Two items came up today on very similar topics. They both play to my interest in the psychological underpinnings of belief and apprehension of the world. As I’ve alluded, this is one of my major themes (as on my Principles page), and perhaps I haven’t emphasized how recent a development this is. None of this was generally realized two decades ago. Yes, I knew about logical and rhetorical fallacies from way back (e.g. http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2013/09/12/the-one-book-id-have-every-college-student-read/), and there was a taste of psychological issues in Shermer’s 1997 book, but it wasn’t until Jesse Bering’s 2011 book, then especially the 2011 and 2013 books by David McRaney, and then Jonathan Haidt’s foundational 2012 book (though I didn’t read it until 2015), that I began to appreciate how forcefully human psychology overrides logic and evidence (in favor of group cohesion, alliance with friends and family, mostly). If physics explains chemistry, and chemistry explains biology, well… psychology overrides them all, in terms of what humans think they know about the world.
In the latest issue of The Week (a terrific magazine that gathers news and opinions from across the political spectrum; its website is only OK), dated July 10/July 17, the “editor’s letter” on the table of contents, focuses on a review in the issue of a book by Maria Konnikova (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Konnikova), called THE BIGGEST BLUFF: HOW I LEARNED TO PAY ATTENTION, MASTER MYSELF, AND WIN. She applies her psychological understanding, and uses her discipline, to learn to play expert poker. Here’s the key part of the editorial intro:
One of the great paradoxes of psychology—maybe the great one—is that while being wrong should make us question our assumptions, it regularly has the opposite effect. Presented with signs that we have made a mistake, we very often choose to discard the evidence and dig in on our prior beliefs. So it is that once they’d committed to reopening, governors across the country chose to ignore every early signal that they were wrong and push onward into the cresting wave of a resurgent epidemic. And when what is involved are questions not of just policies but also of values, people retreat even further into their certainties.
There’s obviously more to the US situation than this – because virtually every other country on the planet (except for those led by similar to Trump authoritarian leaders, Brazil and Russia), and human psychology is the same everywhere – have done better at managing the pandemic than the US has.
Next, a big substantial article in The Atlantic, The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic; Subtitled, “The minute we make any decision—I think COVID-19 is serious; no, I’m sure it is a hoax—we begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the alternative.”
This takes the idea of motivated reasoning — where one finds reasons to dismiss evidence against beliefs one has made on emotional grounds – up a notch, to the idea of cognitive dissonance. How humans are able to make sense, and accept, views that contradict each other. Every scientist, like Francis Collins, who claims religious faith while doing science is doing this.
Opening of the article:
Members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult, believed that as the Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard. Several members of the group bought an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clearer view of the comet. They quickly brought it back and asked for a refund. When the manager asked why, they complained that the telescope was defective, that it didn’t show the spaceship following the comet. A short time later, believing that they would be rescued once they had shed their “earthly containers” (their bodies), all 39 members killed themselves.
Heaven’s Gate followers had a tragically misguided conviction, but it is an example, albeit extreme, of cognitive dissonance, the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings—even when those findings can save our lives. This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.
They discuss how Leon Festinger’s notion of “cognitive dissonance” in 1950 “inspired more than 3,000 experiments that have transformed psychologists’ understanding of how the human mind works.” (Which is how psychology has become a science, far surpassing the intuitive, largely-unverified by experiement, notions of Freud and Jung.)
The essay goes on with examples of reactions to the pandemic. With a final note about how scientists change their minds, because evidence. That’s how science works.
This nasty, mysterious virus will require us all to change our minds as scientists learn more, and we may have to give up some practices and beliefs about it that we now feel sure of. The alternative will be to double down, ignore the error, and wait, as Trump is waiting, for the “miracle” of the virus disappearing.