Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Cognitive Dissonance: Don’t Mention the War…

The way we perceive our world can have a significant impact on our decision-making and the way we interact with others. A recent Washington Post article reported on a psychological experiment carried out by Roy Baumeister that revealed one way our perceptions can influence how we view others.

In the experiment, Baumeister asked participants to describe a situation in which they hurt someone else and a situation when they were personally hurt. They were also asked to describe how much pain these incidents caused another (or caused them) and whether their unkindness (or the unkindness directed at them) was justified.

Come time to find out, when participants were on the receiving end of an unkind act (like a betrayal or a lie), they felt the act was “inexplicable, senseless and immoral” and that the pain caused by the act lasted a long time. (Surprise, surprise.) When these same participants were asked about the time they hurt someone else, however, they viewed their actions as “justified” and that they caused only brief pain.

This phenomenon, known to psychologists as cognitive dissonance, plays a major role in our professional and personal lives. It means that when we inflict pain on another person (or group of people) we recognize this is not the right thing to do. We also believe that we’re a good person deep-down, which is in direct conflict with our behavior. Thus our brains downplay the harm we’ve caused.

Alternatively, when we’re on the receiving end of a wrongdoing, we often can’t imagine seeing the situation from the perspective of the person that caused us harm. Who empathizes with a “wrongdoer”? In this case, it’s much easier to focus on the immoral and nasty nature of the acts against us.

An interesting aspect of these dissonant feelings, and how we subsequently behave, is that the process happens in our subconscious. Shankar Vedantum, a Washington Post columnist, observed that a perfect example of cognitive dissonance at work is the way Republicans and Democrats who supported the war in Iraq are now justifying it. Many Republicans refuse to believe there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (someone must have run off with them) and some Democrats seem to simply forget they supported the invasion at all.

According to one researcher, “[This] is the way memory works and the way the brain works. We ignore, forget or dismiss information that suggests we might be wrong. We rewrite our memories to confirm what we believe.” In this case, subconscious, dissonant feelings are influencing policymakers’ behavior and the decisions they’re making (or not making) in the present.

Like everyone else, disarmament diplomats also experience cognitive dissonance in their work. Awareness of this phenomenon is important because valuable time can be wasted while playing the “blame game” and trying to best justify our mistakes.

Ashley Thornton


Shankar Vedantam, “Bush: Naturally, Never Wrong”, Washington Post (9 July 2007), available online here.

Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, May 2007: Harcourt, 304 pages.