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More On Cognitive Dissonance

Global Warming Politics [1]
Friday, Aug 22, 2008

“The End Of The World Is/Is Not Nigh!”

Throughout history, many competing cults have attempted to predict dire catastrophes for the Earth. With respect to these cults, the key psychological and sociological question is: “What happens when the predictions fail?” Following on from yesterday’s post [see: ‘Cognitive Dissonance’, August 19], in which I analysed the growing gap between a hot media obsessed with ‘global warming’ disasters and a world in which the climate is currently cooling, I thought it might be helpful to explore the phenomenon of ‘cognitive dissonance’ further.

Failed Predictions

During World War I, the official publication of the Assemblies of God, The Weekly Evangel, made a classic doomsday prediction: “We are not yet in the Armageddon struggle proper, but at its commencement, and it may be, if students of prophecy read the signs aright, that Christ will come before the present war closes, and before Armageddon … The war preliminary to Armageddon, it seems, has commenced.” Specific dates were mentioned, declaring that ‘The End’ would come no later than 1934 or 1935. Interestingly, there are parallels here with belief in ‘global warming’, in that it too is seen as being “at its commencement”, and that it is either too late already, or that it will come in its full force within, as some claim, ten years or less.

Such failed predictions comprise the core of the work of New York social psychologist, Leon Festinger (1919 – 1989) [pictured], who wrote a classic book, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (University of Minnesota Press, 1956), with Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter.

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This was about a UFO cult who believed that the end of the world was imminent. A Chicago housewife, Marion Keech, received messages in her house in the form of ‘automatic writing’ from alien beings on the planet Clarion. These revealed that the Earth would end in a mighty flood before dawn on December 21. A group of believers, headed by Keech, then exhibited strong behavioural adaptations to demonstrate their degree of commitment. They abandoned jobs, college, and spouses, and they gave away their money and possessions in order to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer, which would come to rescue all true believers.

For Festinger and his colleagues, the failure of Keech’s prediction became a classic ‘disconfirmed expectancy’, which increased ‘dissonance’ between ‘cognitions’, thereby causing many members of the cult to lessen the ‘dissonance’ by accepting a new prophecy, namely that the aliens had decided to spare the planet for the sake of them, the believers.

Festinger then built on this famous study to produce his masterpiece, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford University Press, 1957).

Cognitive Dissonance

In this important theory, ‘cognitions’ embrace ‘knowledge’, attitude, emotion (or ‘ambivalence’), belief, and behaviour. Cognitions that contradict each other are termed ‘dissonant,’ while cognitions that agree with each other are ‘consonant.’ Cognitions which neither agree nor disagree are ‘irrelevant.’ The sudden arrival of a new cognition that is dissonant with a currently-held cognition creates a ‘state of dissonance.’ The important issue then becomes how can this disruptive dissonance be reduced, or eased, for the believer.

Amelioration may be achieved by trying either to eliminate one of the cognitions altogether or to create a new, consonant cognition between the two competing cognitions. We should also note that there can be significant degrees of dissonance. The maximum possible dissonance is equal to the resistance to change of the less ‘resistant cognition’. Thus, once dissonance attains a level that overcomes the resistance of one of the cognitions, that cognition will be amended, or eliminated, and dissonance will be reduced for the believer.

In terms of social behaviour, this will cause people who suffer the pain of dissonance either to seek out actively ‘knowledge’ that will reduce the dissonance for them personally, or to avoid/ignore the competing ‘knowledge’ completely. If the latter, then people who are involuntarily exposed to such ‘knowledge’ will do their level-best to discount that ‘knowledge’, either by deliberately misinterpreting it or by denying it vigorously, at least to themselves.

A Hot Media In A Cooling World

As I pointed out yesterday, this is precisely what is happening to our media with respect to the increasingly unequivocal ‘knowledge’ that we have now entered a cooling period in climate. They are starting to experience a powerful dissonance because of their strong promulgation over the last 20 years of the doomsday, catastrophic view of ‘global warming’.

Media reaction to the new ‘cognition’ is thus classic. It involves, above all, ignoring the cooling, but also mis-reporting the cooling, denying the cooling, or trying to create a new consonant cognition, one in which the cooling actually becomes a part of the catastrophic ‘global warming’ belief.

For some media, the dissonance is especially high, not because of the science of climate change, but because they have involuntarily invested so much air time, print, and uncritical emotion in hyping the more doomsday, cult-like elements of the ‘global warming’ trope, with dramatic images of drowning polar bears, collapsing ice sheets, flooded lands, and hard-baked deserts.

What Is Likely To Happen?

If the cooling phase in climate continues, media and political dissonance will increase to stress point. This will have one of two effects.

First, some media may become even more rabid in their presentation of ‘global warming’ disasters, showing yet more drowning polar bears, plunging ice sheets, dangerous mosquitoes, flooded cities, and barren lands. For this to happen, Festinger states that two conditions must be met:

(1)The belief must be held with very deep conviction, and it must have relevance to promoted actions, that is, to what the believer does, or how they want people to behave. For the ‘global warming’ cult, and for those in the media who have uncritically adopted editorial positions as champions of the ‘Green’ agenda, this is precisely the case, ranging from changing light bulbs to recycling, from abandoning SUVs to wearing hemp undies, from wind farms to solar panels; and,

(2) The person holding the belief must have committed to it. Such is worryingly true of some media that have abandoned their normal critical stance as journalists in favour of preaching.

Alternatively, however, – and I think that this may be the increasing likely outcome – the media will ultimately turn against those whom they have finally come to believe have duped them, so that they will begin to vent all their journalistic spleen against the ‘believers’. Above all, they will regret their folly in falling for a ‘science’ which focuses on only one factor out of thousands, and, by contrast, to revel in their new-found grasp of complex science, economics, and politics. The process will be facilitated by journalistic boredom with the old trope, and by the search for the novel in ‘News’. For this to happen:

(1)Strong disconfirmatory evidence must occur (e.g. continued cooling); and,
(2)This evidence must actually be recognized and acknowledged by the person holding the original belief.

In either of the above two cases, there must also be a fifth factor, especially for strong believers, in that such a person must have social support for ‘change’ or for ‘no change’. In other words, if an increasing number of media outlets start to question ‘the belief’, it will be much easier for a formerly strong believer to begin to follow suit. In this, there will be a classic cascade effect. Until recently, the cascade effect has been working in the direction of supporting a belief in catastrophic ‘global warming’, with both the media and scientists frightened of seeming to be heretics and out-of-step. Increasingly, however, there are signs that the cascade is reversing direction.

Historians, long hence, will surely have a fascinating time analysing the rise and fall of the cult of catastrophic ‘global warming’. Even now it is possible to detect close parallels with the pattern of many traditional doomsday cults. And, it is particularly interesting to note that scientists are just as susceptible to such cults as non-scientists.

As a mere academic, I shall observe the progress of this particular cognitive dissonance with enthusiasm.