The issues surrounding the Skeptic and Freethought movements are an absolute carnival of cognitive dissonance and self-justification. It’s difficult to winnow down, but I’ll take one example. Remember, we all carry the notion that we are intelligent and sensible, and disconfirmation of that notion is a prime source of cognitive dissonance.
Some family members of mine were sold a radical, frightfully expensive diet plan by their chiropractor, which involved a 500 calories-per-day food restriction, vitamin supplements and homeopathic hormone drops. It’s safe to say no element of the program failed to set off its own skeptical alarm bells, and the research I did quickly indicated that this diet was based on bad science.
I had to proceed carefully, though. I knew I couldn’t stand by, because starvation diets and rapid weight loss are not without risk. But I was looking up a very steep incline–not only was I denouncing visible results of 1-2 pounds per day of weight loss, but the outlay of money and professing of belief in its success are extremely potent generators of cognitive dissonance. Every possible incentive for self-justification was in place.
I need to be crystal clear (not least because they may eventually read this) and to repeat something which is crucial to understand: The very act of doubting, of presenting new information is what engenders conflicts in the mind, whether or not I actually say, “this is quackery.” I am necessarily putting my relatives in a position to think “I am a smart and responsible person…who has wasted good money on a bogus treatment.” Cognitive dissonance takes place, and the coping mechanisms are both reflexive and unconscious. It was entirely possible that the reaction would even damage our relationship. If it were not for the real medical and financial risks, I would have held my peace.
Originally, I thought I’d done well–nobody got angry, nobody got their feelings hurt. Though on a practical level, since then, I think it seems to have been a draw for science. I didn’t convince them to resume a reasonable diet. I didn’t convince them to stop taking the supplements. I didn’t convince them to demand their money back. At best, I think I managed a little education about the fraud of homeopathy, and that once they finished the six-week course, they might not repeat it a year or so later, if they find that they’ve gained the weight back. Cognitive dissonance is the reason we have a phrase about “throwing good money after bad,” and so I’m more than happy to simply wait and hope.
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