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The virtue of contradicting ourselves.

By Linda S. Heard, Special to Gulf News,Thinker

If you're a politician, there may be something worse than being called a liar, a cheater, a jerk or a wimp. In America, you don't want to be known as a flip-flopper.

Jeb Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton have both been criticised for changing their positions from yes to no on invading Iraq. A decade earlier, flip-flopping was one of the biggest knocks against John Kerry. In a JibJab video gone viral, an animated George W. Bush mocked Kerry: "You have more waffles than a house of pancakes."

The English, too, have an intense distaste for inconsistency. "U-turn if you want to," Margaret Thatcher pronounced. "The lady's not for turning."

We don't just loathe inconsistencies in others; we hate them in ourselves, too. But why? What makes contradictions so revolting - and should they be?

Leon Festinger, one of the great social psychologists in history, coined the term cognitive dissonance to describe the discomfort you feel if you say or do something that is inconsistent with one of your beliefs. In a series of classic experiments, he and his colleagues demonstrated that people will go to great lengths to avoid this discomfort. If you're against gun control and are paid $100 to give a speech in favor of gun control, your beliefs won't change; you can just say, I was paid so much, I did it for the money. But if you're paid only $1 to give that same speech, you'll actually convince yourself that gun control is a decent idea. If it wasn't, why would you have supported it for such a paltry sum? You lack external justification, so you have to convince yourself that you believe what you said.

To illustrate what Festinger's team found, if you have to make a tough choice between two similarly attractive jobs, you'll feel some dissonance about getting stuck with the negative features of the job you picked and missing out on the positive aspects of the one you declined. That's inconsistent with your decision - so you'll start rationalising your decision by convincing yourself that the job you turned down was not so desirable. Inconsistency, begone. And if you've joined a doomsday cult that predicts that the world will end in a flood, when your prophecy doesn't come true, you won't give up on the cult. Unable to bear a change in your beliefs, you'll become even more committed and double down on your efforts to proselytise.

Yet there was a catch: Sometimes people weren't bothered at all by holding inconsistent beliefs. (This was deeply bothersome to many social scientists, who couldn't bear the dissonance of inconsistent studies.) At first it seemed that inconsistency was painful when it gave people a negative self-image, but that didn't explain why rats, monkeys and young children showed dissonance. Then it appeared that people felt dissonance only when their choices had negative consequences, but people still felt dissonance when they wrote something inconsistent with their prior beliefs and then threw it in the trash, never to be seen again.

Changing opinion

For years, it remained a mystery why people would feel dissonance even when there were no negative consequences. But recently, it was solved by a team of psychologists led by Eddie Harmon-Jones, a professor at the University of New South Wales. Using neuroscience to track the activation of different brain regions, Harmon-Jones and colleagues found that inconsistent beliefs really bother us only when they have conflicting implications for action.

People have little trouble favouring both abortion rights and tax cuts. But when it comes time to vote, they confront a two-party system that forces them to align with Democrats who are abortion rights advocates but against tax cuts or Republicans who are anti-abortion but for tax cuts. If I'm socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and I want to vote for a candidate with a decent shot at winning, my beliefs are contradictory. One way to reconcile them is to change my opinion on abortion or tax policies. Goodbye, dissonance.

This helps to explain why many people's political beliefs fall on a simple left-right continuum, rather than in more complex combinations. Once, we might have held more nuanced opinions, but in pursuit of consistency, we've long since whitewashed the shades of gray.

It also explains why we can't stand to vote for flip-floppers. We worry that they don't have clear principles; we think they lack integrity. The reverse is part of Donald Trump's allure: We might not agree with what he says, but we feel that we know who he is and what he will do. That consistency is especially appealing to political conservatives, who report a stronger preference for certainty, structure, order and closure than liberals. If you favour predictability over ambiguity and stability over change, a candidate who holds fast to his ideology has a lot of curb appeal.

As much as flip-flopping makes it hard to predict a candidate's actions, though, it is one of the best predictors of how successful that candidate will be in office. Intelligence is often defined as the ability to learn, and a sign of learning is changing your views over time.

When historians and political scientists rate the presidents throughout history, the most effective ones turn out to be the most open-minded. This is true of both conservative and liberal presidents. Abraham Lincoln was a flip-flopper: He started out pro-slavery before abolishing it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a flip-flopper, too: Elected on a platform of balancing the budget, he substantially increased spending with his New Deal.

One person's flip-flopping is another's enlightenment. Just as we would fear voting for candidates who changed their minds constantly, we should be wary of electing anyone who fails to evolve.

"Progress is impossible without change," George Bernard Shaw observed, "and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."

And when it comes to facing our own contradictions, perhaps we should be more open as well. As the artist Marcel Duchamp observed, "I have forced myself to contradict myself, in order to avoid conforming to my own taste."

- New York Times News Service

Adam Grant is a professor of Management and Psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.

- Linda S. Heard - Gordon Robison - Ian Buruma

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Nov 16, 2015
Words:1074
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