Cognitive Dissonance and Skepticism

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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8 Responses to Cognitive Dissonance and Skepticism

  1. Brian says:

    I can think of a few situations in which I most likely offended friends and family. I really like your approach of being less aggressive when approaching these sensitive topics. Skeptoid has a great episode called “How to Be a Skeptic and Still Have Friends” (

  2. Happy Skeptic says:

    Weight is such a tricky subject. Even doctor’s offices focus a great deal on weight instead of overall health. I don’t really think scales are a great thing, but rather body mass indexing. A scale can not let you know a thin person has very little muscle and a heavier person is within the appropriate limits. It also leads to us focusing on weight loss, damn the consequences. Moreover, unless you are really thin it is hard to get anyone to listen to you about healthy eating because thin has become the ultimate goal.
    This perspective is very personal, it can be a daily battle and food has never been a ‘light’ subject for me.

  3. Ann T. Dogma says:

    So, Skeptical Rationalist, are you saying your family *did* lose weight on the program, your point being this was probably due to the placebo effect? That would be very tricky to convey to them, as correlation is so easily confused with causation in the non-scientific frame of mind. The important things are a) you were sensitive and smart in your approach with them, and b) you made an effort to educate. That’s worthy.

  4. ken says:

    I’ve often wondered about the placebo effect. There appears to be enough evidence to indicate the effect is real. However, from a materialist perspective, the placebo effect cannot be real because there is no distinction between the mind and brain, and therefore belief or hope cannot affect the physiological responses of the body.

  5. Brian says:

    @Ken I don’t think the placebo effect necessarily affects the physiological responses of the body. I think it is at least sometimes in the perception of the effects. For example, the placebo effect can be seen in pets. A dog or cat doesn’t understand that flea medication will help prevent fleas, but a human spectator may think that their homeopathic flea treatment is working because they perceive that their pet has been scratching less. They expect to see those results and will interpret “data” in favor of their expectations. Just as people tend to find similarities in people of the same astrological sign, while ignoring the differences. Just my 2 cents…

  6. ken says:

    I’m thinking more along the lines of the scientific evidence as to the existence of the placebo effect, rather than in anecdotal accounts. Generally, the placebo effect is considered important in evaluating the benefit of a particular medication in use with humans. Isn’t it considered an important variable in the testing of new drugs? Some studies have called into question the existence of the placebo effect, but other studies have rejected those claims. I guess I’m more intrigued by whether the existence of the placebo effect challenges materialist assumptions about the nature of the brain and/or mind.

  7. Jay Pea says:

    Losing a couple of pounds a day can be dangerous. It’s a good thing your family has an objective observer capable of being rational to help guide them through the perils of homeopathy.

  8. Skeptical Rationalist says:

    @ Ann T Dogma

    They lost weight because of the caloric restriction, with the homeopathic hormones ostensibly having some vaguely-worded metabolic effect. I wouldn’t so much call it a placebo effect as it is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. “It happened after, therefore it was caused by.”

    The reason it was harmful is one, rapid crash dieting is unhealthy, and two, they’re paying good money for drops of water (with what I suspect is a bittering agent so it tastes medicinal). Plus, crash dieting is only good for temporary weight loss.

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