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The Cognitive Dissonance of Irrationality

by Niklas Haas on October 29, 2020

Tagged as: life, society.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that cognitive dissonance is at the root of a great wealth of seemingly illogical human behaviour. This ranges from universal topics like the fantastic ability of the mind to maintain the illusion of free will and subjective coherence when faced with existential dread, nihilism or self-contradictory or subconscious urges; to the more concrete examples like climate change or holocaust denial, or beliefs in a flat earth or astrology.

In a nutshell, anything that seems to contradict logical reasoning, I think, ultimately has its roots in logical reasoning itself being overturned by a need to adhere to something else - something even more powerful, or fundamental, than logical reasoning itself.

I think that, a lot of the time, this powerful overturning force is either the basic human need for self-worth, or the basic human desire for self-determination. Anti-science movements, I think, paint a great illustrative example of this. We’re living in a post-enlightenment, industrialized society that emphasizes and rewards intelligence, rational thinking, and scientific curiosity. Yet at the same time, we have a school system that not only aggressively measures people by their ability to engage in these behaviours, but also continuously reinforces the idea that somebody who fails to achieve good grades is worth less to society. A powerful blow to any human’s self-worth and self-ideal.

It doesn’t take much imagination to put yourself into the shoes of somebody who consistently struggled with either a lack of ability or a lack of interest in intellectual pursuits, being continuously graded against their peers, punished for their inabilities, categorized and discriminated against, and so forth. How can a human possibly cope with the blow to self esteem caused by living in a surrounding that’s continuously reinforcing the idea that they’re, essentially, not valuable humans? It’s at this point that the mind begins to develop and employ powerful coping mechanisms. Rather than having science (and thus society) reject ones self, ones self instead ends up rejecting science.

It’s the only resolution that leaves the self esteem untouched. For the more narcissistic, this might manifest as “I’m right, and everybody else is wrong! Stupid sheeple..”. But being alone in your beliefs is also excruciating, which is exactly why anti-science movements can end up so fantastically proliferous - setting the stage for even more coping mechanisms such as establishing an illusion of consensus, or even actively rewarding the participation in anti-scientific beliefs and discourse, by allowing these victims of society to bond together and reinforce their mutually held cognitive illusions. Giving the stage to powerful anti-science authorities onto which the needy can attach themselves, the way they couldn’t attach themselves to the previous authorities in matters of fact (teachers).

This is also, I suspect, why so many anti-science believers tend to perceive themselves as “critical thinkers” and “skeptics” - because even they cannot escape the fundamental human desire to not only understand the world, but also feel like they’re the one in charge of their surroundings - the one in charge of making sense of things. Cognitive dissonance paves the way to the utter rejection of any and all contradicting evidence, including contradictions in their own logic. It’s why arguing with a flat earther, say, is ultimately futile1 - the very core conflict going on here is that by admitting they’re wrong, they’d be confronted with their own perception of utter worthlessness; an emotion their brain decided is too excruciating to tolerate. No amount of evidence will shake their faith, because no amount of evidence is worth overturning the self esteem. Even if it means they’re spending the rest of their lives living in a illusory fantasy world, that’s an acceptable compromise.

Similarly, religious belief and spiritual conviction on a whole is based on a need to have a sense of purpose, the mind’s resolution to being confronted with the utter meaninglessness of their own existence. No amount of logical reasoning could simply overturn such a powerful human desire. Instead, I suspect the best way to convert somebody away from one religious belief is by providing them with a substitute - the ability to define their self worth by things other than devotion to some idol; like how the only way to treat addiction is to provide addicts with healthier means to satisfy the desire their addiction is trying to satisfy.

In any case, the most important take-away from this picture, I think, is that to curb the growth of anti-scientific belief, the most crucial step would be making scientific inquiry accessible. We ought to reward curiosity rather than punishing mistakes. And most importantly, scientists as a whole need to stop making fun of non-scientists for being less informed. It’s not a particularly funny state of affairs, it’s the result of a great societal tragedy that might well end up in the dissolution of scientific affairs altogether. How many people do you think end up converting to anti-science simply so they can be the ones finally making fun of people that “still believe blindly in science”, the same way scientists make fun of people blindly believing in horoscopes? A symptom of the bullied and the outcasts trying to enact revenge.

In any case, I greatly look up to anybody and everybody trying to make science accessible, in particular in a way that inspires people to want to find out more, rather than simply regurgitating facts and trying to convince them that they’re worth knowing.

  1. There’s also the related issue that a lot of highly visible hot-button issues like flat earth belief are highly visible essentially because they’re being propagated by people seeking attention; which means that engaging in discourse with them gives them exactly what they want: media attention. It’s like the common saying, “don’t feed the trolls”. (And yes, I realize I’m somewhat doing so with this post, but this post is aimed less at flat earthers and more at scientists.)↩︎