Carol Tavris on the Pain of Dissonance

If storytelling can be a force for evil, social psychologist Carol Tavris explains that it’s not just stories we tell others, but the ones we tell ourselves. Almost as uncomfortable as hunger itself is dissonance, that feeling when ideas contradict things we believe, or need, to be true.

All of us are susceptible to bias, yes, even skeptics. Tavris points out that skeptics in fact are very prone to “the bias that we are unbiased,” the idea that if someone doesn’t agree with our position on something, which of course we arrived at through 100% pure critical thinking, must mean that they are biased.

What hit home for me was the kind of bias that occurs once we’ve made some kind of decision with ethical or moral baggage. Tavris’s example was a student who needed to cheat in order to get a good grade in class. The student who decides not to cheat begins by reducing dissonance by reinforcing the idea to themselves that cheating is immoral and hurts everyone in the class. That snowballs over time into a zealous anti-cheating position, that it’s morally abysmal.

On the other side, the student who does cheat justifies it by telling themselves that it’s no big deal, and cheating isn’t the end of the world. But the cognitive practice, using all this brain power to reduce the dissonance of having cheated, causes this person to harden this belief to the point that cheating is a total non-issue, and justified in myriad circumstances.

In other words, in the act of reducing that uncomfortable dissonance, we get better at it. Practice makes perfect. As Tavris put it, we take “the path to the bottom where certainty lies.”

Tavris raised the example of those extreme gun enthusiasts who have convinced themselves and each other that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax to justify the confiscation of all firearms. That belief reduces the dissonance they feel between their love of guns and the horror of those gun murders. Trying to convince them otherwise only pushes them further down the path to certainty.

But just as we need to eat to satisfy hunger, we can’t reasonably live in the world constantly writhing under the stress of dissonance. We have to embrace certainty on most of the aspects of our day to day lives, like being certain that brushing our teeth is a good idea.

The takeaway is to remember to check our own biases, to know that we are not failures or traitors to ourselves if we admit error or the truth of an opposing argument. If anything, we’d be better for it. But we have to power through the dissonance. No pain, no gain.


Maria Konnikova on Stories as a Force for Evil

I used to make my living as a stage actor, and I was lucky enough to do almost nothing but Shakespeare for about five years. To explain what I thought was so important about Shakespeare and theatre, I often cite a scene in Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard, in which a panhandler on the street tells Pacino, “Shakespeare teaches us how to feel.” So the stories I helped to tell as an actor could teach people how to feel. I loved that.

New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova reminds us this morning that as valuable as storytelling is, as intrinsic to the human experience it is, and as much as it does to give us new insights and deeper empathy, “In the wrong hands, stories can be a force for evil.” Her topic is con artists. “Con artists are actors, they are storytellers.”

You can imagine that this was quite an affecting line of thought for me. The core of Konnikova’s message is that humans are not the creatures of fact we think we are. Con artists are actors of the criminal element, and they succeed by weaving a story in which the victim of the con is the good guy, and to not follow through with what the con artist, posing as a victim, needs, is to betray the idea of the kind of people we think we are and want to be. If we default to skepticism, if we show skepticism, when someone seems to be in need, we’re violating the story.

Of course this negative power of storytelling is not just applicable to con men, but to almost all areas of our lives. Konnikova cited examples such as the law, where cases are won by the best story told. Politicians tell stories of varying degrees of truthfulness, and then another layer is added when journalists tell stories about the stories they’re being told.

Want she wants us to take away is that the more you want to believe a story, the more you have to rely on the trust-but-verify dictum.

Or, as she says she sometimes feels compelled to shout, “Humanity sucks, trust no one!” I kind of glommed on to that one.

Oh hey! You can hear Konnikova talk more about this subject on CFI’s podcast Point of Inquiry.

Born Thinking Magically: James Alcock on Confusing Labels for Knowledge

If you’ve been around the secular community for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the cliché that goes, “we are all born atheist.” I bristle at it, because it’s not as though we come into the world affirmatively rejecting the supernatural beings hypothesis. It’s kind of like saying we’re born undecided voters.

James Alcock is our first CSICon speaker, and he’s talking about how human beings make associations between things that actually have no relationship. He began with circular explanations for things that actually give us no information, as when one asks, “why does the apple fall from the tree,” and the answer is, “because of gravity.” How do we know gravity is operating? Because the apple fell, silly.

“We confuse labels for knowledge,” says Alcock. No real information comes out of that.

It applies to things like the association of prayer with events in the real world: one prays to get over an illness, one gets over the illness, and it’s falsely assumed that prayer works.

But here’s the thing. We’re wired for this. Alcock explains that we have evolved to perceive agency in things that have none, to make associations that might not exist. Believing comes naturally.

Critical thinking is one of the last intellectual skills human children develop. We’re not born atheist, you see. As we learned from Alcock today, “We are born as magical thinkers.” I think that just makes skeptics’ work all the more important.

George Hrab Masters the Ceremony at CSICon

Our master of ceremonies George Hrab is definitely kicking CSICon off in the right spirit. Yes, he’s got great songs that suit the theme perfectly, but he’s also engaging the attendees, seeing who has traveled the farthest both geographically and, sort of, ideologically.

An attendee from Australia might be the farthest-traveled, but he also chatted with an attendee from Dubai who sells luxury boats (George was really excited about that), and said, “The apostasy laws are pretty relaxed.” Oh, well good.

At some point, George said that we might be in danger of contracting “reticent uvula,” and “coroner’s wrist,” among other conditions.

Skeptics Come to a Fantasy World to “Survive the Present Moment”

In the promotional material for CSICon this year, we used a lot of allusions to Vegas as a “city of illusions,” a notable contrast to the aims of a conference like this: the dispelling of illusions, or at least harmful ones. And arriving here during the day, to a hotel like the Excalibur, yes, it’s about illusion, for sure, but not in the sense of being fooled or having your mind blown as in a magic act. It’s more in the sense of a wilful illusion. “Let’s pretend this is a magic castle.”

On a hazy day in Las Vegas, the place looks almost like an abandoned theme park. Well, that’s not quite right. Maybe more like a distant relative of a theme park that sometimes gets involved in some questionable dealings and we just don’t bring it up at Thanksgiving. But the Excalibur itself is particularly fantastic; I audibly chuckled when I finally saw it from my taxi window. It’s a monument to “let’s play pretend.”

But we’re not going to see too much of the outside of this castle. There is so much going on over these next few days, I’m a little intimidated. There are hundreds of people here who are really excited. The sessions are packed into a relentless schedule so there is something new going on all the time. (Probably for the best, so I don’t get tempted to sneak off and try and lose my money to a slot machine.)

20161027_195215Our conference comes at a time when the country is going googly-eyed over the constant stream of information and misinformation, anxiety, and conspiracy mongering of the 2016 election. At a reception last night, Robyn Blumner, the CEO of CFI, said she had a lot of hope for the future of reason and skepticism, if we can only “survive the present moment.” This conference will be a good shot in the arm for that. We’ll fortify our brains and our psyches for the home stretch of the election, ready to bring our sharpened critical thinking to the rest of the year, and the rest of our lives.

As long as we don’t get lost among the Big Bang Theory and Ellen DeGeneres themed slot machines. Could happen.

Come Back to CFI Live on October 27 for Coverage of CSICon Las Vegas!

I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to expect from CSICon this year.

I mean, I know it will have amazing speakers giving fascinating presentations. I know it will be filled to the brim with attendees, great people all getting connected, making friends, getting enlightened, and enjoying each other’s company. And I know there will be a Halloween party with lots of super-smart skeptic types, a great many of whom, how shall I say, tend toward the nerdier part of the cultural spectrum. I’m mostly ready for all of that.

But I sense something more. I mean, it’s happening in Las Vegas, and that in itself means it’s going to be a little different than your average skeptic symposium, am I right? Come on, it’s being held in this Arthurian-themed medieval castle-casino-hotel venue, which I have to assume will at least lend some sort of, um, novelty to the proceedings (not to mention the joust we’re all going to witness). And there’s just going to be so many of us. It’s dizzying to think about!

If you can’t be there, I have one consolation. I’ll be here for you. Not in the emotional support sense, but I will be here at CFI Live, on the ground at CSICon, keeping you up to date and informed of the ideas, debates, sights, sounds, and hopefully-not smells of what is sure to be a remarkable event in a city that is literally like no other.

Bookmark this page – – right now, and come back on October 27, and keep coming back throughout the weekend for mostly-real-time updates on everything that’s happening at CSICon 2016…or, at least as much as I can possibly process.

It almost doesn’t seem real, does it? But it is, I tell you. It really is.

I’ll see you back here on Thursday, October 27. You can also follow along with the CFI Twitter account with the hashtag #CSICon, and I promise: if Houdini finally shows up at the séance, I will totally get a picture on our Instagram account.