Going the Dissonance

“I’m good at cards. The only reason I haven’t won yet is due to this ridiculous hat.”

I seek the truth everywhere, and respect it whenever I find it, and I submit to it whenever it is shown to me – Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great was a King of Prussia (a German kingdom from 1701 to 1918) between 1772 and 1786. Before that he was a King in Prussia. Which is the same thing except Prussia was a state of the Holy Roman Empire and the Emperor thought it best to stop the  “Kings” getting  too uppity by disallowing the “of” preposition.  As the old, fictional saying goes, “If you want people to know their correct position, make sure they know their preposition.” Due to his highly effective military campaigning and organisation of the Prussian armies he became known as Frederick the Great.  I’m not sure what he thought about this description but I guess it would be a useful bit of self-promotion. Opposing armies are more likely to think twice about attacking an army led by Frederick the Great than one by Frederick the Faints At The Sight Of A Small Amount Of Blood.

Given that there has been some interesting articles and discussion of self-promotion in science communication recently in Athene Donald’s blog and through Della Thomas survey, perhaps scientists would have less opposition to their ideas if they adopted a similar approach. More open data from the pharmaceutical industry at the behest of Goldacre the Statistical or less nonsense from chiropractors through the work of Singh the Evidence-Based. Essentially this would be an advertising tool most commonly adopted by the cereal industry. Frosties: they’re great, Rice Krispies: they make a series of noises, Coco pops: they leach sweet material into the surrounding liquid to alter its flavour and colour. A refreshing honesty which I’m sure has aided the popularity of these glorified pencil shavings. An honesty which would be well adopted by the perfume industry in their advertising.  I’m all too commonly confused by a greyscale advert whereby a monkey licks a slipper while a piano plays and a singer wails operatically only to be told to buy Charmisma by Calvin Dior. And Natalie Portman was also there. I’d much rather get told, “Bottle of Stuff:  it’ll make you smell nice.” But I digress.

Frederick the Great tended towards the enlightened absolutism school of monarchy as influenced by the Enlightenment. As such he placed emphasis on rationality and the use of it to rule his territory. He supported the arts, sciences and education, modernising the Prussian bureaucracy and civil service. The quote attributed to him above would be recognisable to a scientist as one where properly established facts and models are sought and minds are changed when adequate evidence is given that shows you are incorrect. If a fly could adopt these principles it might stop banging against the glass in the belief that it represents further air and instead search for a more reliable opening. However if flies could adopt the reasoning I have attributed to them they could mount a terrifying takeover of the planet. No doubt led by Jeff Goldblum. I for one welcome our new drosphila overlords.

The goal of science and scientists is arguably rationality. Unfortunately there is something that often gets in the way of this lofty goal, the frequently faulty software of the human brain. Humans don’t really cope well with uncertainty. Humans like knowing things and they certainly don’t like it when the things they know are shown to be wrong. It is well known in psychology that people prefer and even seek out information that matches their existing beliefs. For example if I were to believe I was handsome I would most likely avoid mirrors and the opinions of others. This tendency is known as confirmation bias and can have real world consequences. Mendel (not that one) and others demonstrated that 13% of psychiatrists displayed evidence of confirmation bias; searching only for information that confirmed their preliminary diagnosis of a patient in contrast to evidence against it. It is easy to see how this could go on to effect optimal treatment of the patient.

If people do come across and retain information that conflicts with beliefs they already hold then they do not do so for long.  Cognitive dissonance is the term used to describe the feeling of discomfort when holding two or more conflicting cognitions simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. From this we can infer that “State of Dissonance” would be an accurate alternative title for Britain’s Got Talent.  Dissonance occurs when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs.  I might experience dissonance when told that people enjoy Britain’s Got Talent.  I might but I often stop listening when told this.

Cognitive dissonance theory warns that people have a tendency to want consonance among their cognitions. Dissonance is uncomfortable and people are motivated to reduce this discomfort. According to Festinger (a psychologist) this process he termed “dissonance reduction” could be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors. In simpler terms if the dissonance is not reduced by changing one’s belief, it can be reduced through misperception, rejection or refutation of the conflicting information, seeking support from those who share similar original beliefs, and attempting to persuade others to believe the original beliefs. Dissonance reduction can then be used to explain much seemingly irrational behaviour.

I might believe that watching television matter, Loose Women causes your brain to rot and dribble from your ears. I then hear Sarah Millican and Al Murray (comedians I enjoy, see them, they’re good.) have or have had an association with this programme. I therefore experience the discomfort of dissonance like a moist handshake from an individual you know has just left the bathroom. I can reduce this by pretending this association didn’t happen or just happened because of the money, seeking the company of others who don’t like Loose Women (intelligent human beings) or by trying to persuade others I’m right about Loose Women (I am.) Alternatively I can change my opinion of Loose Women and instead believe it is good. I am a bitter and lazy human though so am unlikely to pick the last option.

My television example is relatively trivial. I have a magic device that changes the channel on my television and so don’t have to watch things I don’t like and complain about them at length.  Dissonance reduction however can be used to explain many non-trivial irritations; unchanging political attitudes in the face of evidence, alternative medicine use, smoking and other damaging health behaviours and many more. There is a tendency I’ve noticed online for people to accuse people with ideas or beliefs they don’t agree with of cognitive dissonance. Really it’s their method of dissonance reduction that they have a problem with. Either way it’s fun/infuriating to try and spot your own dissonance reduction techniques. Then, if your name is Frederick, you might be able to self-promote with the name, Frederick the Slightly More Rational.

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