The Frontal Cortex

There was something particularly infuriating about Mitt Romney’s concession speech. He’s clearly a smart guy – once upon a time, he was a socially moderate, pragmatic Republican – and yet the address was filled with utter nonsense like this:

Europe is facing a demographic disaster. That’s the inevitable product of weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life, and eroded morality…

It’s time for the people of America to fortify marriage through a constitutional amendment, so that liberal judges cannot continue to attack it…

Today we are a nation at war. And Barack and Hillary have made their intentions clear regarding Iraq and the war on terror: They would retreat, declare defeat.

And the consequence of that would be devastating. It would mean attacks on America, launched from safe havens that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child’s play. About this, I have no doubt.

John Stewart said everything that needs to be said about the speech. But I think Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker captured the underlying psychology of Mitt rather well:

Politicians tend to pander, especially during the primary season. Romney’s chief opponent, Rudy Giuliani, also has a history as a pro-gun-control, pro-gay-rights Republican. But while Giuliani simply downplays his record on those issues, Romney sells himself as a true convert. He not only shifts positions; he often claims to be the most passionate advocate of his new stances. It’s one of the reasons that his metamorphosis from liberal Republican to committed right-winger seems so jarring.

Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. Romney clearly has some dissonance going on in his brain – he has switched positions on everything from abortion to immigration – and yet his response to this dissonance is to double-down, to assert his certainty. For instance, Romney didn’t just campaign on keeping Guantanamo open, he wanted to double the size of the prison. Not even Dick Cheney wants that.

The first scientist to identify this important psychological process was Leon Festinger, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota. In the summer of 1954, he was reading the morning newspaper when he encountered a short article about Marion Keech, a housewife in suburban Minneapolis who was convinced that the apocalypse was coming. Keech had started getting messages from aliens a few years before, but now the messages were getting eerily specific. According to Sananda, an extra-terrestrial from the planet Clarion who was in regular contact with Keech, human civilization would be destroyed by a massive flood at midnight on December 20, 1954.

Keech’s sci-fi prophecy soon gained a small band of followers. They trusted her divinations, and marked the date of Armageddon on their calendars. Many of them quit their jobs and sold their homes. The cultists didn’t bother buying Christmas presents or making arrangements for New Years Eve, since nothing would exist by then.

Festinger immediately realized that Keech would make a great research subject. He decided to infiltrate the group by pretending to be a true believer. What Festinger wanted to study was the reaction of the cultist on December 21, when the world wasn’t destroyed and no spaceship appeared. Would Keech recant? What would happen when her prophesy failed?

On the night of December 20, Keech’s followers gathered in her home and waited for instructions from the aliens. Midnight inexorably approached. When the clock read 12:01 and there were still no aliens, the cultists began to worry. A few began to cry. The aliens had let them down. But then Keech received a new telegram from outer space, which she quickly transcribed on her notepad. “This little group sitting all night long had spread so much light,” the aliens told her, “that god saved the world from destruction. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” It was their stubborn faith that had prevented the apocalypse. Although Keech’s predictions had been falsified, the group was now more convinced than ever that the aliens were real. They began proselytizing to others, sending out press releases and recruiting new believers. This is how they reacted to the dissonance of being wrong: by being more sure than ever that they were right.

For more on Festinger and cognitive dissonance, check out When Prophecy Fails or Mistakes Were Made.


  1. #1 Rachael
    February 11, 2008

    Interesting… this brings to mind Cesar Millan, the so-called “Dog Whisperer.” He’s a rather talented dog trainer that wrote a few books on the psychology of American dogs in particular. At one point in his book, Cesar’s Way, Millan discusses his belief that we humans are the only members of the animal kingdom that follow unstable leaders. In the pack centered worlds of dogs and wolves, the leaders are the ones who are most consistent, confident and naturally secure/dominant. Unnecessarily violent alphas are quickly ousted from their position of power – dogs will fight a leader who treats them “unfairly”, even if that leader is bigger or stronger. Contrary to popular belief, he argues that strength is not the most important quality for a dog pack leader – consistent behavior is.

    In the human world, we follow madmen and tyrants who are characterized by inconsistent, violent, or treacherous behavior. In fact, we often admire them.

  2. #2 6EQUJ5
    February 11, 2008

    Rachael is right. Dogs don’t turn on their masters. They may challenge their master, vying to take the number one slot, or they may attack a renegade, one who’s gone wrong. Dogs are pack animals. A stupid leader can be the death of the pack, and it’s the packs’ responsibility to purge any renegade, even at personal risk of injury or death.

  3. #3 jope
    February 11, 2008

    One important difference is that Romney, unlike the doomsday prophets, has not been clearly demonstrated to be wrong about his predictions, either in his earlier or later stances. So his original shift from somewhat liberal to conservative in his public face would seem to have been for other reasons. Political expediency, perhaps, to differentiate himself from the other Republican campaign frontrunners? Who knows. But I wonder whether what facilitated that shift was more along the lines of what research has said is necessary in order to tell lies effectively: To some extent, you have to convince yourself that the lie is true. Which I suppose is itself a sort of cognitive dissonance — except that it’s premeditated, rather than a reaction to some external circumstance that conflicts with your expectations. Anyway, maybe he somehow went overboard in believing his revised views, by dint of constant repetition while on the campaign trail?

  4. #4 Rachael
    February 12, 2008

    >But I wonder whether what facilitated that shift was more along the lines of what research has said is necessary in order to tell lies effectively: To some extent, you have to convince yourself that the lie is true.

    Jope, have you ever read up on the philosopher W. Quine? I think he would like your argument. Quine wrote about an inherent “Web of Belief”. He argued that individual belief systems and experiences are all components of a carefully constructed network of basic principles that are unique to each individual. For Quine, it’s not a question of whether an experience/belief/observation matches with our web of truth, but it is a necessity that we force our beliefs to be consistent (at least in our own minds).

    So, for example, the devout Christian who observes some atrocity in the world is able to incorporate this observation into their belief about the goodness of God by adapting or shifting a rule elsewhere in their web (perhaps summoning other qualities defining their supreme being that would explain the event). What I find interesting about Quine’s ideas is that he suggests that humans will sacrifice increasingly more important structural components of their web of belief in order to maintain belief in crucial components of our web (for example, the belief that what we see/hear/feel is real, or in the case of the devout Christian, the existence of God)

    This also brings to mind one of my favorite books – John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I’m not sure if it is a correct interpretation, but I always took from the book that Steinbeck was saying those who are evil do not know that they are evil and do not possess the capacity for self-realization necessary for change.

    So I guess we all struggle to believe in our own sane goodness. Sociopaths aside : )

    So sorry this is all kind of tangential. I am finding this topic very interesting!!

  5. #5 Shirley M. Mueller
    February 12, 2008

    We all suffer from cognitive dissonance, some of us more than others. So, I could say, “Let he who is without guilt throw the first stone.” Still, it is human to notice it in others, often when they are not aware of it themselves.

    This is an area where many investors have a blind spot. Cognitive dissonance is rampant is investing. It is critically important to appreciate here because money can be lost due to its practice.

    An example: a group of architects was asked to estimate the return in their pension plans the previous year. They recalled their investment performance as 6% higher than the actual return. Furthermore, they estimated that they had beaten the market by 5% more than they actually had. This ability to ignore the negative and accentuate the positive regarding investment results could hit the cognitive dissonance participant where it really hurts–in his back pocket–his wallet.

  6. #6 alice
    February 14, 2008

    “Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. Romney clearly has some dissonance going on in his brain….”

    Or maybe he has pandering and bullshit going on in his brain just like everyone else who is running (except for Ron Paul).

    For some reason, this election has made a big impression on me. I’m not sure if it’s my age or perhaps this is a particularly momentious time in the history of our nation.

    It has made me wonder about what democracy is and what it supposed to be and if this spectacle is what we should expect.

    Certainly those who are trying to get elected have the art of persuasion nailed. They and their strategists sit up at night deciding just what tone and what key words will get the results they want.

    And the end game is to win. What they say has nothing to do with beliefs or principles and yet they need to talk about beliefs and principles as if this contest were all about them.

    Which makes someone like me who is following this thing closely suffer from extreme cognitive dissonance.

    And also makes me wonder if the founders knew enough about human nature to be able to predict this kind of scenario or would they, if they were here, be dismayed at what is going on.

  7. #7 Larry Smith
    February 19, 2008

    In other news: marketing beats politics, science. Cognitive dissonance this is not.

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