Cognitive Dissonance is described in Wikipedia as a ‘psychological stress resulting from multiple contradictory beliefs, values or ideas held at the same time’. I’ve already mentioned this problem in my article, twelve famous psychology experiments, but in this article, I’ll focus on one particular aspect; the problem when what’s in front of you doesn’t match what’s supposed to be there. This problem shouldn’t really be a problem. Logically, if what’s in front of you doesn’t match what you expect to be there, then you’d spot the difference and change your view of what’s in front of you. Alas, this is not often the case. Our failure to deal with this problem says a lot about ourselves as a species, and as thinking beings.
The wrong card
A classic experiment by psychologists J.S.Bruner and Leo Postman explored the gnarly problem of what we see not matching our expectations. They created a deck of normal playing cards, but with one key change; some of the suit symbols had their colours reversed. For example, the queen of diamonds had black-coloured diamonds instead of red. These modified cards were displayed one at a time to a subject in their experiment. The subject was asked to identify the cards as fast as possible. The cards were first shown very briefly, too fast for the subjects to identify them accurately, then the display-time was steadily lengthened until all the cards could be clearly identified by the subjects.
Bruner and Postman were amazed to discover that while all the cards were eventually identified with great confidence by the subjects in the experiment, none of the subjects noticed that there was anything out of ordinary in the deck. People saw a black four of hearts and effortlessly identified it as a four of hearts. In other words, the subjects’ expectations about what the playing cards should look like determined what they actually saw. When the researchers increased the amount of time that the cards were displayed, so that their subjects had enough time to spot the anomaly, some people eventually began to notice that something was amiss, but they did not know exactly what was wrong. One person, while directly gazing at a red six of spades, said; “That’s the six of spades but there’s something wrong with it – the black spade has a red border.”
As the experimenters increased the display time for each card, so that the subjects had ample time to spot the anomaly, many of them became more confused and hesitant. Eventually, most people saw what was before their eyes, that some of the cards were wrong, but even when the cards were displayed for forty times the length of time needed to recognise normal playing cards, roughly 10 percent of the colour-reversed playing cards were never correctly identified by any of the people. One participant in the experiment, who became very agitated when looking at the cards, reported:
“I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what colour it is now or whether it’s a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure what a spade looks like. My God!”
It was studies like these, in the 1950’s, that led psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues at Stanford University to develop the idea of cognitive dissonance. It is described thus:
“The uncomfortable feeling that develops when people are confronted by things that shouldn’t ought to be, but are. If the dissonance is sufficiently strong, and is not reduced in some way, the uncomfortable feeling will grow, and that feeling can develop into anger, fear and even hostility. To avoid unpleasant cognitive dissonance people will often react to evidence that ‘disconfirms’ their belief by actually strengthening their original beliefs and creating rationalisations to dismiss the disconfirming evidence.”
It’s a disturbing insight. It indicates that many people will prefer to ignore what’s in front of them in order to preserve a view of reality that they prefer. George Orwell summed up this problem with the following quote:
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
It’s also worth noting that this desire, to believe that the world is different to what is actually in front of us, can happen when there’s no coercion to think that way. What happens if there is some pressure to believe in something that is patently untrue? This scenario was also tested in a famous psychology experiment and the results were far from reassuring.
Which line is longer?
The Asch conformity test is a famous psychology experiment. In it, several people were asked to sit at a desk and choose, out loud, which of three lines on the screen in front of them was longer. In every case, the difference between the lines was clear, making the choice seemingly obvious. The twist was that all but one of the people were actually working for the experimenters. These people deliberately chose, out loud, the wrong answer. The purpose of the experiment was to discover how often the true subject of the experiment would publicly overrule the others and state the correct answer, or go along with the others and state the wrong answer. Here’s a Youtube video, describing the experiment:
As the video reports, a worryingly large percentage of people stated the wrong answer, simply to fit in with everyone else. They weren’t even being threatened or coerced into this act. They did it either because they didn’t have the confidence to state something that was blatantly obvious, or they did it because they didn’t want to be different. Either reason is a depressing result.
Many people reading this article might think that they’d be different. This is an understandable view. In order to test this, let’s look at a more significant event. It is an interesting example of cognitive dissonance and it doesn’t just tell us about ourselves, it tells us about how our society is being run.
Where’s the plane?
Nearly everyone knows about 9/11, the appalling attack on the World Trade Centre in New York by terrorists. On that day, there was also a horrible attack on the Pentagon, in Washington DC. According to the record, a Boeing 757 crashed into the Pentagon, the home of the CIA. This event was widely discussed and there is extensive photo evidence of the incident. A Boeing 757 is a large, passenger aircraft. It’s about fifty metres long and forty metres wide. An example is shown in the accompanying photo.
￼After the 757 crashed into the side of the Pentagon building, emergency services were called and fire crews worked to put out the flames from the impact, as shown in another photo.
Viewers may note a strange problem with the above scene, in that the Boeing 757 passenger plane seems to have disappeared. Not only is there no Boeing aeroplane, but there isn’t even any signs that a Boeing landed. There are indications that something may have hit the building but it simply can’t have been the size of a Boeing 757 passenger aircraft. When a plane that size crashes, it leaves a very big mess. Its wings usually disintegrate, due to them being hollow and often full of fuel. Its engines and particularly its tail section usually remain intact, especially when it hits the ground at a shallow angle, as described by official reports in the Pentagon event. The next photo shows such a crash (it’s a different model of plane, but you get the idea).
￼In the case of the Pentagon event, there seems to be no sign at the scene of two big wings, a fifty metre long fuselage, two large jet engines or a fifteen metre tall tail section. It would seem that a very large plane had somehow evaporated into thin air. Let’s look at the scene from another angle:
Um, no, still no huge plane, smashed into pieces. No gouged earth where the plane hit the ground, no vast area of burning fuel, no jet engines etc etc.
As the next image shows, there is a small amount of debris at the site but not only is it at the wrong location, it seems to correspond to a model plane, rather than a very large, commercial passenger plane.
Mainstream media outlets did focus on this wreckage. They even showed it again, years after the event. The problem is that it really is more like the remains of a model plane. Please refer again to the earlier images of a Boeing 777 and a crashed passenger airliner if this isn’t clear.
I would say that this is just as much an example of cognitive dissonance as the modified playing cards, or the Asch Conformity Test. What is there, in those photos of that incident, does not match what we’ve been told is there. This creates cognitive dissonance. The question then becomes, for all of us, what do we do about it?
Often, psychology experiments are treated as interesting insights into how human beings behave. These experiments are often funny and surprising, and sometimes depressing, but many people never really think that their conclusions apply to real-world situations. This is why I’ve added a recent, important, real-world example of cognitive dissonance. I think, in this modern world we live in, we only have two choices as individuals; we either seek a comfortable situation, and accept that it is a lie, or we choose to put ourselves in an uncomfortable situation that we know is truthful. Take your pick.