Monday, March 6, 2017

Not a Case Study of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a phrase you hear thrown out a lot, but many people don't accurately understand the concept. Heck, even a world-renown scientisht can sometimes get it wrong. Let's look at a case study of (not) cognitive dissonance to try to clear up any confusions.

Here is a collection of recent headlines from mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times.

Take note of the broad journalistic consensus: Trump is claiming Obama ordered surveillance against his campaign with no evidence. The New York Times can safely levy the accusations because their internal code of journalism ethics forbids them from running with stories without evidence. And certainly not a front-page headline, right?

Hmm, well that seems a bit contradictory. Why would the New York Times run claims of surveillance against the Trump team, on Inauguration Day no less, despite there being no evidence? They had to bump other well-substantiated stories to do so, such as an exposed terrorist plot planned for that day in Washington DC. The New York Times seems to be able to run headlines interchangeably with contradicting claims. That might appear to be cognitive dissonance, but it's really not. Cognitive dissonance is defined as:
mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
Cognitive dissonance is inherently something that occurs on a subconscious level. A wife is sure of her husband's fidelity, and yet he frequently comes home late smelling like booze with little interest in romance. From our perspective she is a fool: clearly he's cheating! For her, the observations cause much discomfort, but she can't bring herself to consciously acknowledge her failed marriage. Once she does, the cognitive dissonance will be over. Her beliefs will no longer contradict her observations.

Do the New York Times' inconsistencies cause internal "mental stress of discomfort"? Can we really comment on the psychological state of a propaganda news organization? I reckon we can, if we understand their primary motive:
Tenet: the primary motive of the mainstream media is to weaken Trump at all costs
This motive outweighs all others. More than journalistic professionalism, more than civic duty, even more than monetary profit. They don't suffer cognitive dissonance because they don't really believe themselves. They aren't writing what they believe to be objectively true; they're just building a case. They're like the criminal defense attorney who knows his scumbag client is an irredeemable crook. Except that with the lawyer there is no pretense of epistemological integrity. The case might be made there is cognitive dissonance at a deeper level because the journalist believes he is an impartial arbiter of truth, yet constantly writes slanted pieces. But I don't think they really believe that either. I suspect that it would not take very long to get most journalists to admit that they are engaged in influencing public opinion.

If the NYT were primarily engaged in truth-finding journalism, cognitive dissonance would prevent the journalists from engaging in slanted influence peddling.  If the NYT was primarily engaged in promoting the beliefs of the staff or owners, cognitive dissonance would preclude the internal contradictions in their reporting. If the NYT was primarily engaged defending its reputation it wouldn't run with stories easily debunked by its detractors. If the NYT was primarily engaged in profit motive it wouldn't be alienating the half of the country that voted Trump at a time their medium is being heavily disrupted. The fact that the New York Times continues to engage in all those behaviors confirms that they operate primarily as a political weapon.

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