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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. (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.[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.” (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?

Follow-Up: Why Do People Continue to Back Losers?

I have struggled for quite some time with the question of why people continue to support obviously poor performers – whether in sports or politics (http://sensiblethought.com/2011/backing-losers-why-do-otherwise-rational-people-continue-to-ascribe-to-irrational-positions). This week presented me with more evidence that IQ is at least one factor. 

I was going through the TSA checkpoint yesterday on my way out to Ohio. I passed through the first checkpoint, where they look at you, look at your ID, and scribble their initials on your boarding pass without incident. I moved on to the …next station, where the gray plastic bins are waiting, got into position behind the people already going through the process there, and began removing my shoes, belt, emptying my pockets, etc. A minute or so into this process, a woman approaches from behind me and says: “Excuse me, are you in line here?” At this point I am thinking “Of course I am. I’m standing here like everyone else, putting my stuff in plastic bins. Who would ask such a stupid question?” But I was gracious, and simply said “yes Ma’am” as I turned to address her. I noticed at that point that she was a pregnant woman, and she was wearing a T-shirt with an arrow pointing to her “baby bump”. Above the arrow were the words: “Future Cub Fan”. At that point, no other explanation was necessary.
 
However, it’s gratifying to see that I’m not alone in my state of abject wonder about how people can be so blindly loyal to complete losers. The next day, scanning through the USA Today provided by the Hilton in Columbus Ohio, I came across an editorial written by Don Campbell (former Washington journalist), entitled: Stark Election Choice in Ohio. (Wednesday, June 20, 2012 edition – page 7A.) It looks as though Mister Campbell has stumbled across the same dilemma I described in my ealier blog on this topic. He is also wondering – well, basically how people can be so dumb. He says, in part: “On average, almost 60% of Americans think the country is on the ‘wrong track’. According to Gallup, 64% fear that big government is the ‘biggest threat’ to the nation. Almost three-fourths of Americans say they favor a free market over a government-managed economy. A lopsided majority want Obama’s health care reform plan struck down. Yet, Obama continues to hold his own against Romney. I understand the math on party loyalty. What doesn’t compute for me is how this could be a close election. But I have a scarey theory: While some independents, who are growing in numbers and will decide this thing, understand instinctively what’s at stake, not nearly enough do – or care. I never imagined that a president, in only one term, could set up such a stark choice for voters. We can recommit ourselves to free enterprise as the creator of prosperity for all who are willing to work for it, or embrace an entitlement society ….”
 
 His point is this: “How can so much of America see what has happened to the United States since President Obama took office, and support four more years of the same?” Soaring national debt, the malaise of continued 8%+ unemployment, 15%+ underemployment, and the complete disregard of law exemplified by deliberate refusal to enforce DOMA and submit critical evidence in scandals like Fast & Furious make it impossible to blind oneself to the culture of failure and corruption that is the Obama Administration. 
 
And yet we see it all around us. As commedian Ron White has so often lamented, “you just can’t fix stupid.”
 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm1KOBMg1Y8 
 
Wht do you think? 

How Dumb is the American Public?

A couple of years ago, I was a DoD employee leading a team of engineers and supply chain professionals working to restore the war-torn economies of the Middle East. I travelled one week to Kadahar, in southern Afghanistan, to meet with local Afghan government officials, and I was asked by contractor who was supporting my team at that time to look up a friend of hers while I was KAF (Kandahar Air Field). “Mary is a very close friend of mine,” she told me,”you just have to stop in the JAG (Judge Advocate General) office and say hello to her for me.” Building and maintaining friendships in a theatre of war is not a trivial matter – those friendships can last a lifetime, and even when they don’t, these friendships often serve to protect the sanity of those deployed. So, out of respect for our support staffer, I did as she requested. I did indeed look up Mary, passed along the greeting, and went on to conduct my business there. I was a little taken back with the general vacuousness of Mary when I met her. She seemed to me to barely be able to string words together into a sentence, and generally just didn’t seem to have much “on the ball”. I was corresponding with our staffer later that evening, and she asked whether I had looked up her friend while on base at Kandahar. I replied that I had, but that I was pretty unimpressed. The woman had barely grunted out a few words, and basically didn’t seem to be with it. “Yeah, that’s Mary all right”, our staffer replied, “she’s not the brightest tool in the shed.” (Note here that she didn’t say Mary wasn’t the “sharpest tool in the shed” or the “brightest bulb in the pack”, but rather Mary wasn’t the “brightest tool in the shed”.)

There are a number of lessons to be learned from that little exchange, not the least of which has to do with being careful not to criticise others when it may well point up our own shortcomings. That’s a trap I have fallen into more than once in my lifetime. But stepping back and looking at this, it also caused me to wonder about just how intelligent people are in general. According to Scientific American, “Higher IQ predicts a wide range of important factors, including better grades in school, a higher level of education, better health, better job performance, higher wages, and reduced risk of obesity.” (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-is-average-iq-higher-in-some-places). 

This morning, I saw a Gallup Poll result which said: “Americans are about as likely to describe last Friday’s government jobs report as “mixed” (40%) as to say it is “negative” (42%), with a small number saying it is “positive” (9%). But many did not follow the news of the report closely.” (http://www.gallup.com/poll/155084/Less-Half-Friday-Jobs-Report-Negative.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_content=morelink&utm_term=All%20Gallup%20Headlines%20-%20Business). Basically, the Gallup Poll editor was telling us that the American public isn’t intelligent enough, or paying close enough attention to what they are seeing and hearing to understand it’s meaning, or both. 

As the Gallup web site points out: “The government reported that 69,000 new jobs were created in May, the lowest amount so far this year, and that the overall unemployment rate rose from 8.1% in April to 8.2% in May. Most news accounts of the report portrayed it in a negative light. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 270 points in Friday’s trading after the report was released, and there was widespread discussion of a “stalled” economy and of the potentially deleterious impact of the report on President Obama’s re-election chances. As NPR host Robert Siegel said on “All Things Considered” Friday afternoon: “It was the worst day of the year on the stock market. The Dow fell 274 points, putting the index back into negative territory for the year. The big reason? The latest monthly jobs report came in far weaker than expected. In May, the economy added just 69,000 new jobs.” Even so, as the article pointed out, “There has been no change at all in Americans’ perceptions of whether the U.S. economy is getting better or getting worse.” In other words, the American public – even those who reported that they follow news events closely – did not grasp the magnitude or the nature of what they were seeing.

All of this seems to point a phenomenon I have noticed a number of times before, and reflected on in other blog posts such as “Backing Losers” (http://sensiblethought.com/?s=Backing+Losers). It’s amazing how often I return to P.T. Barnum’s observation: “You will never go broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” It takes me back to the days when Ross Perot was running for President of the United States. He freequently used poster-board size charts to try to communicate graphically the financial information and other trends that were so frequently misunderstood or not understood by the masses. Many just didn’t understand the message or its importance even then. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in that case, not even a picture worked for Mr. Perot. 

It casuses one to ponder just how plainly a message must be stated, how many times it must be repeated, and how loudly, before it will be widely understood. I think we are far more likely to understand the nuances of a commercial for auto insurance than we are to understand a news story that outlines the dire economic picture of our children’s future.

What do you think?

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