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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance or why they stay in Iraq and we in Afghanistan

I was always a great fan off General Colin Powell, read his biography and visited the Pentagon before 9/11. It was a great deception learning that his plea to enter Iraq because of the presence of weapons of mass destruction was a scam. Nevertheless one of his rules of thumb was that you should have an exit strategy before invading a country.

That rule was neglected. A lot of soldiers have died since. Justification of staying besides economic reasons is the already invested cost of lives and effort in the occupied country. This kind of reasoning is called cognitive dissonance.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is in simple terms the filtering of information that conflicts with what one already believes, in an effort to ignore that information and reinforce one's beliefs.

From Wikipedia

Social psychologist Leon Festinger first proposed the theory in 1957 after the publication of his book When Prophecy Fails, observing the counterintuitive belief persistence of members of a UFO doomsday cult and their increased proselytization after the leader's prophecy failed. The failed message of earth's destruction, purportedly sent by aliens to a woman in 1956, became a disconfirmed expectancy that increased dissonance between cognitions, thereby causing most members of the impromptu cult to lessen the dissonance by accepting a new prophecy: that the aliens had instead spared the planet for their sake.

In popular usage, it can be associated with the tendency for people to resist information that they don't want to think about, because if they did it would create cognitive dissonance, and perhaps require them to act in ways that depart from their comfortable habits. They usually have at least partial awareness of the information, without having moved to full acceptance of it, and are thus in a state of denial about it.

Until a recent publication in Psychological Science it was assumed that you needed the capability of abstractive thinking as present in adults. This recent publication provided the first evidence of cognitive dissonance in children (30 four-year-olds) and 6 capuchin monkeys.

The procedure
Children's preference for different stickers were rated with a smiley face rating scale, corresponding to 6 levels of liking.

Next they were asked to to match a series of stickers to the faces on it until they became tired of it. Once a the child had rated the stickers the experimenter randomly labeled the sticker in each triad as A,B and C. Next each child participated in the choice or the no-choice experiment.

In the choice condition the child was given one choice between A and B. Next the child was given a similar choice between the unchosen alternative and C. All triads were used.

In the no-choice condition the experimenter displayed A and B of a triad and said: "Now , I am going to give you a sticker to take home". Randomly A or B was given to the child. After receiving the sticker the child was given a choice between the unreceived sticker and the equally preferred alternative C.

In the choice condition the children and monkeys more often chose the alternative C. In the no-choice condition, where the children were not allowed to choose a sticker, the preference for C disappeared.

Both children and capuchins demonstrated a decrease in preference for one of two equally preferred alternatives after they had chosen against it but not when the experimenter had chosen against it. This suggests that children and monkeys change their current preference to fit with their past decisions They changed their preferences to match more closely the choices they made in previous decisions.

Since children and monkeys have little experience with decision making it is unlikely that cognitive dissonance can be attributed solely to past cognitive history. It might be a core-knowledge mechanism, there may be some core aspects of cognition that give rise to cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance reduction may be more automatic than previously suspected.

Were does that leave us concerning the decisions made by Generals, Presidents, and Governments?
Obviously their decisions made on cognitive dissonance reduction doesn't surpass the level of 4 year old and monkeys.

Article discussed:
Psychol Sci. 2007 Nov;18(11):978-83.
The origins of cognitive dissonance: evidence from children and monkeys.
Egan LC, Santos LR, Bloom P.
Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

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