On cognitive dissonance
How social media plunges us into a living hell of narrative contradiction and anxiety
A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
—Leon Festinger et al., When Prophecy Fails
Among the various activities that undermine my claim of not being in some elite class, being a regular squash player is probably the worst offense. From college through grad school to New York to the Bay Area to even while living in Spain writing Chaos Monkeys, I have always kept on chasing a small, squishy ball inside a stuffy, enclosed cube in what’s the most complex, strategic, and exhausting racquet sport ever devised.
One day it was my fate to play at the Bay Club, a labyrinthine two-story club crammed inside a former warehouse (the layout will become key in a moment) north of San Francisco’s downtown. It wasn’t my regular club, but I’d occasionally cadge a game there if I was in the ‘the city’. My play was just regular enough to maintain skills but not fitness, and after an hour of flailing around in this bougie proxy to combat, I returned absolutely exhausted to the locker room for a shower.
“Huh, that’s weird,” I thought as I saw another member pull into the long carpeted walkway between wooden lockers that led to the showers. He was walking ahead of me, but he had his towel around his chest, which seemed an odd affectation.
”Man, he’s got some long hair too,” I thought, noticing the horse’s tail worth of hair dangling down his back.
“Kind of weird-shaped dude,” I further ruminated, noticing the odd proportions underneath the towel held around his torso.
I’M IN THE FUCKING WOMEN’S LOCKER ROOM!!!
It finally hit me, and in an absolute panic, I 180’ed and sprinted out of there before anyone saw me. My hands were shaking by the time I collected myself next to the staircase where I’d managed to mentally turn myself around and take the wrong turn into the wrong locker room.
What I’d experienced, to much psychological stress and alarm, was what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance,’ or ‘the perception of contradictory information.’ When reality (or my perception of it) violates the values, beliefs, and mental cartography of my preferred narrative, religion, or philosophy, I do everything in my power to reconcile them. Usually, I try to reconcile the data to my mental model (as I did in that locker room), rather than the reverse, as the psychological pain involved in admitting my worldview dramatically wrong is too much to bear. Until of course reality slaps you in the race, and then you wake up.
A recent example of a cognitive-dissonance inducing collision with reality. You could find many examples on the opposing political side of course, the phenomenon not at all limited to any one faction or group.
The term was coined by University of Chicago social psychologist Leon Festinger in the classic study that produced the book I quote above: When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World. The object of the study was a 50s-era UFO cult in Chicago led by a charismatic prophetess who claimed flying saucers would appear on a certain date and save all her adepts from a world-destroying flood. The most committed of her disciples actually distanced themselves from family, sold earthly belongings, and absolutely committed themselves to life on another planet as their own planet was consumed in an apocalypse. When the much-awaited apocalypse/UFO rescue never happened—the researchers actually posed as believers and described firsthand the cringe-y awkwardness as the big day came and went—it didn’t quash everyone’s messianic fervor. The most devout rationalized the lack of aliens and all-consuming flood in various ways, and continued in their belief; vestiges of the cult lasted into the 90s.
The obvious comparison with the Festinger cult is, of course, early Christianity, which paralleled the UFO cult in essentially every way, including the expectation of an apocalypse followed by a magical new world called the Kingdom of God (space travel wasn’t yet a concept, and so Jesus ascended into heaven via levitation rather than UFOs, an act recorded in countless church frescoes).
Every collective belief system, whether a religion or political philosophy, can be characterized by its never-ending attempt to reconcile reality to its beliefs for the well-being of its adepts.
The difference between some UFO cult and the Christian religion numbering over two billion faithful is the ability to manage that cognitive dissonance and keep the flame of faith alive.
When Jesus failed to return from his otherworldly ascension in the time of the disciples, as was expected and recorded in the gospels,1 then much as I did in the locker room (or Twitter blue checks falling for a social media hoax do online), there’s a collective rationalization that attempts to reshape reality to keep the messianic faith true and correct.
Every collective belief system, whether a religion or political philosophy, can be characterized by its never-ending attempt to reconcile reality to its beliefs for the well-being of its adepts. The difference between some UFO cult and the Christian religion numbering over two billion faithful is the ability to manage that cognitive dissonance and keep the flame of faith alive. Ditto for startups, political parties, or even nation-states.2