Thursday, April 26, 2007

The power of delusion

In his latest Skeptic column for Scientific American, Michael Shermer attempts to explain how it is that President Bush is unable to admit that the occupation of Iraq is a failed enterprise and that it is time to withdraw the troops. Shermer writes that Bush will not admit failure because of an irrational tendency known as the "sunk-cost" fallacy.

The psychology underneath this and other cognitive fallacies is brilliantly illuminated by psychologist Carol Tavris and University of California, Santa Cruz, psychology professor Elliot Aronson in their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Harcourt, 2007). Tavris and Aronson focus on so-called self-justification, which "allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done." The passive voice of the telling phrase "mistakes were made" shows the rationalization process at work. "Mistakes were quite possibly made by the administrations in which I served," confessed Henry Kissinger about Vietnam, Cambodia and South America.

The engine driving self-justification is cognitive dissonance: "a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent," Tavris and Aronson explain. "Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don't rest easy until they find a way to reduce it." It is in that process of reducing dissonance that the self-justification accelerator is throttled up.
Shermer also contrasts the admit no errors style of Bush with these words spoken by President Kennedy after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion:

This administration intends to be candid about its errors. For as a wise man once said, "An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors.... We're not going to have any search for scapegoats ... the final responsibilities of any failure are mine, and mine alone.
This administration, on the other hand, sees nothing but scapegoats.

3 comments:

Charles said...

Bush, I agree, is entirely delusional. Hardly surprising in a man of mediocre intellect coming from such a privileged background. His whole life has been lived in a cocoon, and it seems unlikely now that he'll ever emerge.

Cheney, on the other hand, appears to be beyond delusion. What can possibly be motivating a person who, at one time, was a person capable of clearly seeing the outcome of invading Iraq?

Far from acting as an experienced guiding hand on the relatively inexperienced Bush, Cheney has manipulated Bush into ghastly debacles.

I cannot easily believe Cheney is delusional. Dishonest, manipulative, utterly without scruples, yes, those are obvious in his recent record.

Adjectives for this administration: Delusional, Dishonest, Dysfunctional.

Hume's Ghost said...

I have given up trying to speculate what is inside of the mind's of men like Cheney. What matters to me is that he has taken on the outward appearance and behavior of a tyrant.

Actually, I wrote something when I was guesting at UT about the totalitarian logic of the administration. I am starting to suspect that Cheney's problem is that he has slipped into a totalitarian mind-set.

Mr. Greenwald recently wrote a post at his Salon blog where he noticed the same totalitarian logic at play, while noting that Cheney seems to be operating fully on the level of Hofstadter's Paranoid style.

Charles said...

I've read the posts you've mentioned (found your posts at UT interesting and insightful and followed you back), as well as many more, and I agree that Cheney appears to have become a functioning paranoid totalitarian.

That doesn't provide any insight, sadly, into his underlying motivations, which would be interesting to me.