April 13th, 2008

Artsy me - by Micha

Dr. Novella on cognitive dissonance

Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Dissonance

Listener David Sanders writes:

My question is simple: why is it that when I point out people's logical fallacies, they get extremely pissed off? Any help would be greatly appreciated. I feel that it is irresponsible to arm the skeptical public with the tools to defend itself without warning them ahead of time of the potential consequences of their actions.

But seriously, keep fighting the good fight,
David Sanders

Consider yourselves warned. Many people will indeed get mad when their logical fallacies are pointed out to them. I have been often accused of making personal attacks when all I have done is correct a bit of bad logic - even when I was extremely careful not to make any statement about the person themselves but just to focus on the logic. When I really want to tweak someone I then point out that their accusation is based upon a false premise, is a non-sequitur, and also (if they had attacked me personally, which is often the case) represents the fallacy of inconsistency. That's usually enough to drive away the angry e-mailer.

But David wants to know why people get pissed off (perhaps his question was rhetorical, but I'm going to answer it anyway). The answer, I think, has to do with cognitive dissonance. You have to ask - why do people commit logical fallacies in the first place? Sure - it's partly because they lack sufficient awareness of proper logic and fallacies to avoid, but that explains why they are vulnerable to committing fallacies, not necessarily why they make them.

Let me back up one step further - how do people typically come to the conclusions they make? Neuroscience research and psychological research agree on the answer to this question: most people most of the time (this means you) arrive at conclusions for emotional and subconscious reasons. We humans have evolved emotions specifically to make decisions for us, so we won't be bothered thinking all the time. Better to be disgusted by tainted food then to have to analyze it and think about the risks vs benefits. It's quick, easy, and correct often enough. Another example - it is apparently more evolutionarily advantageous to be sexually attracted to a mate with physical features that are associated with being a good breeding partner, than to have to think about those features consciously.

But humans also have this enormous frontal lobe, which is really useful for decision-making. This is where we get our "executive function" - the ability to see the big picture, take the long view, and exert some control and planning onto our actions. So the primitive bits of our brain take care of the day-to-day, down and dirty, life and death decisions (should I run from this angry tiger?) while the more recently evolved frontal lobes deliberate, plan, and scheme.

The brain, of course, is a functioning whole. So what happens when our subconscious primitive bits conflict with our higher thinking bits? This creates what is called cognitive dissonance - the brain is conflicting with itself. I really want to eat that cheesecake, but I also know it is not good for me and I want to lose some weight. This chick is nothing but trouble, but my goodness does she have a sweet rack. I really need to think of myself as a good person, even though I just screwed over my colleague at work. You get the idea.

Cognitive dissonance occurs whenever we try to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. At some level we recognize the conflict, and it makes us feel bad. (Normon, coordinate!) The brain punishes us for this cortical transgression by releasing unhappy neurotransmitters (admittedly, this is a bit of an oversimplification). So, in response, we search for a way to resolve the conflict. This is called a rationalization. People are really good at this. (As an aside, we also compartmentalize our beliefs to keep them from conflicting.) Once we have found a way to resolve the conflict our brains reward us with a jolt of happy neurotransmitters - this strongly reinforces the behavior.

So we tell ourselves things like - I worked out yesterday so I can reward myself with a little cheesecake. I know she's a handful, but that's because of her troubled childhood - she just needs more support. My co-worker deserved what they got.

This is often where the logical fallacies come into play - during the rationalization phase - the lies we tell ourselves to relieve our cognitive dissonance. It is a lot easier to commit a little logical fallacy, than to work hard at changing our emotional makeup, or to challenge long and strongly held beliefs. When logic and emotion conflict it is a lot easier to subtly (or not-so-subtly, depending on the sophistication of the person) twist the logic, rather than to painfully force ourselves to grow emotionally. In fact, intelligent people are often better at rationalization and are not necessarily more logical.

Now back to the question - what happens when you point out a logical fallacy to someone. Well, you just pulled the carpet out from under their juicy rationalization. You are threatening to remove their happy neurotransmitters and reestablish cognitive dissonance. People really hate this. Now they have to search for another logical fallacy to shore up the one you are so rudely threatening. This often involves attacking you - which is a convenient way of dismissing your pesky logic.

It helps to recognize that we all behave this way. It's just the way our brains evolved (and if you think about it, what would you change?). Being rational involves years of hammering away at our false beliefs, tearing them down one by one. It involves becoming emotionally invested in the process - in logic and empiricism - rather than in specific cherished conclusions. It involves growing emotionally and becoming more secure. You can't expect someone to do this instantly, any more than you can expect someone who has never exercised to suddenly run a marathon.

In practical terms, you have to decide what your goal is in discussing logic and science with someone. If it is a family member you want to become more skeptical, then you have to gently plant seeds of doubt and logic, then nurture them often over months and years. You have to deal with their emotional investments, not just their logic. If, on the other hand, it is an obnoxious e-mail or forum poster - fire away. In fact if you really want to piss someone off, do not attack them or give them any justification for their rationalizations - just get hyper-logical on their ass.