A guide to everyday psychology

Short Reads

Cognitive dissonance and double-down in action

The Takeaway? How easy it is for pride to get in the way of objectivity

30th March 2021

I watched a re-run of a Fake or Fortune documentary yesterday, first broadcast in 2018. The episode focused on a painting attributed to (or perhaps not) the celebrated artist Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949).

The painting had been omitted from Nicholson’s catalogue raisonee (an official list of an artist’s known works) compiled by the leading art historian Patricia Reed on aesthetic grounds. For her, it just didn’t feel right. Not his technique.

Could Mould and Bruce prove that it was genuine?

The research was comprehensive. And it all stacked up, even down to an idiosyncratic thumb print upon which the artist had planted an identifying monogram. The paint analysis was positive too. It was his paint on his artist’s board. In any law court this would be ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’.

But Patricia Reed would not change her mind. It could not be proven to a standard of 100% that the painting was by the great man. Reed’s brief letter of rejection did not account in detail for any of the evidence that Mould and Bruce had presented. It simply restated her original opinion.

Watching this on telly, it was hard to escape a feeling that we were watching cognitive dissonance in action. Ms Reed simply did not want to believe that, after 20 years of Nicholson scholarship, she was fallible. She could not accept the humiliating pain of admitting that her expertise might be vulnerable to error – and trumped by a scientific analysis carried out by non-experts. She had stated her opinion and reached her conclusion – and no facts were going to change that.

Well, we must always be cautious about putting words into anyone’s mouth (and feelings into anyone’s head). But there is no disputing that all our beliefs and certainties are filtered through our perceptual processes.

In particular, we often want certain things to be true so badly that it distorts our reality. And our sense of who and what we are is one of the most important factors that regulates the way our perceptions take shape. It is especially difficult for us to change our minds in areas where have strong emotional feelings and where we think we are experts.

This important psychological fact carries useful lessons for all of us. It tells us about how, if we hope to understand our own behaviour, we must try to observe ourselves with frank awareness. Similarly, if we want to influence other people we need to help them to shift their perceptions. In all walks of life people (especially experts and teenagers) hate being told they’re wrong – and when we challenge people confrontationally they often ‘double-down’. So if we want other people and to share (or at least see) ‘our truth’ we have to be conciliatory.

Sometimes the effort will be a doomed enterprise. When people’s emotional commitment to ‘their truth’ is total, we are unlikely to shift them. And in blunt truth, this applies to ourselves too. All we can do is repeat the mantra to ourselves and others that we can never (almost never) own the truth outright. .

So how can we apply these psychological realities in practice?

Even when we think other people have reached their opinions because they are ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’, to tell them so is – arguably – equally stupid and ignorant. The confrontational debating strategies used by both sides in the Brexit argument offers a good case study… It might be very satisfying to call our opponents neo-imperialists or whining remoaners, but it rarely changes their minds. Similarly, the current ‘foghorn’ level of confrontational debate about racism in society is far more likely to cause double-down than conversion.

So if we are serious about changing people’s views, we need to listen as well as talk. As Warren Buffet once observed, ‘you don’t learn anything while you’re talking’. Only by listening can we understand other people’s perceptions – and maybe stand a chance of altering them. If we want to lead people down the path to the truth (truth as we see it, at least), the adversarial tradition that dominates our law courts and political debates does not help. These are debates focused solely on winning the argument, not finding subtle truth. We must always be willing to learn – and always be willing to give people a humiliation-free escape route from their dogma.

And what about Ms Reed and the painting..? Ms Reed stands as the world authority on Nicholson’s work. But in thirty years time, I suspect the science will have prevailed. She will still be remembered as the great authority on Nicolson’s art – but slightly less great for succumbing to the perceptual blindness that cognitive dissonance sometimes imposes on all on us.

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