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10 July, 2011

Belief and Cognitive Dissonance

What does it take for a person to hold onto a belief without any evidence whatsoever and not be able to let it go despite hearing evidence that proves it to be false?

Some might think it takes a lot to clutch onto a fairy tale with the zealousness that some people show. We all make fun of Ray Comfort, who-no matter how many times the process of evolution is explained to him-will continue to repeat the phrase, "Well, I've never seen a monkey give birth to a human or a dog give birth to a cat," every time he's confronted.

Quite counter-intuitively, it actually doesn't take a whole lot. I'll explain.

My fish, Leo, a crown-tailed betta, got fin-rot. I was devastated. I gave him a new tank, new plants, bought new gravel and started testing his water all the time (which was actually fine, but I'll get to that later). Perusing betta websites all over the internet got me a lot of helpful information, a lot of contradictory information, and a lot of misinformation.

One such website listed a cause of fin-rot as the fish resting on the gravel at the bottom of his tank. No other website claimed this, but I was looking for an answer, something I could pinpoint to and say, "This is what caused it."

A few weeks later and it didn't seem to be getting better and the live plants didn't have enough light to stay alive and were murkying up the water. Back to square one. I went to a pet store and I started asking questions. The woman seemed very knowledgeable and helpful. When I mentioned the gravel thing, she looked at me funny and said, "I've never heard anything like that before." Apparently, the only place that I could find this information was on one website in the middle of the Internet.

Over the next two weeks, I got married, went on my honeymoon, gave Leo to Chris's mom to take care of and ended up getting him yet another tank because the other was just too big to keep clean. While doing all this, I kept mentioning to Chris, "He's on the bottom again, he needs to rest on his rock or the fake leaves," and he'd remind me that the woman that works with fish every day said that was probably a myth. It took a few times for me to realize what I was doing. I finally said, "I really want to believe that the gravel is the problem, don't I?" Every time I had seen my fish resting near the bottom, I completely forgot what the woman had told me at the pet store. The fact is, I wanted to believe it.

Even I fall prey to this type of fallacious, wishful thinking. Now that I recognize it, I can see it in more places as well. For example, I work in a field which requires people to be First Aid and CPR certified. I've worked at different facilities and at each one, there has been people who I have gone to CPR and First Aid class with and then immediately forget what we spent three hours learning. Someone will get a bloody nose or someone will swallow their food wrong and start gasping and coughing. While not usually life threatening, these things are still alarming and cause the adrenaline to kick in, which apparently isn't great for keeping a clear head and remembering your training.

It never fails that people start telling the person with the bloody nose to hold their head back instead of forward, because this is the way that people did it up until the eighties or nineties. I remember my own mom telling my sister to hold her head back when I was little. The First Aid training makes it very clear that you pinch the nose and hold the person's head forward so they don't aspirate on their own blood. People have died doing it the other way and I've even heard of people in management positions giving this very advice to their employees.

Same with the choking. If a person is gasping for breath and coughing and has clearly aspirated on food, you are supposed to do nothing. It is only when a person cannot speak, breath or cough that you do any sort of First Aid, and you do it in the form of abdominal thrust, not hitting them on the back or turning them over like Grandma used to do. You can do a quick finger sweep, but you run the risk of pushing whatever it is further down the windpipe. Despite learning this and taking a quiz on it at the end of training, people still automatically do it the way they were taught when they were little. If you asked them later, they wouldn't even remember that the training said any different, yet year after year, they take the same classes and the same test.

It's easier for the brain to remember things that it likes or that it's already agreed with in the past. In a way, it's safer because remembering the traditions and customs of your social group kept you from being outcast from the family or tribe that would keep the saber-toothed tigers from picking you off alone in a forest. These little beliefs stick and are sometimes harmless, but sometimes more than harmful.

It's the harmful ones we should really be looking out for, always vigilantly searching for evidence that would contradict our own beliefs. Even so, we are never safe and should talk to as many people with differing opinions as we can, gaining as much knowledge as we could hope for and being eager to shed it if it turns out to not have a solid foundation in reality. This is the only way we can keep our minds from falling into these kinds of ruts.

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