Cognitive Dissonance – why beliefs are so hard to change

A few months ago I was speaking to a friend of mine, whom I first knew professionally and then became good friends. He was a computer programmer and a science major by training but deeply religious in his views. While I typically am not the type to debate points related to religious beliefs there was this one instance where he mentioned that he did not believe that the earth was 4.5 billion years old. I think one evening we were jumping topics from work to personal beliefs and somehow ended on this topic. Our conversation went like this:

Me: You do realize that the earth is older than 6000 years and we have various methods to prove this. The Genesis account is just not true.

Him: Well, the jury is really out on Radio Carbon dating. How can you date something that is millions of years and even billions of years old? The science does not compute. It has been shown that RC dating is unreliable (and he rattles off a few recent Creationists sources).

Me: Umm I am hoping that you also realize that age of the earth is not determined by RC dating only. There are a lot of other radioactive elements that are used for larger timescales that have proved with a relatively high consistency that the age of the earth is more than 4 billion years.

And then I read this to him – (Source: –Radiometric methods measure the time elapsed since the particular radiometric clock was reset. Radiocarbon dating, which is probably best known to the general public, works only on things that were once alive and are now dead. It measures the time elapsed since death but is limited in scale to no more than about 50,000 years ago. Other methods, such as Uranium/Lead, Potassium/Argon, Argon/Argon and others, are able to measure much longer time periods and are not restricted to things that were once alive. Generally applied to igneous rocks (those of volcanic origin), they measure the time since the molten rock solidified. If that happens to be longer than 10,000 years, then the idea of a young-Earth is called into question. If that happens to be billions of years, then the young-Earth is in big trouble.

Him – well all that is fine but “you” do realize that the Bible says the earth was created 6000 years ago and we HAVE proof of the places referenced in the Bible. The Old Testament was written around the 6th century B.C. and references places and events from 4000 B.C. and these can be historically verified.

Me – Well by that logic there are a couple of Indian Epics and Books (eg: Mahabharata and Vedas) that were written around the 1000 to 500 B.C. timeframe and reference events from more than 10,000 years ago that CAN ALSO be historically verified!

But that is where I lost him and I became painfully aware that I could not make him change his position. This got me thinking about beliefs and how people hold on to beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence. It could be the age of the earth; the age of the universe; climate change; evolution; superstitious belief; the healing power of prayer…it does not matter if you have the knockdown evidence or proof. It is very very hard to change beliefs.

Carol Tavris in her speech on “Why we believe  – Long after we shouldn’t”  attributes this to the DISSONANCE THEORY which has three major biases:

a) The bias we are unbiased is we feel that we have no biases in our beliefs and that our beliefs are solidly grounded on facts.

b) Better than Average Bias – also known as the “American Bias” i.e. we are better, smarter and more successful than most people.

c) Finally the Confirmation Bias –  we only seek information that confirms our beliefs. Also known as the consonance bias as it keeps our beliefs in harmony and does NOT allow any dissident information in.

We typically have two options:

Option-1 we accept new evidence and recalibrate our beliefs based on the new evidence OR

Option-2: we deny the evidence and preserve the belief

and as Carol Travis states in her talk, ” guess which one we choose”?

(Source –

Changing beliefs by viewing conflicting viewpoints and evidence takes time and it is a long drawn process. It is simply unreasonable to put together a 1 hr talk to the climate deniers and expect them to “convert” just based on the merits of the evidence. And this would be the case for a myriad of topics. Cause if it was that easy they would have already done so….right??

We would not have a large swath of our county simultaneously holding conflicting beliefs. But then how would you explain the 2016 elections?




Life in bigly Pieces

I asked a friend of mine why he voted for Trump and he had two answers. First, he hated the other candidate and second he wanted an “outsider” that will clean up Washington and make the country great again. I thought to myself, all noble reasons to vote for the candidate but wait a minute, what if the candidate was a walking bag of contradictions, with all the red flags laid out in plain sight that even a moron could figure it out.

Nothing about the last election cycle was subtle. While both candidates were seriously flawed, as demonstrated by their likeability polls, there was clearly one that was just plain wrong.

There is an old Hindu saying from the Bhagawad Gita – “Everyone gets what they deserve and not what they desire”. This is one time I disagree with that saying! we really don’t deserve this and certainly did not desire this.

For the past few years, I have been lamenting that our collective intelligence as a country has been dropping at an alarming rate. I am specifically referencing to our ability to confront, absorb and act on facts that are presented to us. Topics that the rest of the civilized world takes for granted as facts  – evolution; climate change etc. are still hotly debated in our country as if they are still opinions. We are starting to live in a fact free world.

Typically there are two telltale signs to this dumbing down:

  • the rush to “normalize” shocking and egregious behavior
  • the complete and utter refusal to acknowledge facts and evidence

I realize that our current President did not win the popular vote but he still was quite close and my point is this should not have even been a contest. If any candidate said/did 25% of the things he did, there is no way he/she is getting elected. 

So, my personal belief is that this we are living in one giant CONFIRMATION BIAS bubble. The right says there is fake news from the left and the left says there is fake news from the right. However, there are facts and facts don’t care what opinion you have. The atmosphere doesn’t give a flying crap if you don’t believe in climate change and that carbon levels have been increasing.

Take this election, everyone saw their version of the facts and cast their vote for this President. This was an election of ‘vote for the pieces‘ but not for the WHOLE!

  • The Evangelical groups wanted their Supreme Court appointee. So three marriages and dodgy morals – not a problem.
  • The old guard wanted their personal and corporate tax cuts and someone that can run the country as a successful business.  So three bankruptcies and multiple businesses that hoodwinked and swindled people – not a problem
  • The hawks wanted their defense spending – So cozy relationship with Russia –not a problem
  • The Alt-Right that wanted their ‘white America’ and no minorities and other religions – So someone who has a Jewish son in law, has deep real estate and financial interests in Muslim countries – not a problem
  • The ” suburban women” wanted a man who could speak his mind and who wasn’t a Washington insider – So someone who is a documented misogynist and (still) wears the badge with honor – not a problem
  • The “forgotten blue-collar voters” wanted someone that could change the status quo, bring  jobs back and drain the swamp – So someone who has no idea of the nuances of policy and government, can rattle countries and relationships with inane early morning tweets and has deep ties to the traditional Washington lobbies –not a problem
  • And finally, the folks that went – ” I can’t vote for her so I will vote for him” – how is that working out?

Everybody look at a piece and ignored the whole! And now we have the ass-whole. Two months into this administration and we are longing for the blundering days of Dubya. Even he is on the talk circuit saying, “Y’all need to give me a break”.

Let me state this, the other candidate was no picnic either. I am sure a similar list can be put together. But the critical point as P.J. O’Rourke (LINK) points out:

“I’m votin’ for Hillary.

“I am endorsing Hillary. And all her lies and all her empty promises. I am endorsing Hillary. The second worst thing that could happen to this country. But she’s way behind in second place, you know? She’s wrong about absolutely everything – – but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”

Alternate Facts – Is this the ‘new normal’. I sincerely hope not as I fear for my children and the next generation. I really don’t want our country to follow the plot of the movie – Idiocracy.

Cause remember the following gem from our new Secretary of Education –  “I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”

I shudder in fear for our next generation. At this point, our only choices are – get active, resist and execute the playbook and pray pray that there is minimum collateral damage.

That is my hope….BIGLY!