Dissonance in human nature

How do we resolve the inevitable perceived contradictions in the traits of the people around us?

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey relates how he was riding on the New York subway one Sunday morning. The carriage was peaceful, with people quietly reading their papers, or just resting. Then a man and his children got on, and the scene changed completely. The children were loud, throwing things, grabbing at people’s papers and so on. Their dad, sitting next to Covey with his eyes closed, seemed oblivious to what his offspring were up to.

What kind of insensitive, inadequate parent would let his children run wild like that without even attempting to take responsibility? So eventually Covey turned to him, and asked him whether he might at least try to control them a little more. The man appeared to come out of a state of unconsciousness, and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

This is a great example of cognitive dissonance. We start off with a certain belief, and are then confronted with a completely different picture that is at odds with it. That dissonance can be pretty uncomfortable.

One way of dealing with this kind of thing is to change our mind. We let go of the original belief and adopt a new one — the dad is not an irresponsible parent, but someone who deserves our understanding and sympathy.

Two pure Ecuadorians. But who is the good guy, and who the bad guy? (Photo: Wikimedia)

But that is the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, once we have categorized a person we don’t easily move them into a different class. That is in particular the case when we have a strong positive or negative opinion of a public figure, someone we don’t know personally, but whose character and nature we nevertheless believe to know very well. That belief is like a valuable investment to us, which we don’t give up just like that.

The writing of this article was triggered by the mention of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, in the news last week (when it was reported that he has obtained Ecuadorian citizenship). Mr Assange is a hero in the eyes of his supporters, for publicizing secret material that compromises the great and the good, and that lays bare some of the more shady dealings that are going on unseen to the public eye. But he has also been accused of sexual assault and ‘lesser degree rape’. If someone is your hero, but allegedly also a sexual predator, does that make him a good guy or bad guy? The cognitive dissonance is evident.

Some supporters of the Republican party in the US must be experiencing something similar. They would probably not hesitate to rebuke certain aspects of the president’s behaviour if it were displayed by anyone else (especially if it were a Democratic politician). But as they have nailed their colours to his mast so to speak, such critical feelings would cause unbearable cognitive dissonance.

The opposite happens too. We expect members of another tribe (certainly if they are really opponents, like in politics) to say and do things we oppose. When they say or do something that, if it was said by someone on our side, a good guy, we would applaud, that is incongruent with our belief. We experience cognitive dissonance.

If we feel unable to reclassify a person on the basis of new information — and it is indeed we, for this phenomenon is by no means limited to supporters of Mr Assange or Mr Trump — we resort to other tactics. The easiest one is simply ignoring the contrary information. Confirmation bias is very helpful in this respect: we only look at the behaviour of the person that neatly fits with our prior perception.

If we cannot escape the facts, then another possibility is motivated reasoning. We develop an explanation for the incongruence that preserves our image of the person in question. We work back from the immutable belief that he or she is a good guy (or a bad guy) and come up with alternative reasons for the facts. Assange is being framed by the FBI; Trump is not doing or saying anything that an ordinary bloke in the pub wouldn’t do or say, so hey, what’s the big deal? And if a bad guy says something that is actually quite good, of course they have ulterior motives or are being hypocrites.

The problem with this is the strong heuristic that good guys are basically right, and bad guys are basically wrong. This finds its origin in the halo effect, a cognitive bias that generalizes positive traits. (The similar generalization of negative traits is called the horn effect.) Thinking in that way can cloud our judgement and make us lose sight of the facts.

Taleb, Tetlock, Thaler — who’s got the halo, and who the horns? (Images via Twitter)

Even in the world of academia, which you might have thought would be dominated by truth and facts, it can be hard to pretend there is no tension between two apparently incongruent sides of a person. Should the behaviour of an intellectual that, one might say, lacks in civility, affect how much credence we give to their argument? Or should we accept that if you are Mr Right Guy, you don’t need to be Mr Nice Guy? A recent twitter spat involving Nassim Taleb, author of among others Fooled by Randomness, Philip Tetlock, author of Superforecasting, and Richard Thaler, the 2017 Economics Nobel laureate, provides the perfect backdrop for pondering those questions.

We cannot eliminate cognitive dissonance. We are continually confronted with information that challenges our beliefs. But what we can do is try not to oversimplify our judgement of people into good and bad, like in the old cowboy movies (where the colour of the hats provided a handy hint).

What if we acknowledged that people are a bit more nuanced? Surely we can simultaneously find someone a source of great wisdom and think they behave like an asshole. It is not because we appreciate someone taking action to implement policies we are in favour of, that we cannot denounce them for inappropriate language or behaviour. It is not because we disagree with someone’s politics that everything they say is nonsense or suspect. Heroes and villains are fine in stories and movies, but let’s not reduce our verdict on real people to such simplistic terms.

Human nature is, by nature, dissonant.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on January 19, 2018.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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