Back Goldfinch looking backwards

My Cognitive Dissonances

After retirement in 1999 I fell into a surprising number of cognitive dissonances. The Wikipedia article does a good job defining that:

Cognitive dissonance is a term used in modern psychology to describe the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel "disequilibrium": frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc.[1] The phrase was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse.[2][3] Festinger subsequently (1957) published a book called A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in which he outlines the theory. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. (source)

I think the very first cog diff in my life came at the end of my three years paying back the US Navy for the very generous scholarship they offered back in the 50’s. I was on a simple destroyer plying the sea between San Diego and Hong Kong. This was between the Korean and the Vietnam wars, so I had some good luck. One of my jobs was to inventory and manage all the ship’s classified materials. This was not difficult, but it was nerve-wracking because the penalties for losing track of one of those documents were very severe, and I took the job very seriously.

How seriously?

When I got out of the Navy in 1960, I realized that in all those three years, I had never been called upon to open the one Top Secret document there was on the ship. Our cryptography materials, which I labored away at almost daily, were only Secret. Normal orders that came in via Morse code and teletype were Confidential. So I thought I’d just see what might be so very important before I got out of there, and in my last inventory opened up that package.

It contained directions on how to lie to the press if one of our spy planes should get shot down (or detected perhaps) flying over the Chinese mainland as part of our ongoing electronic countermeasures operations: flying planes in to pick up the Chinese radar transmissions so we could prepare countermeasures to that or those frequencies. That sort of thing. The basic story would be that our planes had been lured off course by Chinese decoy versions of American navigation beacons.

Since I had already read that story in the US press regarding such incidents during my tour of duty, and since I had absolutely and without question assumed that the stories as reported by the press from military spokespeople were entirely true, this came not so much as a revelation as a source of … cognitive dissonance.

Now my disposition of this troubling news, my eventual way of handling the inner discontent it produced, was just to forget it; to let the whole thing go and turn to other concerns that were certainly more pressing. Thus when later, in 1963, I ran into some American soldiers in Paris, and they told me they had a few days leave before flying on to Vietnam where they would be parachuted into the jungles of Vietnam, I was entirely unable to believe them. I recall telling them that that would mean that our country was overtly, deliberately lying to the public, as though that meant that they couldn’t be telling me the truth. And it didn’t matter to me that they told me of buddies they knew who had done this already etc.

I do not write this to let my readers know what a fool I was at that time, or how incredibly naïve. I don’t deny that, but only wish to provide those specifics to back up the truth of the Wikipedia’s next paragraphs on cognitive dissonance:

The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.[1] It is the distressing mental state that people feel when they "find themselves doing things that don't fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold." [4] A key assumption is that people want their expectations to meet reality, creating a sense of equilibrium. [5] Likewise, another assumption is that a person will avoid situations or information sources that give rise to feelings of uneasiness, or dissonance.[1]

Cognitive dissonance theory explains human behavior by positing that people have a bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality. According to Festinger, people engage in a process he termed "dissonance reduction", which can be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors.[6] This bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior.

I do put this all in here by way of preface to the various cognitive dissonances I am going to develop in this section of my little website. The roles are now reversed. I am the soldier being sent to parachute into Vietnam in 1963 and no one will believe me. This is sometimes hard for me to understand – that (almost) no one will believe me – without evoking cognitive dissonance and my own experience with it. But by calling to mind my own absolute self-certainty and complete inability to evaluate evidence in a reasonable manner, I can accept ruefully that my to-me very credibly researched and thought-through conclusions will be seen by most as the self-serving self-deceptions of yet another conspiracy theorist.

So be it. I knew back in Paris that those guys must be talking big to make me and the young women around us think they were important. I had my rationalization ready at hand. I cannot fault another for practicing my own routine.

On [1] see the justly famous Milgram Experiment on Obedience to Authority. Wikipedia.

The drop-down menu above will take you to such of my several cognitive dissonances as I am presently willing to open to public scrutiny. My intention is to provide links to substantial discussion nodes elsewhere that I have found persuasive in spite of my initial commitment to the received version of truth.

The case of vaccination is special because I have only recently confronted it, and I have a good many personal notes on my conclusions.

My father and I in WWII. I was born in Joplin, Missouri, grew up across the state line in Galena, Kansas. Think: Missouri, Kansas, blue states. My first hair cut brings back memories of the barber bad-mouthing that Roosevelt fellow. Somehow I was taught that George Washington never told a lie and the founding fathers could and did do no wrong. We saluted the flag and pledged our allegiance to one nation under God. Justice was blind and even-handed, slow, but sure. Truth reigned. You could see that in the Statue of Liberty: liberty and justice for all.