Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Opposite of Buyer's Remorse

Just before heading out on vacation, Publius of Legal Fiction briefly revisited a deeply troubling topic to all of us in the "reality-based community." It appears that, despite enormous evidence to the contrary, many Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction immediately preceding the American-led invasion. To explain this phenomenon, Publius refers us back to a post written nearly a year ago, wherein he argues that individuals approach issues such as this only after they have determined the position of their political affiliates. Rather than evaluate the evidence, they consider the impact of any conclusion to their "team" and respond accordingly.
…[I]n modern, ultra-polarized America, this process [of evaluation] has been reversed. People seem to picking political parties or labels first, and then relying on the parties (or “liberals” or “conservatives” in the media/blogosphere) to tell them what to think about all other issues. For example, let’s assume that Joe can only perceive the world through a clear glass window. He cannot observe the world any other way – everything is seen through the window. Now let’s assume that with respect to a given issue (let’s say welfare reform), someone has come along and splashed some red paint right on the part of the window through which Joe sees welfare reform. Joe can now only see the issue by looking through the red paint, which twists and distorts the way he sees it.

Essentially, this is what happens when people lose themselves in partisanship. The entire window becomes either blue or red. So, it becomes impossible for them to see any issue as it actually is – they can only see through the lens of partisanship which will necessarily distort their view. Again, try to imagine it on the most basic epistemological level. When looking at external events, Americans see the color of the window first, and then the actual issue, which always appears to them in that color. Or, to put it another way, when Americans perceive the world, they first reaffirm their political affiliation in their own minds, and then view the issues through the tinted lens of that political affiliation.
I completely agree. Clearly, many have abandoned the vagaries inherent in the personal consideration of available evidence for the comfort of answers provided by trusted authority. However, I also believe that something else is going on that shouldn't be ignored.

The WMD issue is, at this point, as resolved as something can be. Since the invasion, two separate large-scale search operations were conducted by David Kay and Charles Duelfer and both concluded that, while a desire for the weapons existed, the weapons themselves did not. The administration has responded by calling off the search and redefining the invasion's rationale. Unable to produce a single piece of affirmative evidence, they have abandoned the case and are hoping that no one will notice. True, they haven't fully admitted the error, but they have gotten as close to doing so as a political operation will.

Yet, despite the fact that the party with the greatest interest in discovering weapons has tacitly acknowledged the futility of that quest, many of their followers continue to cling to that discredited claim. You would think that their partisan allegiance would lead them to abandon the old talking points and move on to the new ones. However, many refuse to do so and are soldiering on under their own initiative.

Consider how many reacted to this story from the New York Times.
In the weeks after Baghdad fell in April 2003, looters systematically dismantled and removed tons of machinery from Saddam Hussein's most important weapons installations, including some with high-precision equipment capable of making parts for nuclear arms, a senior Iraqi official said this week in the government's first extensive comments on the looting. [Emphasis added]
"Equipment capable of making parts" is a far cry from a WMD. And nowhere does the article state that the existence of this equipment meant that WMDs were within Hussein's grasp. Apparently, those "nuances" were lost on the faithful. The post at LGF was titled " 3/14/2005: NYT: Saddam Had WMD Capabilities” and claimed that the story was "an amazing reversal" for the paper of record. Many smalltime conservative bloggers went even further. One in particular headlined his post "NYT admits it: Saddam DID have WMD." Several conservative commenters over at Legal Fiction also pushed this canard (among others). And lest you think this was just a hot topic among fringe wingnuts, have a gander at the king of conservative radio.
LIMBAUGH: The New York Times reports that there were horrible weapons in Iraq and they got secreted out of there after we invaded.
This isn't just partisanship. Well -- maybe for Limbaugh it is. But he wouldn't be going down that path if there wasn't a fairly substantial audience for this kind of misinformation. And clearly, there is. Why do so many cling so tightly after even Bush himself has let the ship sail?

As it turns out, another commenter over at Legal Fiction is, I believe, on the right track. A few days ago, in the midst of a post on a completely different subject, I described the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.
Normally our behavior is informed by our attitudes and beliefs. We strive, as much as we can, to conform to the constraints laid it down by our knowledge, experience, and conscience. However, there are inevitably times when our behavior strays from the path defined by our better selves. While this misbehavior is generally driven by a degree of self-gratification, it is also accompanied by a measure of discomfort. This discomfort is referred to as cognitive dissonance and you can witness it in your own life any time you act against your better judgment. For example, every smoker knows how unhealthy his habit is, yet he lights up anyway. When he does so, he feels guilt and shame because he knows better.

This dissonance can be extremely uncomfortable. Therefore, we will usually take steps to try to resolve it in some fashion. To do this, we have two options. First, we can avoid the behaviors that trigger it. Unfortunately, we will often find ourselves in situations where that option is untenable. In the example of the smoker, his addiction prevents him from changing his behavior. This leaves us with the only other option: changing our beliefs.
The disparity between behavior and believe is, however, not the only type of dissonance requiring resolution. There is also what is known as post-decisional or, as Bluewave describes it, post-purchase dissonance.

There's also the phenomenon of reconciling post-purchase dissonance; essentially this means (for the non jargonistas out there) that once you've bought something, you convince yourself you made the best choice by downplaying both negative information about the product you did choose, and positive information about the products you DIDN'T choose. It's just basic human behavior, and we all do it to one degree or another, and the bigger the perceived decision, the more we do it… That we didn't find WMDs doesn't cause people to think the war was unjustified (and therefore we made a bad purchase decision), it just causes them to change their recollection of the basis for the purchase.
Thus, for many the war was still about WMDs, but they've changed their opinion as to what constitutes a WMD. No longer is it simply chemical weapons or nukes. Powerful conventional explosives, WMD components (even if crucial pieces are still missing), and the equipment for WMD construction all now qualify as WMDs. In extreme cases, Saddam Hussein is himself a WMD. This may be extremely frustrating for those of us who remember what a WMD was before the war began, but for those suffering from post-decisional dissonance, that reality no longer exists. It's simply gone.

Unfortunately, this makes rational debate that much harder. Partisanship drives the two sides apart and post-decisional dissonance divides their realities. This is a serious problem because, as Publius says:
If people are disagreeing about these most basic facts, everything else is a waste of time.
Yep. Again, I don't have any answers. But, this is what we're up against. Just so you know.

Update: There's a great case study for this phenomenon in comments. Check it out if you have time. I wouldn't necessarily describe the discussion as informative, but it is entertaining -- if you're into that sort of thing.
Weblog Commenting and Trackback by