Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Altered reality

Lying I've written before about cognitive dissonance, in which a person experiences conflict due to holding two opposing ideas at the same time, or being presented with incontrovertible evidence that refutes one of their firmly held beliefs. We've been seeing a lot of this lately with climate change deniers, people who oppose health care reform despite the fact that they will directly benefit from it, birther idiots who refuse to believe the evidence of a bona fide birth certificate (perhaps because it is titled certificate of live birth), and various other lies, misconceptions, or even those lovely forwarded emails loaded with bullshit.

Although not quite the same as cognitive dissonance, I would say that delusion is a part of that; people often delude themselves into believing something is real when it can be proven that it most definitely is not. I recently saw someone express extreme displeasure that President Obama had yet to visit the Gulf coast, that people were so angry at President Bush for not visiting during Katrina, but why was no one calling out Obama on this?? (All caps, of course.) Someone else chimed in and said that sure, Democrats and the media think Obama can do no wrong, and then the original poster said that Obama supporters don't want to be confused with the facts because they don't want to believe the evidence against him.

This was posted on May 30. The President had just been to the Gulf on May 28, and was there on May 2. Who is not believing evidence now? Or perhaps they just aren't paying attention, and deluding themselves into their version of reality, because to be presented with evidence that counters their belief will result in cognitive dissonance. I've also seen people write that Obama canceled the national day of prayer (he did not...although I think he should), and I've seen others say that he did not observe Memorial Day or honor our dead soldiers because he was on vacation. He was not at Arlington, but he was at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery to honor the soldiers there. As I pointed out somewhere, are soldiers buried at Arlington somehow more worthy than those buried elsewhere? Because my Dad is buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in northern Indiana, does that mean that he didn't serve his country well, and for many years, and is not as worthy of respect as those buried at Arlington? Anyone who says yes..I'll be showing up at your door soon, and we'll have us a little talk, okay?

I had it happen with that Facebook friend who, when I countered her misleading and incomplete facts with the full story, refused to acknowledge or accept it, and defriended me. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts."

It really is an odd thing to see seemingly intelligent people turn their backs on the truth, and even make shit up. Although it’s a little long, here is a very good article about delusional beliefs. One of the worst instances in my experience was with an ex-boss of mine. The guy was a jerk on many levels, and was quickly becoming known among the local research community as untrustworthy and prone to exaggeration of his own abilities. He was getting ready to go on a business trip, so we all had a little meeting about the projects we were going to be working on while he was gone. I was going to be purifying some Bovine Factor V, and it was a very problematic protein to purify. (Maybe because I didn't wear my ppppppledge ppppppin when I was working on it. Ha!) It was decided that we would send the assay out to a lab in Atlanta so that a researcher there could do the assay and give us some insight onto how we could get the process to work better. Because I wanted no misunderstandings, I said, "Just to clarify. I'll be collecting samples and sending them to Atlanta, right? I won't be doing the assay here?" He said, "Right." My manager and a coworker were also there.

Later that week....

I go through the purification process, a matter of several hours of work. As I get down to the purified protein, I start collecting samples to be sent out later, and get them frozen quickly so they don't degrade. The phone rings, and my manager answers it. It's the boss, he's calling in to check on how things are going, and after talking to him for a while, my manager says he wants to talk to me about how my Factor V project is going. I say so far, so good, I'm collecting the samples today, and I should be able to get them out to Atlanta for Dr. Whoever to do that assay. A brief silence.

Him: What?! Why aren't you doing it there? We talked about that before I left!

Me: Yes, but it was agreed that I'd be sending them out, not doing the assay here.

Him: No no no, we said you'd be doing it there!

Me: [trying again, although I knew there would be no winning this one] I specifically asked you to clarify that I would not be doing the assay here, I would only collect the samples and send them to Atlanta, and you said yes, that's right.

Him: I did NOT say that. Let me talk to Joy [the manager] again.

Headdesk When Joy got off the phone with him, she came over to me and said, "Beth, he's wrong. I stood right there, heard you ask the question, and heard him agree." My other coworker who was there also agreed, said it was clear to her that I would just collect samples and send them out.

So yeah, I ended up doing the fucking assay, and yes, I still find it disturbing that he either lied so blatantly, or managed to convince himself that he had said something other than what he did...despite three other people corroborating that he was wrong and that he was not remembering the meeting correctly.

I find it really unsettling to have to deal with people like that. In fact, you might say that people like that give me cognitive dissonance. They remember events in a way that is simply not true, they change reality to fit their own needs and purposes, and then try to pass their new version of reality off as the truth, even when others produce evidence showing that they are wrong. I'm not sure what the process is there, but they are either maliciously lying or deluding themselves into a false reality. Either way, there is definitely something not altogether right there, with a distance from reality that has to be unhealthy.

One thing I've learned over the years when experiencing something like this, whether at work or in personal matters, is the importance of documentation. When you know that someone willfully and happily lies, it's best to keep a record of contact, things that were said, emails and letters that were sent, and any other pertinent info. When dealing with the deluded, the best policy is an age-old one: Cover Your Ass. And you can tell 'em to kiss it while you're at it.


  1. Today I was watching a documentary on Hollywood and how it handled the Holocaust and Germany during the second World War. There were many, many Americans who simply ignored what was going on in Germany during the run up and the attitude was reflected in the way the film industry handled the topic of Germany in film.

    When I saw how people wanted to believe something else because the truth was inconvenient or made them face hard facts, I thought about how the climate is in open dialogue now. You could quibble about things, but like most wrongheaded thinking, such as racial and sexual discrimination, the thinking that had many Americans turn a blind eye to what was going on in Germany eventually had ran its course.

    As I watched the documentary, I thought about how this country has withstood the internal strife and emerged stronger for it. I contrasted that opinion with how I see in other cultures a driving need to believe in the diminshing of one segment of society in order to support another. Like the ugly Christian Americans who are over there spreading their brand of hate that is driving the hate crimes and laws against homosexuals there. That can't happen in the United States.

    The reason is, once enough people see how cruel and terrible something is, their is a need to do the right thing. People here are willing to struggle and give their lives in sacrifice for the greater good.

    I think that enough people will stand up against the limited thinkers and like all panic driven ideals, they won't stand the test of time. The Tea Party rhetoric will be driven into the shadows along with the Klan, Holocaust deniers.

    This, I believe. If anything, this is a call for open minded thinkers to stand and make THEIR prescence known and to push back against the ignorance.

    Like you do with your blog!!

    Fight the power, Beth!!

  2. You'd make a fabulous psychotherapist; keep it in mind as a retirement gig!

    So profoundly am I impressed by the power of our need to avoid cognitive dissonance, I continually watch for it and suspect it at work in myself. That may be the only hedge we have against it, but there are no humans who have entirely escaped its thought-warping effects. I sure hope someone includes this in my epitaph: She tried hard.

  3. Great read as always, Beth. You might easily have predicted that I'd weigh in on the "climate change denier" bit, though ;o) But primarily to point out that there is a distinction between "deniers" and "sceptics". The deniers are certainly, largely, politically motivated and proportionally demonstrably idiotic (citation: Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh). Climate scepticism (skepticism for ye yanks) is not a political standpoint, it's broadly a scientific counter-political position. The pressing question is whether CO2 mitigation will counter global warming. Sceptics (like me) argue that the science does not support the hypothesis.

    With specific regard to cognitive dissonance in climate change discussion, it certainly manifests itself frequently when global warming "believers" discover that the climate research they think is founded in "hard" science is in fact based on post-normal science, is riddled with popularly understated uncertainties, on poorly modelled projections, driven solely by probabilities and the precautionary principle.

    The process of cognitive dissonance is why we are, as apolitical climate sceptics, constantly accused of "denialism", and invariably in the pay of "Big Oil".

  4. Misinterpretation, miscontruing, deliberately or accidentally. It's all part of the human condition, and particularly prevalent in politics.

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  6. Teabaggers, birthers and global warming deniers are all the same people -- the same ignorant, loud people.

  7. Absolutely, so glad we have been documenting "things" for the last three years :o)

  8. I truly believe that I have more to learn from those I disagree with, than those I do. And I am willing to listen and discuss with anyone who doesn't stump so low as to call me names just because we might come to a place of agreeing to disagee.
    And with respect to Toon, some of us "teabaggers" are not "birthers." Many of us don't care for Mr. Obama, but more blame or call for the impossiable from him than Mr.Bush. And while I do not agree with the findings of global warning, I like to think I am respectful of others views. Having been recieving end of medicaid for many years, as well as caring for such patinets, I have first hand experence of the National Health Care plan being offered and don't wish to through that again. Thanks Beth, great post as always.

  9. Great post Beth. Loved it! Agreed. Document and then kick them in the nuts when they are down and it counts most. That is certainly the best way to deal with delusional people.


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