Cognitive Dissonance

potter__s_chaos_legion_by_dinosaurusgede-d2xlq9vI’m currently reading a fan-fiction called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (awesome by the way), and I found this gem 41% in.  It’s a conversation between Harry and Dumbledore about death. Dumbledore is saying that he is OK with dying, and Harry is arguing that it is crazy to say that you are OK with it.

See there is a little thing called cognitive dissonance, or in plainer English, sour grapes.  If people were hit on the heads with truncheons once a month, and no one could do anything about it, pretty soon there’d be all sorts of philosophers, pretending to be wise, who found all sorts of amazing benefits to being hit on the head with a truncheon once a month.  Like, it makes you tougher, or it makes you happier on the days when you’re not getting hit with a truncheon.  But if you went up to someone who wasn’t getting hit, and you asked them if they wanted to start, in exchange for those amazing benefits, they’d say no.  And if you didn’t have to die, if you came from somewhere that no one had ever heard of death, and I suggested to you that it would be an amazing wonderful great idea for people to get wrinkles and old and eventually cease to exist, why, you’d have me hauled right off to a lunatic asylum!  So why would anyone possibly think any thought so silly as that death is a good thing?  Because you’re afraid of it, because you don’t really want to die, and that thought hurts so much inside you that you have to rationalize it away, do something to numb the pain, so you won’t have to think about it -“

This is a very poignant explanation for cognitive dissonance in my view.  Can you try to apply the truncheon logic to more situations in your life?  I can think of a few.  I might explore them some more.

On early retirement

early-retirementI wanted to call this post “on living well”, but that would cast the philosophical net a bit too wide.  What is the one thing you would say you need to live well?  Money, food, a house, family?  Yes, we might need all those things, but the one thing that would make all the difference for me is self-sufficiency.  When I say self-sufficiency I do not mean cutting myself off from civilization and starting a hippy co-op where I grow my own food (although the idea is not too distasteful), but rather being able to choose what I do with my time without the need to worry about money, food, a house etc.

Ooh, I can already hear the questions and recriminations.  “But we have to work to eat”, “You are just lazy”, “What will you do with your time?”.  Really?  I was recently asked by a rich man, who just basically manages his money, what I would do with my time if I did not work.  He stated that he would not be able to function if he did not ‘work’.  If only the 1% understood the tedious, mind numbing, scull crushing work of a windowless 9-5.  It is not really the work as such that is the problem, it is the loss of self direction that causes the most pain.  The fact is that I can do my ‘job’ in about 5 hours a week, yet I have to sit at my desk, breathing recycled air, 5 days a week, 7.5 hours a day, because I cannot be trusted to rule myself.  This is the sad reality of the modern working life.  So no Mr. Rich man, I don’t want to sit at home and sip soy latte’s all day, I just want to work without the need to work (managing my ‘portfolio’ would be wonderful).  I want to enjoy one job and do it well – not work my fingers to the bone for thankless corporations at two jobs just to cover basic living expenses.  I don’t want to be in a situation where I cannot decide that I want to do something different because I cannot afford to lose my job.  So maybe the word retire is the wrong word.  I don’t want to sit back and rest from 50 years of work.  I just want to have an alternative income which covers my basics.  That way I can focus on meaningful work, and live well.  Donations are welcome.

For those interested in early retirement the hard way, here is a useful calculator to help you plan:

Irrational opinions

Irrational-ArtWe have established now that irrationality is a human condition.  This does not mean that it should be accepted.  It is the same as stupidity.  Maybe we should also define the opposite of irrationality.  What is rationality?   According to Philip Johnson-Laird and Ruth M.J. Byrne humans are rational in principle but they err in practice.  Thus our tendency towards the irrational.  Now it is actually quite understandable that we might for various motivational reasons prefer the irrational behaviour.  Who am I to say that a chain smoker has not weighed the consequences of his behaviour and came to the conclusion that the pleasure of smoke filled lungs outweighs the risk of a painful suffocating death.  This would be considered rational behaviour, albeit an extreme example.  My biggest problem with irrationality is not the behaviour as such, but the sources from which we draw the information to make those choices.

The chain smoker cannot really come to the wrong conclusions if he wants to make a decision because the facts about smoking are quite well established, and his decision would be an informed one with only a rudimentary Google search.  Unfortunately many of our day to day behaviours are informed by advertising, and not science. We feed kids fruitloops because the box says that there are 9 vitamin and iron in it.  It is also made by a company we trust to make breakfast, and it’s advertised as good.  We do not questions this.  Why?  Because we trust in a broken system.  We believe if it was bad for us the government, or ‘researchers’ or someone who knows more or better than ourselves would have done something about it.  Well, we are wrong. We eat Nutella for breakfast because they say that it has healthy hazel nuts in it, and is good for breakfast.  Really?  Nutella is just spreadable chocolate.  See this video for a good laugh: YouTube link

Unfortunately we do this on a deeper level too, with bigger, more important things. Here we receive our information not from advertising, but from sources we think are authorities.  We tend to spend only about 10 minutes (not a scientific figure) initially weighing the authority of a source, and thereafter we automatically defer judgement to that authority. (Yes, there are actual communication theories to explain some of these phenomena, like the two-step, magic bullet, etc.)  A good example is the church, priest and Bible.  Most people probably spent less than 10 minutes evaluating the rationality, authenticity, and ‘truth’ of their church, priest or Bible, yet on all and any subject they are happy to defer their opinion to whatever the church say, because that’s what the Bible says.  We outsource our opinions to opinion leaders.  We spend little time verifying our source’s credibility (CNN, financial adviser, the Bible), and thereafter we fly blind.  Anything and everything coming to us from those sources adds to our existing opinion.  We generally do not question it. We buy a house instead of renting, because ‘they’ say it is the best thing to do.  We study, get married, have 2.5 kids, work for 50 years, retire and die, because that is what ‘they’ said we should do.  Well, it is irrational and that kind of thinking needs to stop, because irrationality is stupidity.

Ashamed of my irrationality

Ashamed head-in-handsSo after some personal reflection and constructive conversation with a friend, I came to the conclusion that I’m a hypocrite.  I actually struggled to fall asleep the other night because I realised that there are such gaping flaws in the way I think I act and the way I actually act.  My previous post was on the logic of being a vegetarian.  I may look harshly on someone who denies the facts of the benefits to self and society of a veggie diet, just like I judge someone who smokes, for various reasons.  But there are other similar things in my life which I don’t do, but know I should, or visa versa.  Which means I am a hypocrite.  I also know that the reason we do these things is quite simple.  We engage in ‘risky’ behaviour because we do not see the immediate consequences of those behaviours.  Or we do not do positive behaviours because the consequences are not immediately visible.  I have been trying for the past 8 years to lose weight.  I am still not 1kg closer to my goal, even though I have tried, and tried, and tried.  What’s my problem?  Whatever exercise I do today will have zero visible effect.  Denying myself that chocolate is not going to make me lighter on the scale tomorrow.  It is exactly the same reasoning as someone saying that the steak on his plate is not going to kill him, or have any effect on saving the planet.  It seems there is work to be done.

I’m a vegetarian, vegan wanna-be

vegetarian Ok, so my fist post will probably not be a Pulitzer prize winner, but I thought I’d start with the thing that I find creates the most cognitive dissonance among clever people.  Especially those who stand in favour of climate change and believe in science.  I guess it is proof again that cultural patterns are of such a strong nature that we sometimes cannot comprehend a world where certain practices and behaviours do not exist, never mind what science says.  We do readily engage in confirmation bias, clinging hopelessly to the few straws that prove that our behaviour is correct.  “My great aunt Bella lived to the ripe old age of 98, and she smoked 2 packs a day.”, or “She lived to 98 and ate her steak every day.” Both are equally stupid assertions.  We all know that in science there are levels of evidence, and one one-sided case study does not make an argument.  Fair enough.  People do not go out to disprove and change their most treasured habits.  If that were the case we would be living in utopia already.  I guess my biggest gripe with the issue of meat eating is the level of ignorance among people who should know better.  Sure, there are those that know, and decide not to act, living with their cognitive dissonance (quite willfully and uncomfortably).  But unfortunately there are those that should know, but know nothing.  Just yesterday a student asked me how I am able to be a vegetarian.  He could not fathom what I eat.  Really?  Then the more shocking question came:  “Why are you a vegetarian?”  I promptly gave a list of reasons, and I could see the glaze settling over his eyes like some primal coding kicking in and taking over – no, you will not listen to reason, you cannot live without it, refocus.  Ok, so how are things with Miley Circus.


Here are just two facts among the hundreds.  If they are true we should be rioting because of the inaction in the world.  (1). We have 7 billion people on this planet, it takes between 10kg and 20kg of food to produce just 1kg of meat.  (2). The only food that contain cholesterol are animal foods.  There is no cholesterol in plant food.  I rest my case.

(Don’t worry I’l definitely have more to say on this later)