End Days, Part II

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.

8 thoughts on “End Days, Part II

  1. First, I am so sorry to hear of your beloved Eleanor. My Mallory was 12 when we had to put her to sleep on November 30,2020 and I had to spend the rest of the long, cold, isolated winter in a new condo all by myself. To your article: Yes, Confirmation bias is real and it is all around us. I have one of those minds that think anything is possible. Although I liked Clinton very much and voted for him, I wasn’t surprised. By this time in my life, I have observed a lot, and a few times dealt with unconfortable situations. Now, I am going to think of a confirmation bias that I have and I will share it with you. I think I have an idea what it is.

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  2. Found myself in this post, Bea. Thanks for letting me reflect on the explanation for my inability to be rational/objective in some areas. Are you up for in-person gathering yet? Lunch or dinner? Let me know.

    Pam

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  3. Bea,

    So good to hear from you!

    I was at Ruth’s the other night and asked your neighbors/friends, Charlene and Jack, if you were okay.

    I am so sorry to hear of you pet. I lost my cat in November. It’s hard, I know. Please take care. Hope to see you out and about soon.

    Kate Nolan

    (former Legal Aider and no relation to Nancy)

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  4. Hi Bea,

    So sorry to hear about your loss of a pet — that is just the worst.

    A friend recently recommended a book that is very interesting and that complements the ones you mentioned in your post. You might be interested in this one:
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0805070893/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    I hope that our (vaccinated) paths cross soon!

    Best,
    Paula

    *****************************
    Paula K. Shear, Ph.D.
    Professor and Department Head
    she/her/hers

    Department of Psychology
    ML 0376
    4130P Edwards One Center
    University of Cincinnati
    Cincinnati, OH 45221-0376
    Phone: 513-556-5577
    Fax: 513-556-4168

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  5. The following comment is from Chuck Strain:

    Dear Bea,

    So sorry to hear about your pet. Thanks for getting back to your important and wise thought-leading.

    I share a similar, regrettable confirmation bias story regarding the Lewinsky affair. At the time, I suppose I would have thought it possible that either party had had sinister motives to use the other for selfish purposes and without regard to the other’s well-being. But I’d then, as today, have attributed little such cognition to either party. Much more likely were emotions and impulse, if not also genuine affection. Whether serendipitous or opportunistic, affairs of the heart–or gonads–can thrust themselves irresistibly upon even the guarded, and even when the law of workplace harassment could provide actionable redress. Uneven positions of authority properly arouse suspicions of unfairness, but a profound, bona fide consent between two adults is theoretically possible.

    I originally saw Clinton’s sin, not so much in the fling, itself, or in abuse of a subordinate, but in the likely immoral betrayal of marital fidelity. Theoretically, such a dalliance could have been with advance spousal permission. Or even tolerated with a “Stand by Your Man” stoicism, which, itself, ascribes agency to and respect for the ostensibly-injured spouse. But a betrayal would have displayed an important character flaw that such a leader could manifest in less private matters, such as in affairs of state (pun intended).

    What I now see as the flawed part of my thinking at the time sprang from a lawyer’s proclivity to parse words. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” was a lawyerly way to cover the sin. The statement would have been true if “sexual relations” were narrowly defined, say, as vaginal penetration. I was wiling at the time to tell others that Clinton’s deposition statement was therefore not a lie.

    But, of course, one can effectively lie by telling partial truths, or otherwise permitting context to misrepresent an idea. Thus, to my evolving mind, came the second of Clinton’s meaningful transgressions. It took a while, but I eventually agreed that he should have been disbarred for violating Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(c): engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.

    Confirmation bias is but a drop in the bucket among the complications of the human mind. Clinton was complicated, as are you and me.

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  6. Thanks for your work, wisdom, and humility. Would you be available for lunch someday this summer? I will contact our good friend Bill DeCenso so we can get together. Bill

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  7. Interesting example, Bea. I am sure I’ve done the same sort of gymnastics, too. How can one escape? I have to think more about it. Like you, I’d like to think that I’m free from such thought processes.

    Again, I’m impressed by your willingness to examine and share; your generosity is immense.

    Hugs, Harriet

    Like

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