Archive for the ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ Category

They Are Out To Get You

Before their recent popularity in B-movies and in video games zombies began their undead lives in religious folklore. They were the product of witch doctors skilled in the arts of voodoo. This involved a bit of trickery with either hypnotism or a victim induced into a stupor by a mild poison. While we may dismiss this as the relic of a primitive culture, a startling 31% of modern Americans actually believe in witchcraft.

This same 2007 surveyalso found that 41% believe in ghosts and 35% believe in UFOs. A 2005Gallop pollfound similar results. When asked if they believed that extraterrestrials had visited the earth 1 in 4 Americans said yes. In total 73% of respondents said they believed in some aspect of the paranormal. In contrast a Pew Research survey from 2010 found that nearly 80 percent of Americans say they do not trust their own federal government.

The “trust” question was first posed in a national survey in 1958. At the time 73% of respondents trusted their government but it has declined steadily since then. This isn’t simply a cynical opinion about bureaucratic incompetence, in many cases it goes much deeper.

In 1966 in the first survey conducted after the release of the Warren Commission’s report on the Kennedy assassination 36% took it at face value. In the most recent survey, that number was down to 13% and while a resounding 81% believed there was a conspiracy. At present 15% of the population believe that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center is part of a government conspiracy.

I got my own taste of this government paranoia while working for the 2011 census. For starters we had to swear a lengthy oath which included among other oddities the fact that we couldn’t conduct business on a cordless phone. Forget cell phones, the government expected us to work exclusively from landlines that had a handset hard wired into the wall. I haven’t owned a phone like that in twenty years. I don’t think they are even available anymore.

The reason of course was to satisfy a ridiculous level of security. The sensitive information I was entrusted with were the answers given to 10 census questions. Five had to do with what languages were spoken and the others were basic demographics: name, age, sex & marital status. There is no penalty for lying to a census worker and they don’t verify the responses. Yet even with the threat of prosecution there were still outright refusals. I had one fellow chase me down the street screaming hysterically because his girlfriend had put their phone number on the form.

The only way to explain this kind of behaviour is with the Belief Disconfirmation Paradigm. This is an odd quirk of human nature where people, in an effort to reduce cognitive dissonance, choose to reject information that doesn’t mesh with their existing beliefs. Truth takes a back seat to finding other people who share the same illogical set of ideas thus insulating them further from distressing facts. This is how cults get started and if they get big enough, nonsense beliefs can become conventional wisdom.

My own take is that people fail to take into account Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

The full truth about the Kennedy assassination will never be known but its likely closer to the theory offered by ballistics expert Howard Donahue than any of the wild ones that require the cooperation of a tremendous amount of individuals.

So when you hear a bump in the night don’t conflate with the nocturnal rumblings of ghosts. If you see a strange light in the sky understand that while the explanation may beyond your limited comprehension of science its not beyond the scope of the human race. Surround yourself with people who think for themselves even if they may disagree with you. A human being without critical thinking is little more than a zombie and it’s hard to believe that anyone would want to be a zombie. A mind is a terrible thing to taste.

Things That Go Bump In The Night

In the one and only English Lit course I took in university I learned that the inspiration for the monster in Frankenstein was none other than the author herself, Mary Shelley. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an accomplished eighteenth-century writer and she died prematurely due to complications from child birth. Thus the story of Frankenstein is of a child-like monster who kills its own creator. As is often the case monsters aren’t just for children, they are in fact children themselves.

There are many cultures that feature in their mythology a creature that feeds on the life essence of its victims. The nocturnal blood-sucking Eastern European vampire is part of this tradition. However in the real world there is a such a creature that can be found suckling out a life essence in the middle of the night, its called a baby.

What is slow moving, relentless and insatiably hungry? A zombie or a toddler? What has a giant head and a tiny little body? A newborn or one of those little green men from Mars? One exception to this rule is the werewolf, a person that morphs into a wild beast with big muscles and an abundance of body hair. Its definitely a teenager.

Prior to becoming a parent I found most children to be annoying little creatures. However I was told, like a certain ignoble wind, that you feel differently about your own. There is actually a scientific reason behind this and it is named after another famous Frank, American revolutionary Ben Franklin.

The Ben Franklin Effect happens when someone does a favor for a person they dislike. Then because of the subsequent cognitive dissonance they in turn will develop a more positive attitude towards that person. Salesmen take advantage of this psychological quirk by trying to get people to agree to small favours to set them up for the real sales pitch. Babies it appears know this instinctively.

Now as fate would have it about a year after becoming a father the company I worked for began a slow march toward bankruptcy. Thus for the majority of the time I’ve been a parent I’ve only been paid part time wages if I was getting paid at all. Thus most of the sundry duties associated with the children have fallen on my shoulders. While exhausting at times I won’t pretend like its the most difficult job on the planet. Comedian Bill Burr says it best:

In all fairness when it comes to raising kids is all about the volume of work required not the intensity needed to perform one particular task. While roofing is indeed back breaking work, there is an end of the shift or another prison term, where they will get to take a break. Truth be told I’ve never hurt my back on the job doing physical labour but I did it once trying to extract a kid that was stuck in an Exersauser.

So the question is now that I’ve had first hand experience raising kids has the Ben Franklin effect changed my attitude about children? I know that now when I have nightmares its usually because I envision something bad happening to them. Then when I wake up, usually because one of them is crying out, I think “Who created this monster? And with a touch of pride I realize it was me.

The Uncanniness of Near Success

I have a theory; more of a hunch really in that I believe your frustration level will increase the closer you get to actual success. This hypothesis is not unlike the Uncanny Valley, a term first applied to robotics in the 70s, that is now widely seen in the film industry, specifically in CGI depictions of aliens, zombies and all their B movie friends.

Consider for a moment two of Steven Spielberg’s most famous extra terrestrials, first the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then E.T. himself.

As the theory goes the standard emotional response to these visitors from space differs because of their relative resemblance to human beings. E.T. is completely alien so our feelings toward him are positive while the ones from Close Encounters are near human and seem to us a little creepy. This effect intensifies to outright repulsion the closer a non-human approaches human likeness so that an animated human corpse, your typical zombie, is at the bottom of this hypothetical valley.

The concept of the uncanny was first identified by a man named Ernst Jentsch in 1906 and was later expanded upon by Sigmund Freud. It is simply the cognitive dissonance caused by something that is both familiar and yet strange. Few people have exploited this phenomenon more than Roger Corman. The legendary filmmaker has produced hundreds of low budget horror movies. One in particular, called Dementia 13, a horror/thriller from 1963 has the distinction of being the first film that was written and directed by 24 yr old Francis Ford Coppola. His script, hastily written over three days, is nothing special but it contains the following line of dialogue:

It’s nice to see her enjoying herself for a change. The mood around this place isn’t good for her…. Especially an American girl. You can tell she’s been raised on promises.

Thirteen years later, a 25 yr old musician in a little apartment in Encino California was composing songs for what would be his first album. It’s not known if he had watched Dementia 13 during that time but coincidentally he did compose the following lyric:

Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises

Bay Area DJ Howie Klein picks up the story from here:

I met Tom Petty just before the release of his debut album. He was visiting San Francisco from Gainesville and the record company couldn’t drum anyone else to meet him but my friend Michael and I. They were lucky. His album came out and it died a brutal death– everywhere but in San Francisco. It was a smash on KSAN, where I worked. We got our listeners to sign petitions begging his label’s executives to re-release it. They did.  This is the song that broke him


In November of 2010, after many months of applying to any company that was even remotely related to insurance and meeting with very little success I finally had a serious job prospect. A restoration company sent me an email with a list of questions. My written response was good enough to secure an interview. In fact much to my surprise when I arrived I was given a hastily typed job profile that was much more involved than the original posting and suspiciously tailored to match my previous experience. I had a long and satisfactory interview with the manger and a person in HR and was scheduled for a callback where I would meet with the owner.

My strategy going into this interview was to primarily listen and not to talk a lot since in my mind the sale had already been made. However I didn’t get the position so my best guess is that perhaps I didn’t appear to want it enough. Hard to say because being needy and obsequious hasn’t worked in the past either. I am reminded of another lyric from that Tom Petty song:

God it’s so painful when something that’s so close
Is still so far out of reach

I try not to read too much into song lyrics. I know from first hand experience that not everything you write is autobiographical. However I can’t help think that, on the cusp of his first actual success, that the frustration he sings about in American Girl was very real.
When asked about the song Tom Petty had this to say:

“It was just a story when I wrote it. In my mind, the girl was looking for the strength to move on, and she found it. It’s one of my favorites.”

It’s one of my favourites as well. Time to move on.