Imagine, if you will, that you belong to a crackpot religion. Your faith centers on a Chicago housewife’s prophecy of a Genesis-style flood. The inundation will destroy the Earth at the stroke of midnight on a date certain.
Your excitement rises as the date approaches. The faithful prepare for the end — mainly by making ready to board the flying saucers that will whisk you in the nick of time to the planet Clarion. Unbelievers, of course, will drown.
The moment arrives. Then it passes. Tension grows. Doubts start. Some repudiate the leader, but many cling to their beliefs. The prophetess announces that the very piety of the group prompted the Almighty to cancel the deluge.
What accounts for this stubbornness? Pioneering psychologist Leon Festinger called it "cognitive dissonance".
Dr. Festinger’s work in 1956 tells us that contradictory evidence creates mental discomfort. The conflict (dissonance) between opposing ideas (cognitions) hurts our punkin heads. We try, unconsciously, to relieve the brain pain. So we accept evidence that fits with our beliefs and reject evidence that doesn’t.
The same phenomenon happens with juries. Take the O.J. Simpson trials. A criminal jury acquitted O.J. of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Sixteen months later, a civil jury held O.J. liable for $33.5 million. How could two different juries reach opposite results?
Most observers point to the racial composition of the criminal jury (mostly African-American) and the civil one (majority white) and the higher standard of proof in a criminal case (beyond a reasonable doubt versus preponderance of the evidence). But the criminal jurors also had an explanation that civil jurors heard little of. The hapless criminal judge allowed the defense to parade a marching band of conspiratorial speculations before the jury. The theme of racist conspiracy struck a chord and allowed the jurors to disregard what many consider overwhelming proof of O.J.’s guilt.
Much the same thing happened with the followers of the flood prognosticator. Against irrefutable evidence of false prophecy, the believers grew even more zealous in their faith. They wanted to believe. They needed to believe. The set-backs simply impelled them into a frenzy of publicity-seeking and prosyletization.
Believe me now and think about it later.
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