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Backing Losers: Why Do Otherwise Rational People Continue to Ascribe to Irrational Positions?

 I recently authored a blog about a dinner conversation where one of my colleagues insisted that President Obama bears almost no blame for the current state of the US economy, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (

Last week, I had a similar conversation with a relative who has the unfortunate disability of being a Chicago Cubs fan, and as such, sincerely believes that the Cubs are superior to all other teams in Baseball, including – for example – the St. Louis Cardinals. Again, the evidence is overwhelming. As of 2011, World Series Championships: Cardinals 11, Cubs 2. League Pennants: Cardinals 18, Cubs 16. Division Championships: Cardinals 11, Cubs 5. Wild Card berths: Cardinals 2, Cubs 1. In terms of major awards as of 2009: MVP awards: Cardinals 20, Cubs 10. Cy Young awards: Cardinals 3, Cubs 4 (woo-hoo!). Rookie of the Year: Cardinals 6, Cubs 4. Again as of 2011, Gold Glove Winners: Cardinals pitchers 14, Cubs pitchers 7. Cardinals catchers 11, Cubs catchers 2. Cardinals first basemen 14, Cubs first basemen 6. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that by any rational measure, the St. Louis Cardinals are far superior to the Chicago Cubs. And yet, no one can argue that the Chicago Cubs fan base is the largest and most loyal in all of professional baseball – perhaps in all of professional sports.

Both of these situations are illustrative of phenomenon known as “Cognitive Dissonance”. Using the illustration of tobacco users as an example, one recent article about Cognitive Dissonance describes it as follows: “Smoking is a common example of cognitive dissonance because it is widely accepted that cigarettes can cause lung cancer, and smokers must reconcile their habit with the desire to live long and healthy lives. In terms of the theory, the desire to live a long life is dissonant with the activity of doing something that will most likely shorten one’s life. The tension produced by these contradictory ideas can be reduced by any number of changes in cognitions and behaviors, including quitting smoking, denying the evidence linking smoking to lung cancer, or justifying one’s smoking. For example, smokers could rationalize their behavior by concluding that only a few smokers become ill, that it only happens to very heavy smokers, or that if smoking does not kill them, something else will.”

“This case of dissonance could also be interpreted in terms of a threat to the self-concept.[8] The thought, “I am increasing my risk of lung cancer” is dissonant with the self-related belief, “I am a smart, reasonable person who makes good decisions.” Because it is often easier to make excuses than it is to change behavior, cognitive dissonance research contributes to the abundance of evidence in social psychology that humans are not always rational beings.” ( )

“Cognitive Dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions or adding new ones to create consistency.” (In other words, we look for any excuse to justify our view of the world. Many of us refer to this as “rationalizing” our behavior. People observing these behaviors who do not share the unjustified beliefs often simply call them “stupid”.)

Good sales people understand that selling is an emotional decision, not a rational one. It has nothing to do with the truth, and nothing to do with being right. In these cases and all cases of Cognitive dissonance, we continue to back losers because we have sold ourselves on things that make us feel good about our choices, no matter how bad those choices are. I see no evidence that the situation is getting better any time soon. Whether they are Democrats or Cubs fans or cigarette smokers, otherwise intelligent people are going to continue to do stupid things. And unlike cigarette smoking, where the sheer cost of supporting this self-destructive behavior has resulted in laws and taxes to reduce the frequency of the epidemic, political liberalism and the massive waste of income on poor-performing sports teams are likely to continue unabated for the foreseeable future.

Whether the subject is religion, politics, or sports, I have concluded, one of the most dangerous things in the world has always been – and continues to be – dogma. A dogmatic belief held in spite of overwhelming evidence has fuelled more conflict and unrest in the world than almost any other force. So the next time I am tempted to hold a position just because I have become accustomed to it, or because it has always been the position held by my favorite uncle, or because it’s a convenient way to justify my own behavior, I am going to try to remember the truth about cognitive dissonance, rationalization, and the irrationality of humans in general. But if I was President Obama’s campaign manager or the franchise owner of the Chicago Cubs, or a majority stockholder at Phillip Morris or some similar tobacco company, I’d be hoping that Americans never return to objectivity or rationality. 

What do you think?

Believe it or Not; There are Still Obama Supporters Out There

I was at a business dinner while traveling with colleagues a few weeks ago when one of them said to me: “I think President Obama is doing a great job, and I’m hoping he gets re-elected.” Slack-jawed with wonder, I responded: “Holy Cow! I figured there were people like you out there somewhere, but I never expected to meet one!” This woman actually believes that the problems with our worsening economy are the sole responsibility of the United States Congress, and that President Obama bears none of the blame whatsoever. If I was President Obama facing re-election, I’d try to hire her as a spokesperson, and hope she doesn’t wake up any time soon!

In The Economist’s September 24th issue (page 35) there is a graph depicting the current state of the US economic affairs entitled: “Not Good Enough, Mr. President.” It reflects the level of debt held by the United States Government as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) between 2010 and 2021. If displays 3 lines: One line depicts the result “If current policies continue”, and shows an escalating trend with about a 30 degree slope. It reaches about 82% of GDP by 2021. Another line is entitled “Obama Proposal”, and also reflects an escalating line, but reduces the 2021 debt level to 74% of GDP – still a disasterous number. The third line on the chart is entitled “Federal Commission Plan”, and – had Democrats and Republicans been able to achieve consensus on the plan – would have reduced our debt in 2021 to about 64% of GDP. Just for purposes of understanding scale, Greece – with an unrecoverable economy outside of rescue by foreign countries – has been on a track that would have reached 186% of GDP by 2013. That is the direction in which the United States is headed, unless there is substantive reform. 

To quote the Economist article: “Unfortunately, Mr. obama has not lived up to the standards set by the other plans [reflected in the chart]. His savings include $1.1 trillionfrom military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending that was never certain to occur. He also included $866 billion from allowing the George Bush tax cuts to expire. But the fiscal commission that Mr. Obama himself appointed last year assumed both those would happen and still came up with $4 trillion of deficit reduction on top of that. That put the national debt on a downward path as a share of GDP, whereas Mr. obama on;y stabilizes it at 73% by 2021. Mr. Obama proposes only $577 billion of genuinely new spending cuts.” The article goes on to state that the President’s explanations related to tax cuts not amounting to class warfare are “disingenuous”, and describes his approach as “clumsy”.

This is just one article, and there is a forest of them. Another one recently authored by Charles Krauthammer is especially poignant (

It’s difficult to understand how anyon watching this President propelling our country on a careening course from TARP to ObamaCare to this incredibly unrealistic plan , displaying such naivete and leaving such devastation in his wake , can still be supported – even by the Democratic Party faithful. But there you have it. If I remember my psychology classes from eons back, this phenomenon is called “cognitive dissonance”. I could be wrong about that – it was a long time ago. But one thing I’m sure of : P.T. Barnum was correct when he said: “You will never go broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” I have to believe this is a truism for which President Obama is very thankful.

What do you think?

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