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In the UK at the moment there is a scandal rocking the entertainment and broadcasting industry. It actually started several years back when glam rock star Gary Glitter was found with child pornography in the 90s and was found guilty in Vietnam in 2006 for obscene acts with minors.

More recently, Sir Jimmy Savile, after his death, has been accused of abuse cases involving minors that run into the hundreds. These abuses seemed to have happened in the context of his charity work and his radio roadshow work, such that he took advantage of children in hospitals and care homes – the vulnerable – making it even more despicable, if that is possible. Savile was a national icon who presented for Radio 1 and a TV Show called Jim’ll Fix It which sorted out giving children dreams that they wanted (when in reality he dashed many). Personally, I never liked him and found him ti be an intensely irritating man. He appeared to hide many of his actions under the guise of his charity work.

Now, in the broader investigations taking place, we have had singer Freddie Starr arrested, publicist to the stars Max Clifford helping police, and in the last few days too, sports broadcaster and host of the hilarious programme It’s A Knockout, Stuart Hall, being arrested.

The scale of this problem seems to be growing weekly as more people (I think even Savile’s driver has been arrested) are detained and questioned. What I find interesting, however, is what goes on in the minds of us, the general public, when people we have grown up knowing and ‘loving’ turn out to be moral monsters. I like Stuart Hall – he has a voice and a way with words that no other broadcaster has come close to. His work on It’s A Knockout was brilliant – what a fun programme!

If I wasn’t aware of how my brain can work against the desire to be entirely rational, if I wasn’t aware of my own predisposition to cognitive dissonance, then I could be doing all sorts of mental contortions in order to rationalise why Stuart Hall is a good bloke and how I can still hold that view.

So let us look at cognitive dissonance. What is it? Well, in my book Free Will? (available from the menu on the right) I talk about cognitive dissonance:

One way we like to invent intention is when we do something that is at loggerheads with our own desires or beliefs. Just like in Aesop’s Fables when the fox cannot reach the grapes, so decides they are sour and not worth having, so we do the same thing (known as cognitive dissonance). I remember buying my first campervan, ‘The Beast’, for what to me was a fortune (£2300), and using many different mechanisms to convince myself that it was a better buy than I thought it was; that it was a good thing it didn’t have a table, because then I could comfortably eat my food on the bed etc. People do this relatively frequently, in such situations as buying a house that has certain issues, or following the Nazi party in the Second World War. Jason Long, in his tirade against the bible in his 2005 book “Biblical Nonsense” claims that cognitive dissonance is at play with the majority of Christians as a way to deal with evidence against their belief such as the non-answering of prayer. In reasoning why Christians, in his opinion, give unusually implausible explanations to such issues as the problem of evil (and natural disasters), the amount of deaths in the bible caused by God, and apparent contradictions, Long claims, “Because the evidence contradicts their deepest convictions, Christians provide nonsensical solutions to the perplexity and ignore valid rebuttals when they can’t answer them” (Long 2005, p.17). As you will see, cognitive dissonance can drive our minds to create intentions for our actions or beliefs. Could it also be, that with the evidence that seems to be undermining aspects of free will, that by defending free will we are showing cognitive dissonance ourselves?

As debating groups will concur, experiments have been done to show this, asking people to debate or make speeches about certain issues that the speaker is not in agreement with. After making the speeches, the person is quite often more aligned to, or understanding of, the position they were asked to argue. In one piece of research[1] a group of students were asked to write an essay on something they all disagreed on. The students were told that they did not have to write it (i.e. given a choice) but they ended up writing it anyway; some were paid 50 cents and the others were paid the then sizeable payment of $2.50 for their efforts. The people who wrote it for 50 cents actually became more positive toward the topic (even though they had less reward). The students that wrote it for only 50 cents not only changed their attitude to the topic, but their perceived intention changed, such that their new attitude led them to believe that they must have had a prior intention of having wanted to do it.

Interestingly, it was only while writing this that the film director Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland to be possibly extradited back to the States for a crime of sex with a thirteen-year-old girl that he committed some thirty years ago. What struck me as strange were the lines of people on the streets at a film festival in Switzerland, and similar protests in France, to object to his arrest, as well as the objections of many famous people in the film industry (fans of Polanski’s work). I found this bizarre, since I can hardly imagine that they would have protested that a suspected paedophile not be arrested for having sex with a minor, especially one whom they didn’t know, or had not heard of.  It appears that this is a result of cognitive dissonance as their [desires] approval of his work, their being Polanski fans, is trying to be reconciled with the fact that he is a fugitive and suspected paedophile. The outcome is the strange behaviour of supporting his not being extradited and not being convicted. The shock of knowing this about Polanski was outweighed by their mental investment of admiration for him as a person and artist. Surely, in the eyes of justice, it matters not a jot that you murder, rape of have underage sex yesterday, or thirty years ago!  A crime is a crime, no matter the temporality…


[1] Linder, Cooper and Jones (1967)

And here is the wikipedia definition:

Cognitive dissonance is a term used in modern psychology to describe the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflictingcognitions: 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.

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.

The case of Roman Polanski was incredible, to me. A man who has committed a crime that if an unknown other had done it, the very same people who supported him would have been disgusted. It is amazing to see such mental gymnastics. The case of Savile is very different. This reflects the degree to which people didn’t really like him. There is not so much surprise and even less support for him. I think the latest stats are some 600 cases have now been reported to the police. The interesting question raised here is why it took so long for these people to come forward and for the other celebrities that seemed to know about this to do anything or speak out.

I gave a talk last night on the Nativity and there were some good questions after the talk, one of which touched on cognitive dissonance. I tried to communicate the idea that CD is so all-pervasive. We all use the mechanism on an almost daily basis.

So, question for you, the reader – when did you last most obviously recognise yourself exhibiting cognitive dissonance?

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...