It has been quite some time since I last posted. The illness and ultimate demise of a loved pet intervened and laid me low.
Previously I wrote about my effort to understand why thousands of people today believe in conspiracy theories. I reread the book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), by two social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. In an early chapter the authors described the work of Leon Fetsinger, the social psychologist whose research examined followers of “end days” theories. Spiritual leaders of these groups predicted the end of the world on a specific date, promising that only true believers would be saved and transported to heaven. When the date arrived and the prediction failed, Fetsinger found that members of the group who had been somewhat skeptical went on about their lives, but among the true believers, many of whom had sold their homes and given away their belongings, their belief only became stronger.
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.”
How can reasonable people look at credible evidence challenging conspiracy theories, even fully accept the reality of the evidence, (such as well considered court decisions) and yet hold to their original belief? It made no sense, until it did.
I ended that previous essay suggesting that even among those who consider themselves to be rational thinkers, as I see myself, few of us are immune from being swept away by confirmation bias. I promised to search out and reveal one of my own. I did not have to think long before this memory came to mind:
As a supporter of former President Bill Clinton, I was shocked by the revelation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, validated by the blue dress. This was front page news in 1998. Yet even though I had filed numerous lawsuits during the 1980s and 1990s on behalf of women who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, empathized with their stories, and found them worthy of legal redress, in this instance, without a second thought, my mental gymnastics (confirmation bias) allowed me to place the blame on the seductive young woman who I assumed took advantage of Clinton’s vulnerability and led him astray. I railed against the perfidious relationship of Lewinsky and Linda Tripp who colluded to secretly record Clinton’s phone calls. It was a set up! In my version of the facts, it was as if Clinton had no agency or responsibility at all. I held on to this bias even though twelve years earlier the U.S.Supreme.Court had ruled that sexual conduct between a subordinate and a supervisor could not be deemed voluntary due to the hierarchical relationship between the two positions in the workplace. And this was a case I had frequently cited in legal briefs.
Confirmation bias…. it is real and it is dangerous.
Nancy Nolan here: The online news outlet “Soapbox Media” recently published an interesting article about alternative dispute resolution which features Bea. You can read it HERE.