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?