Better Know a Bias: Cognitive Dissonance

Updated: May 12, 2012 at 12:21 pm by Danny Gray


 (NHLNumbers will occassionally publish some of our author’s archival material. This article was originally posted on August 8th, 2011)

Why do people get so angry about advanced statistics?

Kent Wilson posted an excellent article titled The Theory and Nature of Current Advanced Hockey Analysis. He eloquently describes the ultimate utility of advanced statistics as “aimed at teasing apart the variables that moderate possession at both the individual and team level”. The variables include “quality of line mates, quality of opposition and starting position.” With the overarching goal being “to isolate individual contributions to possession, be it from the players themselves, or coaching systems, face-off zones, playing-to-score effect, the nature of different positions, etc.” If he only knew how wrong he is.

Unfortunately for Kent his entire post is discredited by the herculean mental effort of a one Sean Elekes. Mr. Elekes puts Mr. Wilson in his place by countering that he “put[s] too much science in the game of hockey. Goals and assists equal points. That’s the difference between a Hall of Famer and NHLer.”1 This sentiment is a common response to articles and arguments that extol the benefits of advanced statistics. People make some ludicrous arguments in the face of well articulated arguments supported by sufficient and significant data. This is because people will say or believe anything in order to rationalize evidence that contradicts their established beliefs.

Cognitive Dissonance

This behavior is a result of Cognitive Dissonance, a theory developed by Leon Festringer. It states that when a person holds two conflicting thoughts, or cognitions, that are incompatible or inconsistent, feelings of discomfort, or dissonance, are produced. Essentially, we do not like to hear or think things contrary to established beliefs, attitudes, or knowledge. When something we see or read conflicts with a firmly held belief it makes us uncomfortable. People attempt to silence the discomfort created by the dissonance in different ways depending on the magnitude of the established belief being challenged. Generally, we attempt to seek information that will decrease the dissonance as well as avoid information that would increase it. I’ll deal with selective exposure later.

First I want to share a story that illustrates the ends to which people will resort to silence cognitive dissonance. Festringer believed that information that is incompatible with a closely held belief or attitude will produce higher levels of dissonance. In such instances people often refuse to acknowledge the dissonance and engage in behavior that actually exacerbates it while remaining ignorant to it. It is important to note that people are usually not consciously aware of the dissonance created by conflicting information. Most of the time people believe they are acting in a perfectly rational way.  


What Do Fans And Cult Members Have In Common?

Every so often there is an individual or group who believes the world is going to end for some reason or another. In the summer of 1954 it was a Chicago Housewife named Marian Keech (Her real name was Dorothy Martin). According to a newspaper article she had been receiving communications from the plante Clarion. The communication had been ongoing for several years but had recently become more tantalizing. According to Sananda, the alien from Clarion who was communicating with Mrs. Martin, humanity would be destroyed by a flood of biblical proportions at midnight on December 20, 1954.

Leon Festinger read the article and learned that Keech had gained a small group of apocalyptic devotees. As those who believe the world is coming to an end are wont to do, they quit their jobs and sold their homes in preparation for the impending apocalypse. Seeking to demonstrate the influence of cognitive dissonance Festinger joined the group posing as a true believer in Sanada’s prophesy.2 He wanted to see what would happen when the end of the world did not come. Jonah Lehrer describes what happened next. 

“On the night of December 20, Keech’s followers gathered in her home and waited for instructions from the aliens. Midnight approached. When the clock read 12:01 and there were still no aliens, the cultists began to worry. A few began to cry. The aliens had let them down. But then Keech received a new telegram from outer space, which she quickly transcribed on her notepad. “This little group sitting all night long had spread so much light,” the aliens told her, “that god saved the world from destruction. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” In other words, it was their stubborn faith that had prevented the apocalypse. Although Keech’s predictions had been falsified, the group was now more convinced than ever that the aliens were real. They began proselytizing to others, sending out press releases and recruiting new believers. This is how they reacted to the dissonance of being wrong: by becoming even more certain that they were right.”3

The more invested we are in a belief the more difficult it is to deal with any cognitive dissonance created by conflicting information. Keech’s followers show that if you can find enough people who share your belief it will be validated, even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

Hockey fans can be a little like cult members waiting for the apocalypse. In October we all believe that our team is destined to succeed. Come April they will reach the promised land of the playoffs. When the deadline passes and your team is not in the playoffs a dissonance is created. Fans congregate on message boards and in bars. In an attempt to reduce the dissonance they place blame with the coaching staff or make an individual a scapegoat. Their fandom is further cemented in the belief that once they fix those issues everything will be better. It is much easier to accept that the team was terrible because of a bad coach or specific player than because they are merely a terrible team. The fan can therefore maintain the belief that Team A is good while simultaneously acknowledging that Team A finished 28th overall in a 30 team league. A large group sharing the same belief validates said belief and the dissonance is reduced.  

We often resort to rationalizing when confronted with information that contradicts our established beliefs. This is why people say things like “You rely too much on math”, “Phil Kessel sucks because he doesn’t cross-check enough” or the ubiquitous “Do you even watch the games?” When we see or read evidence that conflicts with an established belief we seek to rationalize it as opposed to modifying our belief. Dissonance can also be reduced by resorting to selective exposure.

Twitter As Selective Exposure

In his book How We Decide Jonah Lehrer describes a 1967 study by two cognitive psychologists named Timothy Brock and Joe Balloun. “Half of the subjects involved in the experiment were regular churchgoers, and half were committed atheists. Brock and Balloun played a tape-recorded message attacking Christianity, and, to make it more interesting, they added an annoying amount of static- a crackle of white noise- to the recording. However, the listener could reduce the static by pressing a button, at which point the message suddenly became easier to understand.” Unsurprisingly, “the nonbelievers always tried to remove the static, while the religious subjects actually preferred the message that was harder to hear.” People will go to great lengths to silence cognitive dissonance.     

One of the best things about the Barilkosphere is that it allows me to filter the content I engage with. Twitter and the daily FTB at Pension Plan Puppets limit my exposure to mittenstringery. Unfortunately, this is a method of selective exposure. This is not to suggest that anyone offering an opposing view is inherently correct, simply that we should be aware of our tendency to filter out conflicting information. We can effectively respond to cognitive dissonance by being willing to alter our beliefs in the face of conflicting information. The best way to do that is to seek out information that challenges our beliefs and opinions as much as possible. Since dissonance is amplified by the magnitude of the challenged belief we should try and remain as objective as possible. On the other hand, no Senator has ever done anything impressive ever.


2.       Festinger’s experiences with the cult are detailed in the book When Prophecy Fails