Cognitive Dissonance: Why The Truth Sets Nobody Free
If you build it, they will come. If you educate them, they will change. If people simply understood the truth, then they would stop contributing to animal suffering. Unfortunately, these statements are rubbish; in fact, humans work very hard – consciously and otherwise – to avoid learning new information that may challenge their beliefs. It’s a blend of willful ignorance and subconscious resistance that makes it very difficult to persuade most people to change. That’s a problem for animal advocates, but we hope this brief article will help advocates understand and overcome cognitive dissonance among their target audience.
“Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart. Suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.”
This little nugget of cynicism came more than a half-century ago from a trio of psychologists named Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter. The truth, it seems, often reinforces misperceptions and irrational behavior rather than overcoming innate beliefs and leading to positive behavior change. To put it another way, by exposing people to the reality of animal suffering – often using “shock tactics” – advocates might be causing people to become even more resistant to change.
For example, suppose an individual believes strongly that buying Pomeranian puppies is a morally acceptable way of obtaining a new pet. This person has always grown up with Pomeranians and they have a special attachment to the breed. As a holiday present to the family, they buy two Pomeranian puppies from a breeder they find on Craigslist. Two weeks later they receive a brochure about the horrors of backyard breeding from a local rescue group. Unfortunately, this person is more likely to dismiss the new information rather than take it to heart, simply because it does not comport with their beliefs and recent decisions.
It’s hard to blame people for reacting this way. I wrote in a blog in 2007, “As humans, we work hard to avoid learning about things that may cause us to question our own actions or beliefs or attitudes. It’s more than just resistance to change; it’s also about avoiding a personal identity crisis. Like a kind of proactive ignorance in the interest of psychological self-preservation, which is certainly understandable, if not exactly laudable.” The challenge for animal advocates, of course, is to figure out how to overcome this resistance to change and turn cognitive dissonance into cognitive agreement.
All of this relates to the concept of how people react to “mass suffering,” as explored in one study in the Faunalytics library. Researchers from the University of North Carolina found that individuals experience “compassion collapse” when they learn of tragedies or atrocities involving mass suffering. People respond more emotionally to individuals than groups, and they numb themselves to the point of insensitivity to mass suffering. This has obvious implications for animal advocates who often refer to the “millions” (or “billions”) of animals who are negatively affected by human behavior.
Going back to the original group of psychologists, Festinger followed up on the trio’s work and eventually developed the theory of cognitive dissonance. On one hand it’s a complex psychological phenomenon; on the other hand, it’s actually quite simple: when faced with information that conflicts with their beliefs, most people will choose their beliefs over the information, no matter how factual or compelling the latter might be. So, just as a fundamentalist Christian will favor creationism over evolution, some people will choose to believe that their personal behavior does not cause immense animal suffering – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Animal advocates should take heed. It’s not enough to speak the truth and then expect people to internalize it and change their behavior. Persuasion is a much more nuanced process that requires a deep understanding of one’s target audience, a message that resonates rather than conflicts with existing beliefs, and an ongoing “discussion” with people instead of just a one-time message. By itself, new information (“the truth”) is not going to make enough people change to bring about a meaningful dent in animal suffering caused by humans. Making progress for animals will require connecting with people on a deeper level than simply providing more evidence of animal suffering.