Rules of Engagement

Think of what you’re saying
You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s all right
Think of what I’m saying
We can work it out and get it straight, or say good night
We can work it out
We can work it out
Life is very short, and there’s no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend
I have always thought that it’s a crime
So I will ask you once again . . .

Moving the Goalposts

How could so many intelligent people turn on a dime to deny the patently obvious?

That’s what social scientist Leon Festinger set out to study 65 years ago. In December 1954 an article came out in the Chicago Tribune about a doomsday prophecy foretelling a cataclysmic flood. The founder of this fiction claimed that aliens from the planet Clarion contacted her and telepathically transmitted instructions for how to survive.

Obeying every warning would earn a ticket into outer space just a few hours before life on Earth would end. A small clan dubbed The Seekers heard her calling and wanted to be on board that ship. Festinger saw the perfect opportunity to put his theory to the test.

He assembled a team of psychologists to infiltrate The Seekers to see how they would react when time continued to tick.

He and his undercover operatives wrote When Prophecy Fails to document their observations. In the forward to a 2008 edition of that book, another famous psychologist named Elliot Aronson wrote the following:

Suppose that The Seekers are not wild-eyed kooks wearing white robes and carrying signs saying “REPENT!” — but are intelligent, sensible people with nice homes, loving families, and good jobs.

No doubt you had another image in mind — I know I did. So serious were The Seekers in their adherence to alien law that one member even removed a filling from a tooth — as no metal of any kind was allowed on their journey to the stars.

Another example of allegiance was the guy who “meticulously stripped tin foil from each stick of a pack of gum he was carrying.” The fervor in their faith fit right into the predictions of the study — that the disciples would double down on their convictions in the aftermath of unfulfilled beliefs.

When midnight arrived on the day of their departure, they opted to count on the slower of the two clocks

Surely that was the reason the saucer had not yet appeared at the mandated strike of twelve.

Hope was fading fast by 4:00 A.M., but 45 minutes later The Founder received a message from above. As Cooper’s book tells it:

A message shows the path . . . to restore consistency. The Clarions’ final message was brilliant. Through Mrs. Keech’s trembling hand, it said:

“This little group, sitting all night long, has spread so much goodness and light that the God of the Universe spared the Earth from destruction.”

That very afternoon The Seekers sought the publicity they had previously shunned — and the theory of cognitive dissonance was born.

So that was it. The beliefs had not been wrong after all.

God had been planning to destroy the Earth. All of the preparations for the cataclysm had not been in vain. In fact, it was precisely and only because of the preparations, sacrifices, and faith of the group that the Earth still existed on the morning of December 21. . . .

Before December 21, Festinger et al. (1956) had made a prediction. They hypothesized that The Seekers, who shunned publicity and notoriety, would take their cause to the public following the disconfirmation. And The Seekers did that with gusto. As soon as their new belief was in place – as soon as they had generated the story that their actions had saved the world – they took their case to the public. They looked for social support for their story. They desperately wanted others to see that their actions had not been in vain, that their prophecy had not been disconfirmed, that there was no inconsistency between their belief in the cataclysm and the bright sunny day that had dawned on December 21.

The premise of dissonance theory is that people do not tolerate inconsistency very well. The Seekers had found a way, post hoc, to make their actions feel consistent to themselves and they now sought validation in having the world believe them. They printed flyers, called newspapers and magazines, azines, offered to talk on radio programs, all in an effort to bolster their new found consistency. . . .

The Seekers did just what Festinger and his colleagues predicted they would do: they were driven to find a way to restore their consistency – driven to find a new belief that would make sense of what they had done and driven to convince a sceptical world of the truth of their new position.

“driven to find a new belief that would make sense of what they had done” . . .

A lot of that goin’ around

My interest in psychology came through my own experiences — including cognitive dissonance. I knew nothing about it until I told a friend about a little debate back in college (ironically in COM 101) — and how I realized many years later that I was wrong. My classmate and I were disagreeing over who sang lead on most Pink Floyd songs. With every fiber of my being — there was no question that it was Roger Waters. But I can still see the look on Bill’s face as he had no doubt it was David Gilmour.

In reply to my explanation about how I “heard” the singer I most identified with, my friend and fellow-Floyd fan said

Sounds like cognitive dissonance

Ah yes, the power of “Hmm . . .” — followed by a little look-see into what he was talking about. And whad-ya know, he was dead-on.

It hardly gets more harmless than our friendly debate over Floyd, and there was nothing to be gained regardless of who was right. Aligning myself with Waters was rooted in my philosophical interests as a teenager in Cold War times. I still remember the exact moment when I was mesmerized by Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. I walked into a dark room down at some friends’ house and they had the album blaring.

Even cranked up there was a soul-searching quietude in the tunes that seamlessly flowed from one into the other. I had never heard anything like that before, but what struck me most was the imagery in Waters’ words.

The rusty wire that holds the cork
That keeps the anger in
Gives way and suddenly
It’s day again
The sun is in the east
Even though the day is done
Two suns in the sunset
Could be the human race is run . . .

And as the windshield melts and my tears evaporate
Leaving only charcoal to defend
Finally I understand the feelings of the few
Ashes and diamonds
Foe and friend
We were all equal in the end

Despite the gloomy lyrics, they had a thought-provoking purpose — and that was inspiring to me. And yet by overly identifying with the visionary behind the band, I defended him on faith alone.

If I could do that blindly with nothing to gain — imagine how discourse is poisoned when deeply-entrenched motives are involved.

I was foolish for being so certain in my Pink Floyd perception, but had Bill brought in some liner notes listing lead vocals, I would have found it impossible not to take that information into account.

As equally avid fans, I might have thought that our opinions were equal at first — but in the face of evidence to the contrary, I would change my mind.

But the absence of evidence is no excuse

I had other things that I could have taken into account to at least consider the possibility that I might be wrong.

Given that Bill was a good bit older, I suspect he knew far more Floyd history than I did (which wouldn’t be hard — since my knowledge was limited to a few albums). When I first revisited the lead-vocal question sometime in the early 2000s, it looked like I had been wrong all along — and if I could recall his last name, I would have tried tracking him down years ago just to let him know.

I like to acknowledge error — I see it as a form of practice to be more careful in the future. And it’s a gesture of grace and respect to say, “Hey, I’m sorry I was so hard-headed about that — I wish I would have listened to you.”

Above all, it deepens your willingness to wonder:

“Is that true? Maybe there’s something to what she just said. Let me think about it. That’s interesting. Maybe I should change my mind.”

— Life of the Closed Mind (Anna Quindlen)

Over a decade had passed since I re-evaluated my viewpoint, and a few years ago — just for kicks, I was curious to see just how far off I was. A lot more material is available online now, so I was able to easily compile the entire catalog to nail down a fairly accurate accounting. Imagine my surprise when my spreadsheet revealed that Waters came out on top by ten.

So was I right after all?

ABSOLUTELY NOT!

First off, I don’t know for certain that the numbers are right — I just know that they’re close and that Waters came out ahead just a bit. But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the numbers are correct.

Would that make my right?

NO — Because my original belief was based on nothing!

Whatever the numbers, they don’t change the fact that in my ignorance I cast my conclusion with lickety-split judgment — letting my over-the-top loyalty shield me from listening. Without any knowledge of older albums, I had based my belief on a restricted domain of information — and yet I was completely satisfied that my knowledge was enough to express an opinion with absolute certainty.

Moreover, even on the albums I had listened to a lot — the issue is in doubt, as I heard what I wanted to hear.

And now I hear differently . . .

The irony is that neither one of us was right because it seems too close to call. But he was far closer than me (since he was basing his belief on actual knowledge). It wasn’t just that I believed I was right — I didn’t even think it was remotely close.

Through book recommendations and research, I became fascinated with the fact that there is a construct to the bizarre behavior I’ve been increasingly seeing over the years.

The short stories under Gutter Games of Government are emblematic of the unyielding dedication to the demonstrably false.

Most people generally see themselves as truthful, but it’s the fog of intellectual dishonesty that most often obscures the truth. How we navigate that haze shapes our perception and impacts our integrity.

Wikipedia.com captures the essence of intellectual dishonesty by describing it as such:

Intellectual dishonesty is the creation of false impressions or advocacy of false ideas and concepts using rhetoric, logical fallacies, or insufficient or falsified evidence. It often stems from self-deception or a covert agenda, which is expressed through a misuse of various rhetorical devices. The unwary reader may be deceived as a result. It is often very difficult to distinguish whether the intellectual dishonesty is due to conscious dishonesty by somebody or due to unconscious self-deception.

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. . . .

But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen?

The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view. How and why does such a response to contradictory evidence come about?

This is the question on which this book focuses. . . .