FAILING TO FACE THE FACTS: THE CONSEQUENCES OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

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MarangosDr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
Aldous Huxley

What happens when the facts of a particular situation do not match pre-conceived frameworks?  Why do leaders as well as followers stubbornly adhere to misplaced confidences when evidence can be presented to demonstrate the contrary? What are the consequences of failing to face the facts?

In the late 1800s a group of wealthy industrialists decided to establish a private retreat in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. They purchased a reservoir that had been formed in the early 1800s on the Conemaugh River and created the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Over the years, due to poor maintenance and alterations, the aqueduct’s dam had become increasingly unstable, leaking, and in a state of disrepair. Regrettably, rather than face the facts and use some of their incredible wealth to strengthen it, they patched the ever-dripping dam using inexpensive clay and straw.


On May 31st 1889, a storm struck the South Fork area creating one of the worst downpours in Pennsylvania history. Elias Unger, the president of the private club awoke to see the reservoir’s water level cresting the dam. Fearing the structure would collapse at any moment, Unger ordered John Parke, the club’s civil engineer, to ride on horseback to the local telegraph office and send warnings to the nearby towns of South Fork and Johnstown. Amazingly, since there had been so many false alarms over the years, Parke’s warnings were discounted and ignored by the local officials.

Tragically, at 3PM the dam finally gave way, releasing an estimated 20 million tons of Conemaugh lake water towards the little town of South Fork. Fortunately, since most of the inhabitants heard the roar of the impending wave and were able to escape to higher ground, only four people were killed. The citizens of Johnstown, however, were not as fortunate. The gnarling aqueduct water carrying houses, telephone poles, rocks, trees, and railroad cars killed an estimated 2,209 people. The collapse was the worse disaster in US history at the time!

The consequence of ignoring facts extends beyond the disorders of civil engineering. An attentive inspection of the stability of the Nation’s economic, political, and religious aqueducts also indicates vital areas in need of maintenance. In order to implement appropriate conservations, however, it is valuable to refer to honest appraisals whose facts can be dispassionately verified.

“If given the truth,” wrote Abraham Lincoln, “people can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” Echoing Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson insisted, that only the “well-informed” can be “trusted with their own government.” Like his American counterparts, Winston Churchill emphasized the value of sharing facts with citizens, even if the information is troubling. While people may occasionally “stumble over the truth,” he cautioned, “most of them will pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

Unfortunately, not all leaders value lucidity.  For many, consensus concerning the Nation’s current state of affairs seems at best, illusive, and at worst, problematic to their ambitions. According to the 2016 presidential candidates, the condition of America is either vigorous or pale.  While one forcefully claims the Nation is on the right domestic and geo-political path, the other asserts the country is in free-fall and requires a brawnier touch. As political operatives and media pundits “spin” the news to match the agendas of their respective political affiliations, voters search for trustworthy facts to determine which assessment is correct.

Like Lincoln, Jefferson, and Churchill, today’s prudent leaders rely on critical thinking skills and objective facts to help them and their followers resolve discrepancies. In contrast to politicized reports and obsequious opinions, facts are usually verifiable and demonstrate a correspondence with experience. While standard reference works are often used for confirmation, facts may also by evaluated and qualified through a review of testimony, direct observation, and/or verified through quantifiable measurement.

The word “fact” is derived from the Latin “factum,” which originally described something done or performed. The word is now commonly used to imply something that has “really” occurred or “is” the case. Distinguishable from matters of inference, speculation, opinion, or matters of taste, a fact is often used synonymously with truth.

Regrettably, the amount of distorted information and “spin” that is currently circulated by the media is staggering. To correct the “noise” of this unfortunate situation, numerous websites have been launched to help the public distinguish truth from irritating buzz. FactCheck.org, for example, is a nonpartisan, consumer advocate website that monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.  OpenSecrets.org, on the other hand, is an online site that scrutinizes the influence of money on elections and public policy. Similar to their political counterparts, Snopes.com, TruthOrFiction.com, and Hoax-Slayer are additional web resources that review the veracity of rumors, stories, virus warnings, hoaxes, scams, urban legends, prayer requests, calls to action, and other forwarded emails.

As beneficial as these and other fact-checking services may be, nothing surpasses the implications of statistically analyzed data appropriately gathered by expert quants. Certainly, the analytical process can and is often manipulated to produce dubious results. The negative impact, however, of discounting proficiently gathered, data-driven information (see Tom Khabaza, “Nine Laws of Data Mining”) cannot be overstated. Fortunately, non-partisan research organizations like, Barna, Gallup, Pew, and the America’s Research Group have assumed the task of deploying valid instruments to assess the condition of the Nation’s cultural, economic, and religious landscapes.  Summary data from several recent research studies are noteworthy.

Statistical information from a 2016 study conducted by the Barna Research Group confirms the assertion that most American registered voters are “displeased with the status quo” in America. In fact, seventy-two percent (72%) of registered voters indicate they believe the United States is headed in the wrong direction. While nine out of ten conservatives (87%), and seven out of ten moderates (69%) agree that America is headed in the wrong direction, less than half of all liberals (45%) agree with the majority (55%).

Like Barna, the Pew Research Center, a distinguished fact tank that informs the public about issues, attitudes and trends shaping America, has identified disquieting statistics concerning the current political, economic, and religious climate of America. According to the Pew Religious Landscape Study (2016), the Christian population in America is declining. The percentage of college graduates who identify with Christianity has declined by nine percentage points since 2007 (from 73% to 64%). America’s Research Group confirms Barna’s conclusions citing that 60% of young people are “deserting the church and often the faith.” Regrettably, the number of adults who do not identify with any organized religion is also growing. Moreover, while the drop in Christian affiliation (“nones”) is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. Nearly one-in-five U.S. adults (18%) raised in a religious faith now identify with no religion.

Distressingly, Gallup research indicates that the majority of American adults across age group, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and political ideology (80%) express concern about the nation’s moral condition.  Unfortunately, fifty-seven percent (57%) of adults, believe that knowing what is right or wrong is a matter of personal experience.  Additionally, two-thirds of American adults either believe moral truth is relative to circumstances (44%) or have not given it much thought (21%). Finally, a sizable number of Americans see morality as a matter of cultural consensus. About two-thirds of all American adults (65%) agree either strongly or somewhat (18% and 47% respectively), that “every culture must determine what is acceptable morality for its people.”

The ill effects of failing to face facts are not limited to economic, political, or civil engineering conditions. Unfortunately, survey estimates, and data-driven analytics similarly paralyze leaders of religious institutions who, like the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, are either neglectful or unwilling to heed undesirable reports. While some will eagerly desire to develop “change” solutions to the repercussions of the aforementioned survey viewpoints, others will most certainly disregard the data as “prejudiced,” “erroneous,” and/or “in-expertly” gathered. Ill-served by their respective leaders, voters, religious adherents, and consumers, will, in the end, remain muddled in the disquiet of partisan noise!

Speaking during Mass at Casa Santa Marta (2014), the Vatican City’s guesthouse, Pope Francis courageously challenged Catholic Church leaders to “not fear change.” He explained that Jesus continues to invite the faithful to put aside “old structures”, and to put “new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:22). According to Francis, “a Christian who avoids change by hiding behind the notion that “this is how it has always been done,” is living a “patched up, half-and-half life.” Reiterated a recurring theme of his pontificate, the Pope emphasized the need for church leaders to remain “open to the newness of the Holy Spirit,” by freeing themselves from “old customs and structures” in order to make room for “God’s surprises.”  “The Lord give us the grace of an open heart,” the Pontiff said, “a heart open to the voice of the Holy Spirit, which can discern what must not change, because it is fundamental, from what has to be changed in order to be able to receive the newness of the Holy Spirit.”

Change is indeed difficult.  It is, however, necessary and required for physical growth, mental health, and personal maturity. Prudent leaders should, therefore, heed Pope Francis’ exhortation and utilize every resource at their disposal to first distinguish the “changeable” from the “absolute” and then to encourage and guide their respective constituents through the process of spiritual as well as organizational development. In particular, religious leaders must become knowledgeable, sensitive to current cultural needs, and adept at instituting the principles of pastoral modification to effectively proffer the gospel of Christ to an ever-changing society. The Orthodox Christian theologian Nicholas Afanasiev, in his article entitled, The Canons of the Church: Changeable or Unchangeable? (1967) provides a practical formula for doing so.

Unfortunately, many religious leaders are more concerned with analyzing fundraising histories and identifying donor capacities than aggressively gathering evidence for interventions to “better serve” their respective communities. Rather than honestly facing the facts that reinforce the recent catalogue of negative survey findings, some will undoubtedly reject Pope Francis’ exhortation, choosing to continue advancing the anodyne, comfy, and accustomed. Naively anticipating a self-adjusting tide, the obstinate will “double-down” on nostalgic traditions, re-cycled programs, parochial ministries, and insular homiletics.

Dynamic leaders listen, learn, and love lucidity. Passive leaders, on the other hand, resist facing facts due to what psychologists refer to as Cognitive Dissonance. According to researchers, people tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions. The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feelings of discomfort that result when individuals are faced with conflicting views. When new information creates a discrepancy between principles and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance has five primary expressions of bias: (a) Confirmation, (b) Commitment Consistency, (c) Survivorship, (d) Framing, and (e) Cultural Cognition.

Confirmation Bias is the proclivity to amplify evidence that confirms an existing belief, while ignoring facts that refute it. If data does not identify a pattern to support a strongly held opinion or position, leaders who are prone to the bias will supply one.  Confirmation bias involves ignoring or rationalizing contradictory data in order to force it to fit like puzzle pieces into predetermined frameworks.

Like Confirmation, the bias of Commitment Consistency occurs when information is either accepted or rejected based on the degree to which it is consistent with prior commitments. Most leaders consider inconsistency as an undesirable trait, associated with weakness. Consequently, the tension of cognitive dissonance is reduced, by judging decisions by their eventual outcomes. Leaders suffering from the bias of Commitment Consistency accept facts only if their results are consistent with their prior pledges, thereby promoting an image of insightful strength.

Survivorship Bias occurs when facts suggest the need to adjust opinions and implement modifications to policies, and activities to which leaders and/or their institutions have invested time and energy. Survivorship is a cognitive bias that occurs when someone tries to make a decision based on past successes, while ignoring past failures. Fearing the loss of power and ownership of past triumphs, the survivorship leader resists change and emphasizes pearl clutching.

Unlike the Confirmation, Commitment, and Survivorship biases, Framing is frequently used to reduce cognitive dissonance by applying existing structures to deal with new and complex issues. It is often employed to confirm, sway, or make a particular view more appealing to potential investors, voters, and other influential constituencies.

Cultural Cognition is finally the bias that compels leaders to shape decisions to conform to the views of the groups with which they most strongly identify. The Culturally inclined leader is predisposed to the solidarity of the group and seeks to increase the organization’s views and strengthen its dominance. The bias of Cultural Cognition seeks to conform, identify with, and remain consistent with interpretations that are least threatening and decrease polarities. Research indicates that the less threatened a leader feels concerning their cultural associations, the more flexible and open-minded they are likely to be.

In 1928, an experiment was conducted to study perceptual adaptation using goggles containing prisms that flipped the wearer’s visual fields upside down. The subjects agreed to wear the goggles for a month during all waking hours. At first, the participants could barely walk, often collapsing because of severe navigational difficulties. After some time, however, the visual motor circuits in their brains adapted. In fact, many of the subjects were soon able to re-learn how to ride a bicycle. Astonishingly, when the goggles were finally removed, the altered vision remained. It was only after much time that the subject’s disoriented field of vision flipped back to its normal default.

The United States is in need of leaders who are willing to remove the goggles of cognitive dissonance and face the truth concerning the condition of its societal aqueducts. The time has come to flip back the Nation’s political, economic, and religious visions to their “right-side-up” conditions.  To do so, however, will require leaders who are willing to fearlessly face the facts and courageously respond with new wine and new wine skins.

This article has been posted at Dr. Marangos web site OINOS Educational Consulting:  http://bit.ly/2bN3YsE

 

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