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. (http://sensiblethought.com/2011/believe-it-or-not-there-are-still-obama-supporters-out-there)
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. 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.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance )
“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?