Viewpoint: Never Say “Isn’t That Just Cognitive Dissonance?”

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 9.39.33 AMAfter a talk at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology 2014 conference in Austin, I found myself leaving Ballroom C when I heard someone utter to a colleague one of my least favorite phrases: “Isn’t that just cognitive dissonance?”

I wanted to shout at them, “You just went to a session on the application and extension of cognitive dissonance. Of course it was ‘cognitive dissonance,’ but it was insightful and useful.”

I did not, of course, say such things then. But now here I am on the Internet doing what I should have done outside Ballroom C.

But before I channel the wisdom expressed by the professors and practitioners who’ve been interviewed here on Indecision Blog, let’s back up for a second and set the scene.

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ballroom c

Deborah Hall of Arizona State University started a Friday afternoon presentation in Ballroom C by talking about how, in the 2012 Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan stated, “My playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin.”

Hall then argued this moment made many liberals uncomfortable. Why? Because liberals found themselves feeling similar to a conservative.

In a series of experiments, Hall and colleague Wendy Wood showed that pa
Studies like these illustrate and bring a sense of clarity to the partisan problem (and also extend group psychology in general). Yet, after hearing Hall’s presentation, one might think that, “Of course this is true, Festinger’s 1957 book predicts it.” However, before hearing these findings, one might also assume the opposite. One might might assume that accentuating basic similarities would easily “transcend party lines.”rtisans feel “dissonance affect” when they felt similar to members of the other political party. The researchers concluded that their findings “demonstrate that similarity to the negative reference standard provided by outgroups can elicit the feelings of psychological threat that accompany cognitive dissonance, highlighting a dilemma faced by politicians who seek to appeal to voters by accentuating basic similarities that transcend party lines.”

Many people walk away from SPSP talks like this one with questions like “Didn’t we already know that?” or the dismissive phrase “Isn’t that just cognitive dissonance?” In an interview with Indecision Blog, Harvard Professor Michael Norton explains why this dismissive attitude is the wrong attitude, and academics should instead adopt a rather more positive constructive attitude.

Similarly, Cornell Professor David Pizarro laments that a senior colleague told him not to pursue a project because, “Either way the results ended up, both theoretical conclusions would be obvious.” To which he responded, “Then is there not value in knowing which one is actually correct?”

Researchers often fail to see the value in clever research projects that test two competing hypotheses. Often they seem to prospectively be against research that will lead readers to fall victim to a “knew-it-all-along” hindsight bias.

On a similar note, Freakonomics author and economist Steven Levitt argues, “The sign of genius is the ability to see things that are completely obvious but to which everyone else is blind.” While there are definitely other signs of genius, our field tends to dismiss this kind of “genius.” And, unfortunately, it is genius of this kind that is A) often the most important to dealing with real world problems and B) fundamentally important to developing rich vast theoretical models of nuanced behavior.

Let’s retire the phrase “Isn’t this just cognitive dissonance?” and, more importantly, the harmful attitude that surrounds it.

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