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Sunday, July 22, 2007Why We Don't Admit That "We Were Wrong?"
We all have a hard time admitting that we're wrong, but according to a new book about human psychology, it's not entirely our fault. Social psychologist Elliot Aronson says our brains work hard to make us think we are doing the right thing, even in the face of sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Elliot Aronson, co-author, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me); social psychologist; professor emeritus, psychology, University of California Santa Cruz
Excerpt: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
Cognitive Dissonance: The Engine of Self-justification
It's fascinating, and sometimes funny, to read doomsday predictions, but it's even more fascinating to watch what happens to the reasoning of true believers when the prediction flops and the world keeps muddling along. Notice that hardly anyone ever says, "I blew it! I can't believe how stupid I was to believe that nonsense"? On the contrary, most of the time they become even more deeply convinced of their powers of prediction. The people who believe that the Bible's book of Revelation or the writings of the sixteenth-century self-proclaimed prophet Nostradamus have predicted every disaster from the bubonic plague to 9/11 cling to their convictions, unfazed by the small problem that their vague and murky predictions were intelligible only after the event occurred.
Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group's leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech's own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren't going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.
At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. "And mighty is the word of God," she told her followers, "and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room."
The group's mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group's members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech's prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger's.
The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called "cognitive dissonance." Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as "Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me" and "I smoke two packs a day." Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don't rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn't really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.
Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity and, as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd. At the heart of it, Festinger's theory is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful. The theory inspired more than 3,000 experiments that, taken together, have transformed psychologists' understanding of how the human mind works. Cognitive dissonance has even escaped academia and entered popular culture. The term is everywhere. The two of us have heard it in TV newscasts, political columns, magazine articles, bumper stickers, even on a soap opera. Alex Trebek used it on Jeopardy, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and President Bartlet on The West Wing. Although the expression has been thrown around a lot, few people fully understand its meaning or appreciate its enormous motivational power.
In 1956, one of us (Elliot) arrived at Stanford University as a graduate student in psychology. Festinger had arrived that same year as a young professor, and they immediately began working together, designing experiments to test and expand dissonance theory. Their thinking challenged many notions that were gospel in psychology and among the general public, such as the behaviorist's view that people do things primarily for the rewards they bring, the economist's view that human beings generally make rational decisions, and the psychoanalyst's view that acting aggressively gets rid of aggressive impulses.
Consider how dissonance theory challenged behaviorism. At the time, most scientific psychologists were convinced that people's actions are governed by reward and punishment. It is certainly true that if you feed a rat at the end of a maze, he will learn the maze faster than if you don't feed him; if you give your dog a biscuit when she gives you her paw, she will learn that trick faster than if you sit around hoping she will do it on her own. Conversely, if you punish your pup when you catch her peeing on the carpet, she will soon stop doing it. Behaviorists further argued that anything that was merely associated with reward would become more attractive — your puppy will like you because you give her biscuits — and anything associated with pain would become noxious and undesirable.
Behavioral laws do apply to human beings, too, of course; no one would stay in a boring job without pay, and if you give your toddler a cookie to stop him from having a tantrum, you have taught him to have another tantrum when he wants a cookie. But, for better or worse, the human mind is more complex than the brain of a rat or a puppy. A dog may appear contrite for having been caught peeing on the carpet, but she will not try to think up justifications for her misbehavior. Humans think; and because we think, dissonance theory demonstrated that our behavior transcends the effects of rewards and punishments and often contradicts them.
For example, Elliot predicted that if people go through a great deal of pain, discomfort, effort, or embarrassment to get something, they will be happier with that "something" than if it came to them easily. For behaviorists, this was a preposterous prediction. Why would people like anything associated with pain? But for Elliot, the answer was obvious: self-justification. The cognition that I am a sensible, competent person is dissonant with the cognition that I went through a painful procedure to achieve something — say, joining a group that turned out to be boring and worthless. Therefore, I would distort my perceptions of the group in a positive direction, trying to find good things about them and ignoring the downside.
Excerpt from MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME)
Twenty years ago, on an outbuilding of his Southern California estate, tycoon Robert K. Graham began a most remarkable project: the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners. Part altruism, part social engineering, part science experiment, the repository was supposed to help reverse the genetic decay Graham saw all around him by preserving and multiplying the best genes of his generation. By the time Graham's repository closed in 1999, his genius sperm had been responsible for more than 200 children.
What happened to them? This is the beginning of a journalistic experiment to find out, an experiment that—as I explain below—needs your assistance. (Also click here to read Slate editor Michael Kinsley's introduction to the project.)
Robert K. Graham was a eugenicist. He was a pessimist about humanity's future. And he was a can-do, self-made multimillionaire. Those qualities fused to inspire the Repository for Germinal Choice. Graham, who made his fortune by inventing shatterproof eyeglasses, feared mankind was in danger because natural selection had stopped working on human beings. He explained his views in a muscular 1971 book, The Future of Man. Over millenniums, nature's brutality had strengthened the human gene pool, allowing the strong and smart to reproduce, while killing the weak before they could. But once man mastered his natural environment, Graham argued, he jumped the evolutionary track. Better living conditions allowed "retrograde humans" to reproduce. In modern America, thanks to cradle-to-grave social welfare programs, these incompetents and imbeciles were swamping the intelligent. This dysgenic crisis would surely bring communism and the regression of mankind. All that could save us, Graham warned, was "intelligent selection": Our best specimens must have more children. Hence the Repository for Germinal Choice.
Graham intended the repository to be a prototype for genius sperm banks all over the country, producing "creative, intelligent people who otherwise might not be born." The children would be future intellectuals, scientists, and leaders and, Graham predicted in a giddy moment, "may stimulate [humanity's] ascent to a new level of being."
So, in the late 1970s, Graham persuaded several Nobel Prize winners in science—either three or five, depending on who's talking—to give him their sperm. Later he recruited dozens of younger scientists for his bank. Graham advertised for mothers in a Mensa magazine. Women had to be married to infertile men, well-educated, and financially comfortable. Soon he had a waiting list. He mailed out a catalog that advertised men such as "Mr. Fuschia," an Olympic gold medallist—"Tall, dark, handsome, bright, a successful businessman and author"; and "Mr. Grey-White … ruggedly handsome, outgoing, and positive, a university professor, expert marksman who enjoys the classics." (The repository revolutionized the sperm bank industry by—oddly for such an avowedly elitist institution—democratizing it: It took donor choice away from doctors and gave it to mothers. Instead of settling for a doctor's paltry offerings, mothers could be demanding customers, requiring as much [or more] accomplishment from a vial of sperm as from her flesh-and-blood husband.)
When the Los Angeles Times publicized the repository in 1980, a furor erupted. Eugenic ideas like Graham's had been mainstream in the United States for the first half of the 20th century. (Graham had even borrowed the idea of a Nobel sperm bank from a scheme proposed by respected Nobelist Hermann Muller in the '30s.) But by the time Graham opened the repository, eugenics had been utterly tarnished by Nazism. It was considered at best elitist, at worst racist and genocidal.
Graham was pilloried and mocked, accused of trying to create a "master race." Critics dubbed it the "Superbaby" program and compared it to Nazi eugenics practices. Ethicists denounced it as a cold, utilitarian approach toward children and an alarming step toward "designer babies." Only one of Graham's Nobel donors, transistor inventor William Shockley, would admit to having contributed sperm. That did not help matters. Shockley's views on race, genes, and intelligence had made him a national pariah, and his association with the repository confirmed suspicion that it was a dastardly racist plot. Demonstrators picketed Graham's Escondido estate. He hired security guards to protect the sperm.
The media's attention soon wandered, Graham stopped talking to the press, and the repository sank from sight. But the babies started arriving. The first birth was heralded in the National Enquirer in early 1982. Soon "genius babies" were being born at a rapid clip. By the time Graham died at age 90 in 1997, the repository claimed 229 offspring, all over the United States and in half a dozen countries. None of the children, despite the bank's reputation, were fathered by Nobel Prize winners: Early on Graham decided Nobelists were too old to be effective donors and relied on his younger scientists.
In the beginning Graham intended the repository to be an experiment and showpiece. He tacked pictures of the children to his office walls. He had parents agree to answer periodic surveys about their children. But he came to learn that his clients did not necessarily share his fascination with eugenic theories. When he mailed a survey in the early '90s, most of the parents ignored it.
So when the repository finally shut in 1999, it left behind a mystery. Except for two families that have discussed their (wonderful) kids publicly, the repository is a blank. No one seems to know what has happened to its children, its parents, its donors.
Why shouldn't we leave it alone? Why should we want to know any more about it? Partly because it's a fascinating riddle—did it live up to its grand promise?—but also because the repository is not simply a peculiar historical footnote. We are entering a new age of eugenics. Cloning is months away, not decades. It is a guide to the future. Scientists will soon be manipulating embryonic genes, knocking out diseases, adding immunity, good looks, who knows what. Building better babies will soon become a science. Eugenics will be chic again (though surely not by that name). As reproductive law scholar Lori Andrews puts it, "private eugenics" has replaced public eugenics. Almost no one subscribes to Graham's civic interest in improving the American "germplasm." But it has been replaced by a very widespread consumer interest: How can I improve my own child?
As this new-genics arrives, it poses ethical questions that give hives to parents, doctors, and lawyers. And the new-genics raises questions about our expectations for our children that will keep child psychologists busy for decades.
The repository and its children matter because they preview this world to come. Graham promised parents smarter, better children than they could have naturally. He used the best science of his time (sperm storage and artificial insemination) to preserve and replicate what he saw as the most valuable genes in the world. New-genics will try to do much the same thing—though more precisely, more microscopically, more scientifically.
The repository families—mothers, fathers, children, and even donors—offer the only human testimony about whether the promise that technology makes better children can be fulfilled. The repository families can tell us how the scientific theory translates into lived human experience. The children can teach about the burdens and joys of genetic expectations. What kinds of demands do their parents place on them? Do they feel extra pressure to achieve because of their genes? Do they want to know about their genetic fathers?
Mothers and fathers can explain how such children alter parental expectations. Do they hold their kids to higher standards than they would have otherwise? Do they tell their children about their parentage? Why or why not? How does the genetic link to an anonymous donor change the relationship between parents and children?
U.S. President George W. Bush and his generals appealed on Friday for more time to allow his troop increase to work in Iraq, but a key Senate ally said September was still pivotal for evaluating the strategy.
Bush criticized Congress for preparing to leave for an August break without passing a defense policy bill that, among other things, would provide for a pay raise for military personnel and more equipment for the war.
"I also ask Congress to give our troops time to carry out our new strategy in Iraq," Bush told reporters at an appearance with veterans and military families at the White House.
Bush spoke a day after Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said while a widely anticipated report in September will indicate how the troop increase is progressing, a fuller assessment would take until November.
The report due on September 15 from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is considered central to the debate in Congress over whether to force the Bush administration to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.
Bush has been trying to buy extra time for the troop rise he ordered in January, even though his own Republican party has grown restive and opinion polls show widespread public opposition to his Iraq policy.
He and his aides have acknowledged the September report would be significant, though at times they have tried to play it down as merely a progress report.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican and close Bush ally, said most members of his party considered the September report crucial.
"September is the month that we're looking at," the Kentucky senator said. "There may be various generals or various politicians or others who want to mention some other key time, but I think the key time for the vast majority of my members is September.
The subject of a police manhunt in 2005 was convicted of second-degree murder Thursday night in the death of a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper who crashed his car racing to help in the search.
Jurors deliberated more than three hours before returning the guilty verdict against Massigh J. Stallmann, 28, of High Ridge.
The trooper was Ralph C. Tatoian of north St. Louis County, a trained sniper who was rushing along Interstate 44 to join the manhunt in Franklin County on April 20, 2005. He died when he struck a tractor-trailer that had stopped to help another motorist.
Even though Stallmann was hiding in woods some 30 miles away from Tatoian’s crash site, prosecutors won the murder conviction. Missouri law allows a felony murder charge when an officer is killed while responding to aid in a felony arrest.
"Stallmann was the impetus for all the events," said Gasconade County Prosecutor Ada Brehe-Krueger. "But for his actions, Trooper Tatoian would not have been killed."
Tatoian’s widow and more than a dozen uniformed troopers came to the Franklin County courthouse for the trial. It was moved from Gasconade County on a change of venue.
AdvertisementStallmann’s lawyer, Robert Taaffe Jr., said what happened to Tatoian doesn’t meet the definition of the felony murder law and hopes the appeals court will overturn the conviction.
"The jury wanted to do something for Trooper Tatoian, it’s a gut instinct when you’re looking at this woman who lost her husband," Taaffe said. "Although it’s a tragedy, he was responsible for his own conduct. He was going to work and he died in a car crash. It’s not a criminal case."
Taaffe said Tatoian had a slight blood-alcohol level, was late for his callout to duty and drove fast in a construction zone. A prosecution witness said that the low level of alcohol wouldn’t impair the trooper.
Stallmann was convicted of 10 felonies, including burglary and assaulting a law enforcement officer. The trouble began about 1 a.m. April 20, 2005, in Mount Sterling, Mo., 75 miles southwest of St. Louis, authorities said. He broke into a store and confronted a woman who lived in an apartment above. Armed with a shotgun, he stole car keys and cash.
Gasconade County sheriff’s deputies arrived. Stallmann fired once. Deputies fired 60 shots in return. One reserve deputy was grazed in the cheek by a bullet fired from another deputy. Stallmann fled. About 2 a.m. near Leslie, Mo., he was seen running into woods. Authorities called out the Highway Patrol’s Special Emergency Response Team.
Tatoian was paged at his home near Florissant. About 4:45 a.m., near I-44’s Pacific exit, he crested a hill with his squad car’s lights and siren running. He swerved around the disabled car but struck a truck.
About two hours later, Stallmann was captured.
In the 1995 Pixar film Toy Story, the gung ho space action figure Buzz Lightyear tirelessly incants his catchphrase: "To infinity … and beyond!" The joke, of course, is rooted in the perfectly reasonable assumption that infinity is the unsurpassable absolute—that there is no beyond.
That assumption, however, is not entirely sound. As German mathematician Georg Cantor demonstrated in the late 19th century, there exists a variety of infinities—and some are simply larger than others.
Take, for instance, the so-called natural numbers: 1, 2, 3 and so on. These numbers are unbounded, and so the collection, or set, of all the natural numbers is infinite in size. But just how infinite is it? Cantor used an elegant argument to show that the naturals, although infinitely numerous, are actually less numerous than another common family of numbers, the "reals." (This set comprises all numbers that can be represented as a decimal, even if that decimal representation is infinite in length. Hence, 27 is a real number, as is π, or 3.14159….)
In fact, Cantor showed, there are more real numbers packed in between zero and one than there are numbers in the entire range of naturals. He did this by contradiction, logically: He assumes that these infinite sets are the same size, then follows a series of logical steps to find a flaw that undermines that assumption. He reasons that the naturals and this zero-to-one subset of the reals having equally many members implies that the two sets can be put into a one-to-one correspondence. That is, the two sets can be paired so that every element in each set has one—and only one—"partner" in the other set.
Think of it this way: even in the absence of numerical counting, one-to-one correspondences can be used to measure relative sizes. Imagine two crates of unknown sizes, one of apples and one of oranges. Withdrawing one apple and one orange at a time thus partners the two sets into apple-orange pairs. If the contents of the two crates are emptied simultaneously, they are equally numerous; if one crate is exhausted before the other, the one with remaining fruit is more plentiful.
Cantor thus assumes that the naturals and the reals from zero to one have been put into such a correspondence. Every natural number n thus has a real partner rn. The reals can then be listed in order of their corresponding naturals: r1, r2, r3, and so on.
Then Cantor's wily side begins to show. He creates a real number, called p, by the following rule: make the digit n places after the decimal point in p something other than the digit in that same decimal place in rn. A simple binary method would be: choose 0 when the digit in question is 1; otherwise, choose 1.
For demonstration's sake, say the real number pair for the natural number 1 (r1) is the decimal component of π (0.14159…), the pair for 2 (r2) is George W. Bush's share of the popular vote in 2000 (0.47868…) and that of 3 (r3) is Ted Williams's famed .400 batting average from 1941 (0.40570…).
Now create p following Cantor's construction: the digit in the first decimal place should not be equal to that in the first decimal place of r1, which is 1. Therefore, choose 0, and p begins 0.0…. Then choose the digit in the second decimal place of p so that it does not equal that of the second decimal place of r2, which is 7 (choose 1; p = 0.01…). Finally, choose the digit in the third decimal place of p so that it does not equal that of the corresponding decimal place of r3, which is 5 (choose 1 again; p = 0.011…).