrong about something and, as a way of avoiding that situation, they often construct elaborate rationalizations to justify things.

Let's take a hypothetical case. Suppose a national leader led his country to an unnecessary war and it turned out that the justifications for it were bogus. (Remember, this is just a hypothetical situation.) The leader could say "My bad." That would be a gutsy leader. Or, more likely, he could hold forth about "staying the course."

(Aren't you glad stuff like this never really happens?)

To use another scenario, suppose you have rounded up a bunch of prisoners and have begun to abuse them. Most people would be very uncomfortable thinking that they were abusing a random assortment of folks. It's a lot easier when you tell yourself and the world that these are dangerous terrorists.

For that matter, it's a lot easier to justify enslaving a group of people if you can construct an ideological justification for it. For this reason, some researchers have argued that slavery led to racism rather than vice versa.

In any case, cognitive dissonance and our attempts to escape from it contribute vastly to the world's violence, evil, and misery.

I'LL TAKE ONE! A British think tank is calling for a "Green New Deal" to confront the world's economic and environmental woes.

BULLY FOR YOU (NOT). Investigators have found a link between bullying and being bullied and suicide in children.

A SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC MOMENT? From the AFLCIO blog, here's a report from Netroots Nation about how the US may be on the edge of progressive reform.

NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the US is slipping on the development index in terms of life expectancy, health and other factors.

MIRROR, MIRROR. Take a look.


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