2011/01/10

"How Facts Backfire"

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Highly recommended: A Boston Globe article on research results about cognitive dissonance.

Bad policies due to cognitive dissonance is no special problem of democracies - all forms of government so far used fallible humans as decision-makers.

There are many interesting conclusions possible, though:

In the political realm, there's the partisan strategist view:
They could divide the electorate into partisans who would even buy into the most abhorrent lies and merely need to be fired up in order to mobilise them for the election.
The other group would be the "moderates", "independents" or simply uncommitted voters. This group can be won with arguments based in the real world.
In the end, doing good policy should still pay off, as both groups can easily be reached with that one. Only parties with a poor track record need to resort to lies in order to keep at least their partisan base in their boat.

There's also the citizen's or decision-maker's view:
First, you shouldn't be too fired up or ideological about anything in order to keep yourself ready for the absorption of facts. Then you need fact suppliers, and the cheapest ones are likely the extremists who are already motivated to offer information (lobbyists, political extremists, people with an agenda). You also need a people who filter out all the crap & lies that such partisans spew out. That should be the news media's job description.
In the end, you will hopefully receive plenty facts for a well-founded decision.


There are also lessons for organisational reform, such as military reform.
Most readers will remember the roles of Guderian in Germany and Mitchell in the U.S.. They were champions for new concepts, kind of extremists.
It's a common opinion that such extreme pioneers are valuable, probably even the best thing if you want to have a very innovative organisation/military.
Well, the cognitive dissonance theory seems to suggest that this is not a good systematic approach. It seems to preach distrust against partisans and radicals.
A better organisational approach to innovation might be to establish an innovation core of uncommitted persons (generalists, not experts) who absorb and process filtered information in order to appraise innovations correctly. The highly committed people could feed them with information.

Overly committed partisans can occasionally be right, of course. But then there are also examples of people who preached the bayonet attack in 1914, declared all combat aircraft obsolete in face of missiles during the 60's and tanks during the 70's ...

S.O.
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