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Monday, August 11, 2014

A conversation with cognitive dissonance

Monday, August 11, 2014 By

AUGUSTA, GA. - I get angry with people sometimes. I try to keep it to myself, try to understand others' perspectives, try to remind myself that we all experience our own struggles. But when people lie, manipulate other people, bully someone weaker, or engage in mean behavior for the pure sadistic enjoyment they get, I feel angry.

And yet, those people I can let go. Those people are unlikely to change, and sticking with them through the process of the improbability will only result in heartache for me. So I cut them out of my life, whenever possible. Sometimes, family or professional ties require us to continue to engage them in some way. All I can do is minimize contact and refuse to personalize their issues.

One thing I have trouble letting go, however, is when a person - confronted with facts in contrary to their personal opinion - refuses to consider their position in light of those new facts. That is called "cognitive dissonance" - more specifically, "confirmation bias." Anyone who has had more than a 10-minute discussion about politics has probably encountered it.

I find myself arguing with people stuck in this mindset, even though the very definition of cognitive dissonance is the irrational denial of facts contradictory to their opinion. The definition of insanity, of course, is doing the same thing the same way repeatedly, and expecting different results. Sigh...

I'll give you the example that makes me crazy:

     Recently, I was talking to a friend about travel. He's done a lot of it, and is planning more. He'll visit Asia next year, and I asked if he'd ever considered a trip to India.

     "NO!" he exclaimed. "It's the most rapist country in the world!"

     I stopped and thought.

     "Really?" I asked.

     "Yes," he declared. "I watch the news every day. Every day, rape in India. All the time. Rape, rape, rape."

     I cringed, mentally, as he tossed the term around. But his declaration just didn't sit right with me. Obviously, rape is a serious issue in India. But declaring it "the most rapist..."? I was perhaps choosing the wrong hill on which to die, but I couldn't let it go.

     "Well..." I ventured, tentatively. "I wonder if that's really the case. It seems kind of the issue du jour, as opposed to something based on measured coverage."

     He shook his head. "It's all over the news. You should watch the news more."

     I should watch the news more? I worked in the news media for years!

     I don't have cable, but I get my news online from a variety of reputable news sources: MCNBC, Fox News, CBS News, the BBC, "The New York Times," CNN (Oh, how the mighty have fallen), "The Wall Street Journal," "The Guardian," even sometimes "CBS Sunday Morning" and "The Daily Show." I'm all up in the news! And there has been no lack of coverage of violence against women in India and in the Middle East. Still, there's more to the story, as they say.

     I saw it then. I saw him doubling down, not wanting to be wrong. Not wanting his knowledge of the world to be shaken. He'd rather insult me by calling me under-informed or naive than confront what might be his own misconception. And that pissed me off.

     "You're asking me to believe that there are more rapes per capita in India than in Somalia and the Congo, where it's regularly used as a tool of population control," I snapped. "You're saying that there are more rapes in India than in a country where gangs of armed men regularly attack villages and systematically rape every woman and child in the camp."

     He stared at me. I don't usually go off on this stuff with him. We just don't have those kinds of discussions. Our friendship is based on a mutual love of cooking interesting foods and watching stupid comedies.

     "Look, I think part of the issue with rape is a lack of reporting," I tried.

     "That's what I'm saying!" he exclaimed.

     I held out my hands: "Hang on. Not media reporting. Statistical reporting. One of the issues with crime statistics is that they're based on reported numbers, and then those numbers are enhanced by projected statistics about how many crimes go unreported. And that depends on there being a reporting structure in place. Rape goes under reported, even in countries where a reporting structure exists. In the U.S. and Canada, in most of Western Europe, in many countries, there is a federal mandate that these crimes are reported and tracked. But there's hardly a working government in Somalia and the Congo, in Venezuela and Iraq, and in a lot of countries, women can be killed by their own family for even a rumor that she has been sexually violated. There is a hard push in India, a lot of outrage, about violence against women. I think what we have is a story cycle that hasn't run its course, and a country making some attempt at maintaining reporting structure."

     He opened his mouth, then closed it again and shook his head. Nothing I said was going to get through to him, it seemed. And after less than two minutes, I was already exhausted with the conversation.

     "Look, I'll just Google it," I said, and pulled up a number of articles. "...Holy crap."


     "No. Look. They all say the United States is the highest in terms of number of rapes."

     "Really?" he asked, disbelief etched into every line on his face.

     "Really." I showed him the articles, and shuddered. There's just no perfect measure of crime statistics.

     He handed me back my tablet and shook his head.

     "I see it on the news every day," he said. "India is the worst."

And there you have it. Even when confronted with (what I think were) reasonable arguments in contradiction to a belief, and even when handed a number of hard statistics countering that belief, the desire to maintain one's perception of the world wins every time.

I'm not real sure where I'm going with this. It's just a part of the human condition that frustrates me. And I'm sure I'm guilty of it, as well. I guess maybe I'd like to request that we all take a moment when talking about an issue and consider our own biases. I'll even listen a little more carefully to Megyn Kelly on Fox News. I did rather enjoy her hilarious attack after a male colleague called maternity leave a "racket." 

Just don't expect me to extend that same courtesy to Sarah Palin's new online "news" channel, or Ann Coulter's weekly attention-grabbing temper tantrum. In those instances, I think, ignorance would most definitely be bliss.


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