Cognitive Dissonance and tin-foil hats
The amazing thing is that while all the cards were eventually identified with great confidence, no one noticed that there was anything out of ordinary in the deck. People saw a black four of hearts with red hearts. In other words, their expectations about what playing cards should look like determined what they actually saw. When the researchers increased the amount of time that the cards were displayed, some people eventually began to notice that something was amiss, but they did not know exactly what was wrong. One person, while directly gazing at a red six of spades, said; “That’s the six of spades but there’s something wrong with it - the black spade has a red border.”
As the display time increased even more, people became more confused and hesitant. Eventually, most people saw what was before their eyes. But even when the cards were displayed for forty times the length of time needed to recognise normal playing cards, about 10 percent of the color-reversed playing were never correctly identified by any of the people!
Studies like this in the 1950’s led psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues at Stanford University to develop the idea of cognitive dissonance. This is the uncomfortable feeling that develops when people are confronted by ‘things that shouldn’t ought to be, but are’. If the dissonance is sufficiently strong, and is not reduced in some way, the uncomfortable feeling will grow, and that feeling can develop into anger, fear and even hostility. To avoid unpleasant cognitive dissonance people will often react to evidence that ‘disconfirms’ their belief by actually strengthening their original beliefs and creating rationalizations for the disconfirming evidence.
The above experiment has stuck in my mind because it tallies with another photo I've put on this site recently, in a satirical but still serious article I wrote about the tragic events of 9/11 and the MH370 disappearance. Here is the photo again:
As I mentioned in the previous article, the official story of the above picture is that we are looking at the aftermath of a Boeing 777 passenger jet plane crashing into the side of the Pentagon on 9/11. But it's plainly obvious that there is no 777 crashed airliner in the picture. When one wakes up to this plain fact, one wonders how anyone could believe that the shattered remains of a crashed Boeing 777 is in the picture. Our expectations of what is in the picture, as relayed by the media in dramatic and universal terms, has indoctrinated us to expect something that is clearly not there. When I initially looked at the pictures of the tragedy, I knew that a large passenger airliner was supposed to have crashed into the building and I myself did not notice the glaring lack of a wrecked Boeing 777. Just as with the doctored playing cards, I only noticed the glaring fact after I watched an excellent documentary on youtube explaining in depth the blatant errors and omissions in the official story. This is the power of cognitive dissonance.
Bruner and Postman's 'doctored playing card' psychology experiment shows how difficult it is for people to notice when something is clearly wrong, even if it is right before their eyes in plain sight, particularly if they have strong expectations of what should be there. As George Orwell once said:
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
Such a struggle is present even when there is no fear of reprisals if one openly states that something is wrong. Unfortunately, in the Western World at the moment, there is evidence to indicate that saying 'the King of Diamonds has gone black' can be a very risky activity. It's therefore understandable that most people are far more likely to ignore such cognitive dissonances. What's more, they'll be strongly tempted to dismiss anyone who points out a cognitive dissonance. They'll want to think of such alarmists as being stupid and delusional, categorising them as part of an 'out-group' in the process. By doing that, they can avoid a great of deal of personal discomfort, fear and uncertainty, as well as feeling superior to a low-status minority. It's therefore hardly surprising that it's a very popular response. Unfortunately for us all, the glaring error is still there. There is no one so blind as those who do not want to see.