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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?

17 Responses to “Backing Losers: Why Do Otherwise Rational People Continue to Ascribe to Irrational Positions?”

  1. Marie Luft says:

    I am a dissonant Illini and Bears fan … and I’m only dissonant if you are not a fan also, so fortunately, I don’t think it’s a life threatening condition.

  2. David says:

    This reminds me of a conversation that I had with someone a few years back regarding their religious beliefs…
    Whenever I said that something wasn’t logical, they admitted as much, but stuck to their guns. Ultimately their belief system boiled down to a-causal probability and “faith”.

    • Spot-on, David! As I often admit, faith is required to pick up where evidence is absent or inefficient, and that’s always true with religion in my experience. At some point, when it comes to God, I think we either believe or we don’t. I have mentioned that a number of times in other blogs. I think the most recent one is called: “Faith and Faltering: A Conversation About Questioning God”. It’s under

  3. Diane says:

    I chalk up my disfunction/irrationality to rebellion. How does that fit in with Cognitive Dissonance? glad to see you are writing again!

    • Thanks, Diane; My day job has been keeping me pretty busy, making it difficult to write. I think you’re probably right about rebellion. Seems to me that the decisions made by teenagers, especially – like smoking – that are terribly harmful and defy rational thought, very often spring from rebellion.

  4. Larry says:

    OK, Illini, Bears, and especially Cubs fans don’t really believe that their teams are superior deep inside and I understand the phenomena and you quoting multitudes of statistics won’t change anything we are still fans. We will all paint our bodies orange and blue and attend the games. I only by the curse of my birth and where I could get an inexpensive education am a fan of all of the above. (Was born in Chicago to a Cub fan father and was close enough to Wrigley Field to attend games of the Cubs and Bears.)

    So why support a loser for president? Because Obama must be better than Bush to their dissonant view. Bush was too dumb to do anything intelligent and they believe that Cheney pulled all of the strings behind the scenes. Those of that mind-set still believe that Halliburton and Exxon controlled the last administration and think the USA was saved from total destruction because of the OHB election. Don’t worry about double digit unemployment, spiraling debt, miserable housing market, and the cost of health care those are just numbers. If SEIU and NEA,EPA,and the UN control this administration well that is much better than the evil delivered by the last administration.

    There is no real thought of what should a president accomplish and how to objectively grade the POTUS and this goes for both the right and the left. The true fans are only following the primitive instinct to go with the herd – perhaps learned in grade school or earlier. So fans don’t need to explain why they are for loser or what is success just go along. I don’t want to mention all of the folks that voted for BHO that believed in the “historic presidency” and the “smartest man alive”. As a side note we were told by the media that Hillary was the “smartest woman alive” also.

    As long as the major media tell us that Occupy Wall Street are good guys and the Tea Party are racists I think we’ll have more of the same for many years to come.

    • Larry;
      I have absolutely no objection to people who choose to be sports fans. People have right to squander their time and money any way they want to. Personally, I prefer photography because it produces a tangible benefit and enables me to learn new skills. But if people want to spend hours watching incredibly overpaid athletes spend 90% of their game time spitting and scratching their groins, while listening to stadium vendors shout “Cold beer – get your cold beer here!”, it is entirely their prerogative. However, there are people who take their team’s support to extremes, who make ridiculous claims about “their” teams, and truly have lost sight of reality. These folks – even presented with an overwhelming sea of facts – make patently untrue assertions, obsess about possible “reasons” for the facts they see before them, and basically do anything rather than admit the truth. They aren’t simply ardent fans; they are truly in denial, and will engage in heated arguments even with their own families as a result. It is the same kind of rationalization that enables people to vote for a President who, even after he triples the national debt and dives the country to the brink of disaster, blame anyone and everyone else rather than recognize the devastating error or their ways. As you correctly surmise, this is dissonance.
      So it’s not the ardent fan who paints himself blue that I take issue with – people can throw their lives away on whatever they want, and as long as they don’t lose sight of reality. It’s the deliberate self-dillusuionmemt that chafes me.
      Hope you had a great holiday season, Larry- sounds like I will be out in your part of the country much of January and February. See you then!

    • David says:

      Cognitive Dissonance is only one of the many symptoms usually associated with mental illness, the most prevalent of which is Borderline Personality Disorder. Another major symptom of this disorder is, in layman’s terms, known as “Black and White thinking”. With black and white thinking, people are unable to see that there are shades of grey: everything is either good or bad, evil or righteous, Liberal or Conservative, etc. From my point of view, this is one of many major problem in this country right now. For instance, both “liberals” and “conservatives” claim that the press is controlled by the other party. Conservatives somehow ignore the presence of their main sources of news (FOX or Rush) while liberals seem blind to the existence of Time, NBC, etc. The truth is that neither conservatives nor liberals “control” the media, but that there certainly exist many news outlets which are owned/run by individuals with a vested interest in controlling the seats of power. The point is, that each side sees and hears and thinks what it wants to based on the information that it receives, mostly from the source of media that is biased toward their way of thinking, and they are unable to concede that the biased statistics (yes, we all know that “facts” can lie) that they are fed could be anything but God’s truth. Not only this, but there is a great amount of hostility (or at least distain) toward anyone who doesn’t agree with them. There also seems to be an inability to concede that certain facts are not mutually exclusive: i.e., that both Bush and Obama make terrible presidents.

      The point is that we as a nation need to stop thinking with our emotions if we want things to get better. It seems that even the seemingly educated and intelligent among us suffers from this national mental illness, this awful divisiveness, general hostility and finger-pointing without the offering of viable solutions, that is getting us nowhere.

      • Marie Luft says:

        Good argument, David. I definitely believe in the “shades of grey”.

      • David:

        Thanks for continuing to engage on this topic!

        The hundreds of millions of dollars poured into various media outlets (George Souros on the Liberal side, Rupert Murdoch on the conservative side) undoubtedly influence the perspective of the media. I guess I’d stop short of calling it “controlling the media”, but the influence is undeniable, and the agenda is pretty obvious. I guess it’s pretty natural that people gravitate toward the news channel that most closely reflects their personal views. I certainly like Bill O’Rielly better than Bill Maher or Jon Stewart, for example.

        I agree with you that Bush and Obama both make lousy presidents, but for completely different reasons.

        I also agree that statistics can be slanted toward one perspective or another – that’s a very old and well-practiced technique. However, some statistics are NOT slanted. For example, the number of world series games won by the St. Louis Cardinals vs the number won by the Chicago Cubs, the number of national pennants won by the Cardinals vs the Cubs, and so on. The sheer enormity of fair-and-balanced facts in that case is overwhelming and denying them is (in my opinion) an unintelligent thing to do. I’m not saying people can’t continue to support the Cubs, I’m just saying that they shouldn’t delude themselves about the facts.

        In the areas of religion and politics, the facts are much tougher to get to a level playing field, but I do think it’s still possible to make better and worse decisions. Comparing the tactics of the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration, I view the Bush Administration as incompetent while I view the Obama administration as malevolent. While Bush, for example, based the decision to go to war in Iraq on bad intelligence about WMD, EVERYONE was using that same intelligence (and at the time it was believed to be true by both liberals and conservatives – the quotes from people like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton are on the record). So everyone was fooled. In the case of Obama, starting with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers and continuing through the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, and his direction to DOJ to stop defending selected parts the Constitutionally supported law (DOMA for example) he has demonstrated (in my eyes, at least) that ideology trumps national interest in his mind, and that he certainly does not share my love of this country or the US Constitution. beyond that, trpling our nation’s debt to its current staggering level and proposing to continue its escalation is a course that seems – in light of the experiences of the European Union countries – more than irresponsible to me; it seems reckless. The economic numbers – ranging from unemployment to national debt as a percent of GDP – that reflect the performance of our political leadership are pretty objective. The thing that people want to use to make it murky is assignment of blame to other entities (usually Congress or the Senate), but with the TARP bailout of GM and Chrysler, the ObamaCare debacle, and so on, it seems to me that only the truly dissonant can truly remain Obama supporters.

        I won’t resurrect the discussion about religion here; you and I simply see that field differently, and I certainly respect your right to see it the way you see it. I don’t think that is a case of dissonance on the part of either of us. Where dissonance DOES enter into religion, I think, is cases such as the one where a specific date is stated with absolute certainty as the end of the world, and the date passes without incident, and followers of the religious leader continue to follow in spite of the fact. Here again, it’s a matter of ignoring clear-and-undeniable facts.

  5. Marie Luft says:

    I don’t know as I’d say that Hillary Clinton is the smartest woman alive, but I think she’s certainly smart enough to be president, given the chance. I have become a great fan… I suppose because she has a lot of traits that I don’t have but wish that I did.

  6. Marie Luft says:

    I don’t know how Hillary acts at home, but, professionally, I guess the main attribute that I admire would be fortitude. She has been thru a lot and still soldiers on. Also, she is very smart. I would go so far as to say that she every bit as smart and much better looking than Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir(sp) or Indira Ghandi, for example.

    • Hmm. I think i,m going to have to disagree on this one. I have no doubt she has raw intelligence and her political savvy is unquestionable (Whitwater, Rose Law Firm, Vince Foster). But I think she is miles beneath the class and demonstrated capabilities of Margaret Thatcher.

  7. Erika Anear says:

    Like Reagan it’s hard to remember what Margaret Thatcher was actually for. All she ever was was ‘against.’ Most female conservatives are like this. That’s why they leave such a negligible footprint aside from sourness once they pass on.

    • Erika:
      Thanks for your post! I respect your view, but mine is quite different.
      According to the UK publication “The Week” ( “From financial deregulation to the right-to-buy scheme and the poll tax, Thatcher transformed the UK.”
      Among Ms. Thatcher’s major accomplishments are: The “Big Bang” (a wave of deregulation that restructured the world of stock broking and ushered in the UK’s globally competitive financial services sector. The Times said that it was a “hugely significant reform that cemented the City of London’s place as Europe’s biggest financial centre and led it to challenge New York for global hegemony”. Other news agencies reported that the move resulted in attracting “a river of foreign business”.), Privatization (During her times as PM more than 50 state-run companies were sold or privatized – including dozens from the power and water industries – raising more than £50 billion for the Government), Education Reform (Her Education Reform Act was responsible for introducing a national curriculum, setting up the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), bringing in regular school inspections and allowing schools to manage their own budgets.), Supporting US President Ronald Reagan in ending the Cold War (She supported the installation of defensive cruise missiles in Europe, and according to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, his relationship with Thatcher “helped bring change and tear down the Iron Curtain”.), and winning the Falklands War (Following the invasion of the Falklands in 1982, her decision to send a task force to the South Atlantic – against the advice of many in her inner circle – earned the enduring gratitude of the islanders, who celebrate Thatcher Day every 10 January. At home, victory was marked with ticker-tape parades in London and Portsmouth.). I think that’s not a bad legacy. Of course, she made mistakes, as well. On balance though, she did enormous good for Great Britain and stood with the United States in defeating Communism and destroying the Soviet Union.

      As for President Reagan, I can hardly imagine anyone who was politically aware during the Carter and Reagan administrations failing to understand what Ronald Reagan stood for, or what he accomplished. ( Among those achievements are Ending the Cold War (Reagan reversed the policy of detente and stood firm against the Soviet Union, calling it the Evil Empire and telling Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin. He was relentless in pushing his Strategic Defense Initiative and gave aid to rebels battling Soviet-backed Marxists from Nicaragua to Angola. Those efforts were critical in the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire and essentially ended the Cold War.), Reaganomics (His combination of across-the-board tax cuts, deregulation, and domestic spending restraint helped fuel an economic boom that lasted two decades. Reagan inherited a misery index (the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates) of 19.99%, and when he left office it had dropped to 9.72%. President Obama should take note: Under Reaganomics, 16 million new jobs were created.), Achieving Peace Through Strength, (His Peace Through Strength philosophy was manifested by his reviving the B-1 bomber that Carter canceled, starting production of the MX missile, and pushing NATO to deploy Pershing missiles in West Germany. He increased defense spending by more than 40%, increased troop levels, and even got much-needed space parts into the pipeline. Those efforts ensured that America remained a military superpower.), and Tax Reform (Not only did he cut tax rates, but the Tax Reform Act of 1986 simplified the income-tax code by eliminating many tax shelters, reducing the number of deductions and tax brackets.) Again, not a bad legacy. From my perspective, Reagan was among the top 5 US Presidents in history.

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