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Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Dissonance

Listener David Sanders writes:

My question is simple: why is it that when I point out people’s logical fallacies, they get extremely pissed off? Any help would be greatly appreciated. I feel that it is irresponsible to arm the skeptical public with the tools to defend itself without warning them ahead of time of the potential consequences of their actions.

But seriously, keep fighting the good fight,
David Sanders

Consider yourselves warned. Many people will indeed get mad when their logical fallacies are pointed out to them. I have been often accused of making personal attacks when all I have done is correct a bit of bad logic – even when I was extremely careful not to make any statement about the person themselves but just to focus on the logic. When I really want to tweak someone I then point out that their accusation is based upon a false premise, is a non-sequitur, and also (if they had attacked me personally, which is often the case) represents the fallacy of inconsistency. That’s usually enough to drive away the angry e-mailer.

But David wants to know why people get pissed off (perhaps his question was rhetorical, but I’m going to answer it anyway). The answer, I think, has to do with cognitive dissonance. You have to ask – why do people commit logical fallacies in the first place? Sure – it’s partly because they lack sufficient awareness of proper logic and fallacies to avoid, but that explains why they are vulnerable to committing fallacies, not necessarily why they make them.

Let me back up one step further – how do people typically come to the conclusions they make? Neuroscience research and psychological research agree on the answer to this question: most people most of the time (this means you) arrive at conclusions for emotional and subconscious reasons. We humans have evolved emotions specifically to make decisions for us, so we won’t be bothered thinking all the time. Better to be disgusted by tainted food then to have to analyze it and think about the risks vs benefits. It’s quick, easy, and correct often enough. Another example – it is apparently more evolutionarily advantageous to be sexually attracted to a mate with physical features that are associated with being a good breeding partner, than to have to think about those features consciously.

But humans also have this enormous frontal lobe, which is really useful for decision-making. This is where we get our “executive function” – the ability to see the big picture, take the long view, and exert some control and planning onto our actions. So the primitive bits of our brain take care of the day-to-day, down and dirty, life and death decisions (should I run from this angry tiger?) while the more recently evolved frontal lobes deliberate, plan, and scheme.

The brain, of course, is a functioning whole. So what happens when our subconscious primitive bits conflict with our higher thinking bits? This creates what is called cognitive dissonance – the brain is conflicting with itself. I really want to eat that cheesecake, but I also know it is not good for me and I want to lose some weight. This chick is nothing but trouble, but my goodness does she have a sweet rack. I really need to think of myself as a good person, even though I just screwed over my colleague at work. You get the idea.

Cognitive dissonance occurs whenever we try to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. At some level we recognize the conflict, and it makes us feel bad. (Normon, coordinate!) The brain punishes us for this cortical transgression by releasing unhappy neurotransmitters (admittedly, this is a bit of an oversimplification). So, in response, we search for a way to resolve the conflict. This is called a rationalization. People are really good at this. (As an aside, we also compartmentalize our beliefs to keep them from conflicting.) Once we have found a way to resolve the conflict our brains reward us with a jolt of happy neurotransmitters – this strongly reinforces the behavior.

So we tell ourselves things like – I worked out yesterday so I can reward myself with a little cheesecake. I know she’s a handful, but that’s because of her troubled childhood – she just needs more support. My co-worker deserved what they got.

This is often where the logical fallacies come into play – during the rationalization phase – the lies we tell ourselves to relieve our cognitive dissonance. It is a lot easier to commit a little logical fallacy, than to work hard at changing our emotional makeup, or to challenge long and strongly held beliefs. When logic and emotion conflict it is a lot easier to subtly (or not-so-subtly, depending on the sophistication of the person) twist the logic, rather than to painfully force ourselves to grow emotionally. In fact, intelligent people are often better at rationalization and are not necessarily more logical.

Now back to the question – what happens when you point out a logical fallacy to someone. Well, you just pulled the carpet out from under their juicy rationalization. You are threatening to remove their happy neurotransmitters and reestablish cognitive dissonance. People really hate this. Now they have to search for another logical fallacy to shore up the one you are so rudely threatening. This often involves attacking you – which is a convenient way of dismissing your pesky logic.

It helps to recognize that we all behave this way. It’s just the way our brains evolved (and if you think about it, what would you change?). Being rational involves years of hammering away at our false beliefs, tearing them down one by one. It involves becoming emotionally invested in the process – in logic and empiricism – rather than in specific cherished conclusions. It involves growing emotionally and becoming more secure. You can’t expect someone to do this instantly, any more than you can expect someone who has never exercised to suddenly run a marathon.

In practical terms, you have to decide what your goal is in discussing logic and science with someone. If it is a family member you want to become more skeptical, then you have to gently plant seeds of doubt and logic, then nurture them often over months and years. You have to deal with their emotional investments, not just their logic. If, on the other hand, it is an obnoxious e-mail or forum poster – fire away. In fact if you really want to piss someone off, do not attack them or give them any justification for their rationalizations – just get hyper-logical on their ass.

12 comments to Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Dissonance

  • James01

    “This chick is nothing but trouble, but my goodness does she was a sweet wrack”

    Is it just me, or does that not make sense? 🙂

    Interesting post though.

  • dhawk

    Maybe you could comment on the following: On the forums, a question was posed about whether or not pointing out logical fallacies is a valid way to debate. In his words, “So what gives logical fallacies their authority, since using a logical fallacy doesn’t necessarily mean the argument is false?”

    The thread has gotten rather long, and I think a good summary of it is here. I think this has relevance to this post because many people might not accept the validity of your criticism.

  • Steve Page

    I think it’s a typo, based upon “…does she have a sweet rack (a slang word for major boobage)”.

    Steve, Re: Cognitive dissonance, I think it’s an over-simplification to suggest that it’s subconscious v conscious/executive vs functional. I think your subsequent paragraph – (paraphrased) “two conflicting beliefs that cause discomfort until resolution, upon which our brain rewards itself” – is excellent in its conciseness, and I fully intend to use in my forthcoming social psychology exam. 🙂

    Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s “Mistakes were made (but not by me)” (2007) is a fantastic review of dissonance theory starting from Festinger in the 50’s and covering the following half-century, and I highly recommend it. One highlight:

    In one experiment, [social psychologist Lee] Ross took peace proposals created by Israeli negotiators, labeled them as Palestinian proposals and asked Israeli citizens to judge them. “The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,” he says. “If your own proposal isn’t going to be attractive to you when it comes from the other side, what chance is there that the other side’s proposal is going to be attractive when it actually comes from the other side?” Closer to home, social psychologist Geoffrey Cohen found that Democrats will endorse an extremely restrictive welfare proposal, one usually associated with Republicans, if they think it has been proposed by the Democratic Party, and Republicans will support a generous welfare policy if they think it comes from the Republican Party. Label the same proposal as coming from the other side, and you might as well be asking people if they will favor a policy proposed by Osama bin Laden.

    This ties in with what you said on the SGU podcast recently, in that a skeptic should be more concerned about the process/method than the outcome. IMO, skeptical thinking aids the resolution of cognitive dissonance, because if one gets a finding that one really doesn’t want – say for example a believer finds out that their belief in the supernatural does not hold up when explored under experimental conditions – they either create a false justification that undermines the validity of the experiment, or they change their opinion about the supernatural. If one’s main concern is the method or the process, changing one’s belief is not a big deal. I’d happily accept that psychokinesis, mind-reading or scrying were factual, as long as the results were replicable, peer-reviewed and consistently successful.

  • XalXuffasch

    While I think you are partially correct, with cognitive dissonance, I think there is a simpler explanation. I think when most people are having arguments they are not arguing “logically.” People end up misinterpreting “You argument is flawed.” for “You are an idiot.” In colloquial arguments how often does an argument’s defense go straight to ad hominem?

  • GHcool

    Excellent post, Steve. As a hobby, I enjoy editing Wikipedia and I find this to be especially true on there when I come into conflict with ideologically minded editors who try to add disinformation into articles (such as Holocaust denial into articles about the Holocaust). Thanks to your podcast and your various blogs, I have some great tools for pointing out why that is not acceptable on Wikipedia. When arguing with the ideologues, I even include a Wikipedia link to the logical fallacy they commit so they can read up on it themselves. This tactic has proven extremely successful to me and I very rarely lose an argument with these people.

  • JazzMac251

    i’d just like to say, sweet rack FTW

  • “just get hyper-logical on their ass”

    haha nice

  • jedischooldropout

    Such a well timed post… I am in fact dealing with this at work right now.
    A long story, not worth recounting at length to practical strangers, but it’s been an excellent challenge.
    I am totally the bad guy on this one… except in the eyes of those who are looking at things rationally. Which is nice support.
    But most importantly is how challenging it is to try to look at my own positions with logic and one by one back down from the positions which I know I have been wrong about… but do you think that is happening in both directions?
    No. Of course not. It’s a bit tiresome, but fascinating all at the same time.

  • Aragon

    You people need serious help!

    No offense but I used to suffer from the same hyper intellectualism that you all are exhibiting in spades. Then I got married.

    For most people, the point of argument is to win. Yes, I know that is not the best way to find the truth. I know that is not the best way to collaborate and analyze. That is not the best way to interact with your fellow human for purposes of coming up with the best solution. That is not the scientific method. That is not honest!

    But, it is, likely, evolutionarily advantageous. What matters more to your social hierarchical success – reasoned argument or pursuasive argument won at any cost to the truth. It is axiomatic to state, as goes your status, so goes your procreative success!

    You don’t need Charles Darwin to get this one. Merely observe teenage female or male interactions. Does anything look even remotely rational?

    Congitive dissonance, attribuition theory, etc… huey… . Actually, as a Cal Berkeley Major in Psych, I found that these theories are supported and confirmed by really interesting experiments and attendant results however in this instance reference to theories over simplifies the obvious.

    Someone refers to basic unavoidable facts showing that you are wrong it will precipitate one of two responses:

    You will get pissed, call them a liar, and end the conversation while hoping to salvage matters later or,

    You will admit your falacy, perhaps lose status, definitley confer upon our oponent status, and walk away a definite loser.

    In terms of evolutionary theory the “truth” of the matter is of “zero” consequence. What is of consequence is option 1 or 2 as shown above. And, of course, these options are not exhaustive, please resist the temptation to say, but.. but,… but… , and realize I have a post character limit here. Fact of the matter is that you are dealing with humans whose main currency is not truth but is social status same being a surrogate for procreative success.

  • Aragon,

    Your premise is that evolutionary selective pressure operating within human social systems favors competition. However, increasingly there is evidence that within groups there is as much or greater selective pressures for cooperation.

    Your argument is actually wrong on three levels. It commits the naturalistic fallacy that whatever is natural for humans is preferred. Rather, we can understand human nature and then work with that to achieve a more optimal outcome.

    Second, it is based upon an outdated and flawed concept of selective pressures.

    Third, teenagers in the throws of hormones and competition for mates should not determine the optimal behavior of humans at all stages of life. Once married with children, how does status affect your future reproductive success? Perhaps cooperation is more adaptive – better for your children – at that age.

    I maintain that it is much more advantageous to consider that the purpose of argument is to achieve common ground – not to win at all costs, even if you are wrong. If you do that, people will generally not be fooled (we are all much more transparent to others than we care to admit), and you will actually lose status. Admitting your own error and correcting it will earn respect – and will improve your opinions and arguments. These outcomes, if anything, are adaptive.

  • Aragon


    I over generalize.

    My comments and analysis should limit themselves to the class of individuals whose reaction to the truth is as described by you.

    The reference to teenage interactions was for illustrative purposes and certainly is not a good measure of anything. But I thought the illustration somewhat irresistible in a rhetorical sense :). Forgive me.

    And yes admitting mistakes is good and sometimes the way to go if one is looking to maximize status. But if you are talking about the typical angy reaction from people you are describing then I think that they are pursuing a base evolutionary strategy. This is not to say it will be successful.

    Now, you have confronted me with facts or arguments which contradict my position. However, it bothers me not, as my purpose here is to engage and learn. Additionally, I have the facility to qualify my position or change my position or modify my position so as to concede the point gracefully or to change the subject alltogether. Others however, lacking the same facility, have fewer options available to them when confronted by facts which may make them look silly.

    In terms of what response, cooperation versus competition, in the context of argument style, has the most utility, I would only note that the complexities of this are beyond me but would reference gaming theory as perhaps the best instrument for purposes of such an analysis.

    But, as relates to the response you described and allowing for huge generalisations on my part I’d say that the response is one calculated to save face and not one born out of cognitive dissonance.

    That said, I am amazed at the reaction of Run Away Man Made Global Warming proponents to any factual challenge. It’s like they go nuts! Perhaps this is the dissonance you refer to because you are getting this reaction from scientists, academics, and others you’d think would be interested in the give and take. Or maybe it exemplifies what I am pointing to. Because, this conversation is happening in the public arena thereby changing the dynamics typically associated with the exchange of ideas among scientists and academics.

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