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Friday, May 6, 2016

The Emotional Amygdala -- Cognitive Dissonance and Holding Onto Beliefs Despite Being Wrong


“It is said that emotions drive 80% of the choices Americans make, while practicality and objectivity only represent about 20% of decision-making.

“In a world where 89% of all people in America do not believe in love at first sight and men look at a quality such as cleavage before trustworthiness, a world where people approach others as guilty until proven innocent, instead of innocent until proven guilty – how are we going to be the judges of good practical decision making?”

--Michael Levine, regarded by the national media as one of the country’s most prominent media experts

Let's say you have done your homework and found many good reasons to support your side of a debate, but while presenting your view to another man who is at odds with your opinion, that person cannot agree at all with your position. No matter what you say or how much the facts help prove your view, your adversary continues to hold his own opposite position and defends it by saying, “I still think I'm right. I just feel that I am.”

Being confronted with an opposing argument creates terrible chaos in the human mind.

That is likely because the facts and logic were never the real reasons for an opponent's position. They were just post-hoc rationalizations intended to help persuade others (and himself) that he is logical and rational … and maybe to help win others over to his side. The real drivers behind his belief are intuition and emotion.

Some studies show that even when people are confronted with rock solid proof that their view is wrong, they somehow blank out the new evidence and dig in even deeper to avoid admitting that they were wrong. At all costs to reason, they desire self-justification of being a sensible, competent person who will not change.

Cognitive Dissonance

Elliot Aronson, social psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, says humans' brains work hard to make them think they are doing the right thing, sometimes even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Aronson reveals that the engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling called "cognitive dissonance,” a theory first advanced by Leon Festinger.

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."

Aronson expands the example of smoking for clarification:

“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.”

(Elliot Aronson. “Why It's Hard to Admit to Being Wrong.” 
National Public Radio. July 20, 2007.)

Political Dissonance

And, oh, don't the politics of the mind come to play in American politics, itself? As parties argue and promote their candidates, emotions become an accepted type of cognition. Often, emotions alone spur candidates and voters alike to ignore logic and facts while falling for passionate appeals.

As more and more of the public become fed up with negative campaigning, endless misleading candidate advertising, and the excruciatingly long election cycle, they focus on negativity more than on the merits of the candidates. They seek simple answers for complex issues. Parties know this, so political campaigns are designed to exploit bias rather than expose it. Enter mudslinging, half-truths, and lies that belittle opponents. Emotions run high.

Steven Stosny, PhD and founder of CompassionPower, says, “Under stress most of us retreat to the Toddler brain, where we fall prey to all-or-nothing thinking and employ the Toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance.”

(Steven Stosny. “Do You Suffer From Election Stress Disorder?” 
Psychology Today. April 15, 2016.)


The “Toddler” Brain On Emotion

The emotional center of the brain is the limbic system. For example, when someone is experiencing and expressing anger, he or she is not using the thinking (cortex) part of the brain, but primarily, the limbic center of the brain

The data coming in from the world around us passes through the amygdala where the decision is made whether to send the data to the limbic or cortex area of the brain. If the incoming data triggers enough of an emotional charge, the amygdala can override the cortex, which means the data will be sent to the limbic system causing the person to react using the lower part of the brain.

During an overriding event, the amygdala goes into action without much regard for the consequences (since this area of the brain is not involved in judging, thinking, or evaluating).This reactive incident has come to be known as an amygdala hijacking.

The limbic system makes decisions very quickly and in a black and white manner. It's motto could be, "Don't bother me with facts and logic, it just gets in the way of my emotions!"

Stosny believes during national elections many people download the negativity of their environment and take it out on the closest people to them. He says, “A web of emotion connects us all, and did so long before the Internet became its national conduit. Political campaigns set the web of emotion ablaze with negativity.”

Though it is extremely difficult for someone to embrace “an inconvenient truth,” Stosny believes we should practice respect and compassion toward others with differing views. Toleration of differences helps spread the workings of the “Adult brain” that allows reason to enter and affect the emotions. This helps prevent us from downloading resentment and anger into our highly susceptible Toddler brains.

Still, so many adhere to the “brands” of politics to align their intentions with reasons. It is natural to find support for our beliefs in political parties or in political labels. Since the search for truth is often guided by emotion, people tend to side with the spin of a particular group. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the belief, and the greater the tendency for seeking out supporting evidence. That is not really being rational human beings. Instead, we become rationalizers. The bias is evident.

(Douglas Van Praet. “The End Of Rational Vs. Emotional: How Both Logic And Feeling Play Key Roles In Marketing And Decision Making.” May 16, 2013.)

“Belief perseverance” occurs when people hold onto their beliefs even after they’ve been proven false. This is a dangerous practice for the American public. The media spin causes much of this belief perseverance.

In 2010, a study by World Public Opinion, a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, reported on their poll of Americans to determine their opinions on certain issues and where they got their news. Those who watched Fox News (known for its host and attendant partisan bias) regularly had more distorted views of reality than those who watched or read other media. For example, among all viewers, Fox watchers were the most likely to subscribe to these demonstrably false views.

We should encourage youth to have an open mind and find logical support for their opinions. Improving the political system and the government depends upon those who can suspend emotions, find facts, and then work effectively in a bipartisan effort to improve America for the common good.

To end, allow me to post some good information from Rabbi educator, activist, and writer Shmuly Yanklowitz:

“In education, engaging in argument can help ensure the development of what has been called a “two-sided” versus “one-sided” approach (Baron, 1990; Nussbaum, 2008; Stanovich, and West, 2007; Wolfe and Britt, 2008). A two-sided argument addresses the opposing or counter-argument, rather than just making the argument to support one position. It is crucial for more nuanced argument skills that students learn to engage in evidence-based argumentation where they can provide a claim which is supported by evidence or reasons that support the claim in a principled way. 

“Yet even teachers may also have difficulty explaining how evidence can be applied in high level argumentative reading and writing (Kuhn, 2005; Langer, 1992; Langer and Applebee, 1987). Many have claimed that most teachers are unprepared to provide instructional support and facilitation for learning argument skills (Applebee, 1991; Hillocks 1999, 2008, 2010; Langer, 1992; Langer and Applebee, 1987; Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008). It is important that we let the evidence determine our thesis rather than let our thesis determine the evidence presented.”

(Shmuly Yanklowitz. “Confirmation Bias and the Ethical Demands of Argumentation.” The Huffington Post. October 03, 2013.)

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