When White Liberal Prophecy Fails: Cognitive Dissonance and the Liberal Mind

Cognitive Dissonance theory might be more important in explaining the Left’s mindset than we appreciate. Although frequently invoked by mainstream conservatives to superficially skewer liberals’ incoherence and hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance should be applied more broadly and explored more deeply. According to psychologists, the dissonance produced in the mind when holding mutually exclusive beliefs is actually nothing short of a form of mental trauma. Facts and opinions which challenge, for instance, one’s self-identity or long-held conventional wisdom can, say experts, result in agony for the afflicted, producing a feeling of desperation akin to starvation or intense thirst. Unsurprisingly then, the resulting discomfort can push the sufferer to great lengths of irrational and extreme behavior in order to obtain relief[1] (Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness, pdf here).Understanding cognitive dissonance, therefore, may go far in explaining our opponents’ aggressiveness and, given the growing unreality of today’s society, their increasingly toxic and desperate behavior.

A basic theme in cognitive dissonance literature is that the brain cannot stand conflict. So hard does the brain work towards resolving it, it’s neural circuitry will actually employ faulty reasoning in order to shut down distress.[2] When presented with contradictory positions, it will, in effect, blind itself to them, for instance, by eliminating the new conflicting belief and clinging to the challenged one. Referring to this characteristic of the mind as our “totalitarian ego”, Psychologist Anthony Greenwald says, much like the thought-control and propaganda devices depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, the mind’s biases are firmly enslaved to the ego’s greater central design (for instance, one’s self-image as a humanitarian and morally righteous person, etc.).[3] This would explain much of liberals’ hyper-defensive reaction to evidence regarding racial differences, for instance, and their aggression toward purveyors of such evidence.

Political psychology professor Drew Weston has found that the brain circuits activating biased reasoning are actually the same ones activated in drug-addicts when getting a fix. Like drug-addicts, the cognitively conflicted will do anything to return to a state of comfort and euphoria.[4] The minds of the conflicted can employ numerous stress responses when, for instance, one’s long-held belief or self-image is challenged, such as avoiding the conflicting evidence in question (and any possible sources of such evidence); resorting to self-denial and magical-thinking[5]; even intentionally misremembering or suppressing past experiences i.e. previous episodes of ethnic tension, etc.[6] And when confronted by ideological opponents, the afflicted can resort to convoluted, fantastical arguments as well as hostile or nakedly diversionary ones, such as making dismissive, personal attacks on the opponent’s motives.[7] No doubt many readers have experienced such episodes from liberals before, even to the point of visible neurosis, hysterical anger, or even threatened or actual violence.[8] As Cognitive Dissonance expert Margaret Heffernan says, “we are prepared to pay a very high price to preserve our most cherished ideas.”[9]

The case study which established Cognitive Dissonance theory bears many of these hallmarks. In the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger became intrigued with a news story about a doomsday cult whose leader claimed she’d received messages from a UFO about the impending flooding of the Earth. Festinger was struck by the question of what would happen when a deeply-held belief was disconfirmed by events. Posing as a believer, he began attending the group’s meetings, including what was to be the “final” meeting on the eve of the world’s end. When no flood came, the group’s founder miraculously received a new message: that it was because of the group’s virtuousness that the world had been saved. As he wrote in a book about the case, When Prophecy Fails, far from being unswayed, the group felt joyous that their belief system stayed intact and became even stronger in their convictions.

In another early case, Festinger profiled the Ifaluk tribe, a primitive Micronesian people, which lived by a firmly held belief that people are inherently caring and good, all the while, as Festinger observed, the children in this culture were particularly prone to “strong overt aggression.”[10] Instead of changing their belief about the nature of people (or young people, at least), however, the Ifaluk reconciled the two contradicting cognitions by introducing a new cognitive element: that it was “malevolent ghosts” which make their children act the way they do.

Case studies elsewhere show cognitive dissonance afflicting high-achieving people and even to the point of creating self-harm or harm of others. In 1950s Britain, for instance, health authorities were presented with conclusive evidence that X-ray technology at the time was having carcinogenic effects on fetuses. Instead of changing course, however, the authorities fought the findings and persisted in using the technology without alteration. Even decades after the findings were made, UK medical authorities maintained the argument that doctors must have X-rayed only those fetuses that were destined to get cancer; a position so clearly desperate (how could doctors have known such a fact beforehand?) that it shows, in the words of one researcher, just how much “no one likes to be told they’ve been doing something wrong all their lives.”[11]

Although blocking out evidence disruptive to one’s sense of self can, in theory, also apply to White advocates, it’s important to note why it’s largely a White liberal phenomenon. White liberals operate in a constant state of neurotic discomfort and confusion. From noticing wildly different behavioral patterns of, for instance, Blacks in public and the workplace, seeing disparate levels of Black achievement in school and professional life, and experiencing instances of anti-White intimidation and violence, etc., for White liberals, nearly every day is a challenge to their worldview which can be summed by the belief that racial equality and diversity are, now and forevermore, right and good. This doesn’t apply to White advocates. Although no doubt extensive, our daily discomfort is nonneurotic, and relates to real, non-self-contrived troubles, such as worrying for our future progeny or lamenting over a healthier past. Our concern about the future is well-founded, to say the least.

Those researching the foundations of cognitive dissonance often cite the work of the late-Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner when explaining the various types of bias that can occupy the mind. A pioneer of what’s now referred to as positive and negative reinforcement, Skinner conducted experiments in the 1930s wherein he placed a hungry rat inside a box with a lever which, when pressed, delivered food. The rodent soon learned to associate the action with the reward. Different colored lights were then introduced, with the rat receiving the food only when the correct light was on. If the rat pressed the lever when the correct light was on, it received food; if it pressed the lever when the incorrect light was on, it received an electric shock. Gradually, this had the effect of teaching the rodent to associate certain stimuli (the different lights) with pleasant or unpleasant things and respond to those stimuli by performing a particular action. As Skinner and other psychologists later showed, such behavioral conditioning could be used on humans as well.

Applying it to personal views and opinions, psychologist Judson Brewer says that the more positive and negative reinforcement is repeated (such as praising and scolding, in the case of children), humans could be made to gradually internalize certain social views or develop, as he says, a ‘lens through which to see the world’ or a bias towards seeing the world a certain way[12]:

Over time… the more we get used to wearing a particular set of glasses, subscribing to a particular worldview more and more, we forget that we are wearing them. They have become an extension of us—a habit or even a truth… our viewpoints become so habitual that we don’t question our reflexive, knew-jerk reactions.

Such engineering of viewpoints, however, doesn’t appear to graft onto White advocates very well. Whatever the reason, White advocates carry the critical faculties and independence of mind needed to avoid the conditioning they received in school or elsewhere; whether it be a general ability to separate education from miseducation, a natural aversion to opinions based on faith, or an innate tendency (ethnocentrism is influenced genetically) to recoil from ideas hostile to their group-interests.

Apart from reinforcement-learning during development are the broader institutional and social foundations for cognitive dissonance. Heffernan points out the importance this area of support played in the X-ray case, specifically that the doctors’ intolerance of the countervailing findings was likely due to their industry being dependent on the status quo.[13] Moreover, she notes that the doctors were in positions of great, institutional power, resulting in their colleagues and subordinates likely reinforcing, rather than questioning, the official line.

That similar institutional foundations undergird White liberals’ individual worldviews needn’t be argued in detail. The equality-diversity paradigm reigns supreme over every major institution in the country as well as in the broader Western world. Numerous sources (the mainstream media being one) are at work daily to provide the reinforcement, assurance, and social pressure, White liberals need to stay on point. Needless to say, this type of support for cognitive dissonance does not apply to White advocates. We operate no institutions nor depend on any institution which relies on or reinforces our beliefs (in fact, no such institution exists).

We also don’t subscribe to beliefs deemed respectable, virtuous, or because of who or what they’re associated with (in fact, some of us routinely try to disassociate ourselves from many of those who actually share our beliefs).

Importantly, Heffernan also notes the doctors’ worry over their self-image as health experts as a basis for their rejection of the conflicting X-ray findings; that is, any public perception of them having hurt, rather helped, patients in their care. This concern for self-image analogizes well with liberals who, of course, preeningly view themselves as righteously doing good for society (i.e., fighting for social justice, equalization of outcomes, the oppressed, righting historic wrongs, etc.); efforts which would be all for naught should they accept countervailing truths.

Moreover, notes Heffernan, accepting the truth would have forced the doctors to admit to the harms they had unleashed on the public, which in liberals’ case would be the White public — the harms caused against Whites through discrimination in hiring and school admissions, denigrating White flight and ignoring the plight of the White working class, erasing White identity and historical achievement, etc.

By contrast, we, as White advocates, don’t hold beliefs that would make the world better if they were true. We’re simply too intellectually serious not to accept reality as is, knowing that by relying on dishonesty, only harm can come. As AmRen’s mast head on its old print edition used to read (quoting Thomas Jefferson): “There is not a truth existing which I fear or would wish unknown to the whole world.” Unlike White liberals, we know it’s in the best interest of those we care about for them to fully understand the world they live in.

There are two dissonance-inducing stress responses acknowledged by analysts which I think deserve greater emphasis: the mind’s ability to adjust the importance of challenging cognitions; and its ability to add on new cognitions so that challenging ones become outweighed (such as the ghost-narrative in Festinger’s Ifaluk case). These strategies may go far in understanding those White liberals (there are bound to be some) who do not betray their observational faculties and internally acknowledge innate race differences, but who, nonetheless, zealously pursue the equality-is-right-diversity-is—our-greatest-strength worldview.

Regarding the former, “honest” White liberals may adjust downward the importance that IQ disparities play in society (thereby reducing their discomfort), telling themselves, for instance, that they can be overcome through better diet in childhood, or investing more money in education, etc.[14] This would work to lessen the dissonance between the realities they privately acknowledge and their desired, more convenient, equality-diversity worldview.

On the latter, similarly situated White liberals may add on new cognitions, for instance, by telling themselves that, regardless of the reality of race, White advocates wish opprobrium and even depredation on non-Whites and they must, therefore, be countered. To do so (however correct White advocates may be) is to help to defeat ugliness and evil in the world. Again, the mental anguish of having to deal with uncomfortable facts (and becoming like us) is therefore resolved.

Although paper-thin and routinely challenged, the White liberal paradigm rests on a solid foundation; one which we all must strive to understand. Ignoring or blocking out inconvenient facts regarding race draws numerous psychological and emotional benefits in today’s society, including social and financial ones. By contrast, the race-realism and White advocacy we voluntarily pursue provides us with no such benefits; only the bracing satisfaction of living in accordance with the truth and doing what’s right.

Although their paradigm will develop cracks as the level of contradiction to reality in society increases, the fear and anguish caused by being on such intellectually shaky ground might actually keep much of it intact for some time, producing more denialism and dysfunctional thinking, more hysterical calls and campaigns for our moral exclusion, and more desperate measures in general.

[1] Willful Blindness, found here. (“Anything or anyone that threatens that sense of self produces pain that feels just as dangerous and unpleasant as hunger or thirst. A challenge to our big ideas feels life-threatening. And so we strive mightily to reduce the pain by ignoring the evidence that proves we are wrong, or by reinterpreting evidence to support us.”)

[2] https://www.sightline.org/2008/03/13/drewwestenresearch/ (“Not only did the brain manage to shut down distress through faulty reasoning, but it did so quickly – as best we could tell, usually before subjects even made it to the third slide. The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And this all seemed to happen with little involvement of the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning.”)

[3] http://www3.psych.purdue.edu/~willia55/392F/Greenwald.pdf

[4] Willful Blindness, here.

[5] Id. (“We studiously avoid seeing, and remembering, those things that may cause us discomfort. In the same way that we tend to gravitate toward people who are like us, our eyes—and our minds—focus on information, objects, ideas that confirm our sense of self… Both are stress responses.”)

[6] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/20445911.2014.925459 (“People often misremember the past as consistent with the present. Recent research using an induced-compliance paradigm has revealed that cognitive dissonance is one mechanism that can underlie this memory distortion… Overall, our findings replicate the effect of dissonance on memory distortion and, further, show that the effect generalises to other dissonance-inducing situations.”)

[7] Willful Blindness, here. (“As Gayla had uncovered W.R. Grace’s knowledge of the town’s contamination (Libby, Montana, where an asbestos mine infected thousands with mesothelioma), she’d discovered… so many of her friends and neighbors did not want to know anything she had uncovered. ‘People would cross the street when they saw me coming,’ she recalled. ‘They shunned me as though I had something contagious. People said I was crazy or that the lawyers were giving me kickbacks—and there would be people whose own family members were dragging around oxygen tanks. ‘One line of defense was, people would say: If the doctors though there was something wrong, they’d tell us’… On the other side though is the fact that people are like ostriches… Gayla was getting hate mail.”)

[8] https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/cognitive_dissonance (“In Northern Ireland, for instance, the image of Protestants or Catholics as inhuman allows for actions [such as violence] that otherwise might not be perpetuated…This all means that a Protestant or Catholic who otherwise may strongly believe in the notion that ‘Thou shall not murder’ may participate in terrorist activities. Although these two cognitions are dissonant, this dissonance can be overcome by creating new cognitions (‘they aren’t human’ or ‘they’re barbarians,’ etc.) or by emphasizing one cognition at the expense of the other.”); Also see,

http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol._1_No._6;_June_2011/14.pdf (“The cognitive dissonance theory developed by Festinger (1957) inspired a great deal of exciting research for the next two decades. It challenged reinforcement theory by showing that people are not simple reinforcement machines, rather they think and make justifications (Aronson, 1992). Besides, it challenged psychoanalytic theory, specifically the notion of catharsis of aggression (Aronson, 1992). Most psychologists believed that if people released their anger, they would feel better, however, cognitive dissonance theory proposed that it would not reduce aggression. On the contrary people would try to find justifications for their hostility such as derogating the victim, and thus it would lead to more aggression.”)

[9] https://www.philanthropysouthwest.org/sites/default/files/resources/Willful%20Blindness.pdf

[10] Festinger’s landmark An Introduction to the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, here “(As a result of this third belief, the knowledge of the aggressive behavior of children is no longer dissonant with the belief that people are good. It is not the children who behave aggressively – it’s the malevolent ghosts. Psychologically, this is a highly satisfactory means of reducing the dissonance, as one might expect when such belief are institutionalized at a cultural level. Unsatisfactory solutions would not be as successful in becoming widely accepted.”)

[11] Willful Blindness, here.

[12] The Craving Mind, page 7, here.

[13] Willful Blindness, here: “[I]nstitutional power is a particularly seductive form of social support. After all, if you are in a position of tremendous institutional or political power, then not only are you hugely confirmed by the colleagues who share your beliefs, but questioning them would threaten everything: job, position, reputation, future career.” Also see, page 14 here (Festinger noting the role society plays in keeping dissonance at bay: “The more people who hold a belief in common with you, the greater the amount of consonance that is built up and the less dissonance that is encountered when there is a disagreement.”)

[14] https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/cognitive_dissonance (“Another way to overcome cognitive dissonance is to alter the importance (or lack thereof) of certain cognitions. By either deciding that ice cream is extremely good (I can’t do without it) or that losing weight isn’t that important (I look good anyway), the problem of dissonance can be lessened. If one of the dissonant cognitions outweighs the other in importance, the mind has less difficulty dealing with the dissonance — and the result means that I can eat my ice cream and not feel bad about it.”)

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