Psychobabble: No Plan B

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

George Osborne, our glorious chancellor– truly there has been no greater since Norman Lamont– is seemingly currently engaged in the process of deflecting blame and attention from recent indications that make a double dip recession look a little more likely in some people’s eyes. Interestingly, the results of Osborne’s near slash-and-burn approach are being criticised by folks you wouldn’t normally label as part of any lefty rabble

Osborne has tried to blame the weather and the unions for the lack of economic recovery, and his mate Dave has jumped on the bandwagon to blame the immigrants; all of which arguably deflect attention from the fact that there are a growing number of people who now believe that Osborne has no plan B, and criticism from some quarters that the Tories’ deficit slashing measures are nothing more than ideologically motivated (although this is a bit of a strange criticism as all politics is in essence ideologically motivated).

To my mind Osborne’s, and indeed much of the coalition’s recent pronouncements on the issue of the economy, austerity measures and that ever elusive recovery could be taken as illustrating a fascinating trait of human psychology: cognitive dissonance. In this case, in refusing to admit that one may have been wrong, perhaps fearing that it may be a sign of weakness.

The concept of cognitive dissonance was developed by Leon Festinger in 1957 and is described in the classic text “When Phrophecy Fails” where Festinger, fellow academics and research assistants explored what would happen when a relatively secretive UFO ‘cult’ declared that the world would end on a certain date, and subsequently failed to do so. What they found was wonderfully counterintuitive: when the apocalypse failed to come a-knocking, rather than slink off embarrassed into obscurity, those involved in the cult became enthusiastic proselytisers for its ideas and almost evangelic in their recruitment of new members. Far from admitting that they were wrong, the group decided that they had been right all along about the end of the world and that it was, in fact, their faith alone that had saved the world. In other words, they resolved the cognitive dissonance that occurred when reality failed to match up to their expectations by deciding that they themselves had changed reality.

Festinger explored the idea of dissonance via experiment, and developed the theory based on three fundamental assumptions:

1. Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs.According to the theory, we all recognize, at some level, when we are acting in a way that is inconsistent with our beliefs/attitudes/opinions. For example, if you have a belief that it is wrong to cheat, yet you find yourself cheating on a test, you will notice and be affected by this inconsistency.

2. Recognition of this inconsistency will cause dissonance, and will motivate an individual to resolve the dissonance.The degree of dissonance will, of course, vary with the importance of your belief/attitude/principle, and with the degree of inconsistency between your behavior and this belief. In any case, according to the theory, the greater the dissonance, the more you will be motivated to resolve it.

3. Dissonance will be resolved in one of three basic ways:

a) Change beliefsPerhaps the simplest way to resolve dissonance between actions and beliefs is simply to change your beliefs. However, if the belief is fundamental and important to you, such a course of action is unlikely.  Our basic beliefs and attitudes are, after all, pretty stable.  People don’t just go around changing basic beliefs/attitudes/opinions all the time, since we rely a lot on our worldview in predicting events and organizing our thoughts. Therefore, although this is the simplest option for resolving dissonance, it’s probably not the most common.

b) Change actionsA second option would be to make sure that you never commit this action again. Guilt and anxiety can be motivators for changing behavior. However, aversive conditioning (i.e. guilt/anxiety) can often be a pretty poor way of learning, especially if you can train yourself not to feel these things. Plus, you may really benefit in some way from the action that’s inconsistent with your beliefs. So, the trick would be to get rid of this feeling without changing your beliefs or your actions.

c) Change perception of actionA third and more complex method of resolution is to change the way you view/remember/perceive your action. In more colloquial terms, you would “rationalize” your actions.  In other words, you think about your action in a different manner or context, so that it no longer appears to be inconsistent with your actions.

I believe that George may be in a thrall of cognitive dissonance based upon recent comments he made claiming that:

‘Abandoning deficit reduction plan would leave the country in turmoil within minutes’

This seems to imply a commitment to stay the course of action that many have criticised (be it for ideological reasons of their own, or otherwise), and that many more have serious doubts over. Indeed, in the face of criticism, George appears to become more ardently wedded to the notion that his austerity measures alone can save Britain from the dreaded deficit, and one worries whether our glorious Chancellor will stick to his guns in spite of any evidence that is forthcoming.

I contend that George Osborne and the rest of the coalition’s attempts to ‘shift the blame’ onto the weather, immigrants, unions or anything, rather than accept that the austerity measures don’t work, is an example of their changing their perceptions to suit the current reality: the economy is failing to grow but it can’t be our fault;  it must be down to something/someone else.

There are many precedents for politicians falling prey to the lure of cognitive dissonance. The marvellous book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” by Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson lists just some examples that Osborne and co should perhaps heed as cautionary tales.

One example would be George “Dubya” Bush being told that the invasion of Iraq had increased Islamic radicalism and the risk of terrorism, only to remark “I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions”. Or when Kissinger  accepted the Nobel Peace Prize with the justification that the ‘administration had made mistakes’, neatly sidestepping the fact that he was the administration. Or Nixon justifying the Watergate break-in to Frost by claiming that when the president does something, it isn’t illegal. Also, observe the counter example of Kennedy, who admitted responsibility for the Bay of Pigs failed invasion fiasco.

Which of these mentioned: Bush, Kissinger, Nixon or Kennedy, retains their status as an icon who is generally loved rather than despised?

Kennedy saw his popularity soar after admitting his mistake, whilst Dubya and Nixon both saw their popularity fall substantially whilst maintaining that they had been right all along. The lesson for Osborne, Cameron, Clegg, Milliband, Salmond and any other politician with half an eye on power and leadership? Admit your mistakes: it’s more important to be right than to appear to be right…

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