I recall a recent debate I was having with a friend of mine on an educational issue. I proceeded to inform him of the copious amounts of data that did not support his assertions. He then began his counterargument with, “Well, regardless of the facts…” Sigh.
Many of you may wonder why it is, for example, that some people tend to hold tightly onto erroneous beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. For an answer, we turn to the fields of social and cognitive psychology. The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance has emerged as one of the many culprits of irrational decision-making. In layperson terms, cognitive dissonance – a term first coined by Social Psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956 — refers to the internal discord felt when our current beliefs become incompatible with newly discovered factual information that easily contradicts them.
Faced with such contradictory information, most humans will adapt or completely overhaul their belief systems accordingly, so as to (A) minimize the discord; and (B) accommodate the newly found knowledge into their current worldview. However, some individuals react in a much different manner. They instead cling to their erroneous beliefs with a new-found sense of ferocity.
Most of the time, the experience of cognitive dissonance is inconsequential. When a person becomes familiar with the basic laws of physics, those laws are incompatible with a belief in Santa Clause, but continuing to believe in Santa is generally not going to ruin many lives. There are many instances, however, in which clinging to erroneous beliefs in the face of mountains of factual data can have very significant, and sometimes, tragic consequences.
For example, the data is pretty clear that, in spite of popular discourse, there really isn’t a “welfare crisis” in this country. Most individuals do not collect welfare, even when they experience significant poverty. Yet, there are many who continue to bemoan a crisis of entitlement that does not exist. Even though such data is publicly available and easily accessible, these folks insist that there are hoards of lazy freeloaders (most of whom are, of course, Latino and Black) who are singlehandedly responsible for the country’s economic downturn. As a result, the poor of this country have been disparaged in public and political discourse to a shameful degree.
But perhaps the most tragic example can be found during the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. Many believed that AIDS was a problem restricted to the gay community (recall that AIDS was once referred to as GRID – gay related immune deficiency). In spite of mounting scientific data that clearly showed otherwise, many political and public policy administrators continued to insist that AIDS was a “gay problem.” As a result, crucial research and prevention measures were severely underfunded for a significant time period.
It is our responsibility as citizens of this world to understand that our belief systems do not exist in a vacuum. When we cling to blind, dogmatic (and erroneous) thought, there is potential for much harm to be done.