I live in one of five condominium units built around a common courtyard. One morning, on opening my front door to retrieve my newspaper, there in the center of the courtyard, just a few yards from where I stood, lay what at first appeared to be a human figure with outstretched arms. Momentarily alarmed, it quickly became clear that only the clothing of this figure was there, without any actual human presence. I began to laugh.
The day before, I, along with several of my neighbors, had attended a performance of End Days, at ETC theater. The play offered a lighthearted glimpse into a family in which the mother was predicting the apocalypse, convinced that the world would come to an end on a specific day in the near future, and that true believers would be beamed up to heaven and non-believers left behind.
In the dark of night, my next-door neighbor, Jack Sherman, had performed this prank to which we all woke the following morning. What fun.
But later, in a more sober moment, I brought to mind a book I’d read some years ago that told of the end days phenomenon, describing dramatic actions taken by members of groups of doomsday believers in preparation for the world ending on a specific future day.
As a way of my gaining insight into those who accept current conspiracy theories, I am now re-reading Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The subtitle is: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.
Early in the text, the authors describe a 1957 study by social psychologist Leon Festinger. * Along with two associates, he infiltrated a group of people who believed that the world would end on December 31st. The group’s leader promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20th. Many followers quit their jobs and gave away their homes and savings waiting for the end.
Did the true believers acknowledge their foolishness when the world did not come to an end on that fateful night? No. Their leader assured them that it was their faith that had won out over the forces of evil and saved the world from the mouth of death. Members of the group who had been skeptical went on about their lives. But for others, the true believers, their mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Some called the press to report the miracle. Some went out on the streets trying to convert others.
Festinger called this drive for self-justification “cognitive dissonance”. He explained, “Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds to cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent…… producing mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it…… people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful. So powerful is the need for consistency that when people are forced to look at disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it, so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing beliefs. This mental condition is called the “confirmation bias.”
Festinger’s findings were replicated by any number of additional credible experiments.
So now what?
It would be the essence of hypocrisy for me to identify confirmation bias in others without questioning some of my own beliefs.
*Leon Festinger (1957), A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press