On killing people to remove cognitive dissonance

Slave women of ISIS
Slave women of ISIS

We have a view of the world that we try to make consistent. There may be inconsistencies that we do not see, or if we do see them, we strive to get rid of them. Getting rid of them be actually mean murdering them, as neuro-scientist Kathleen Taylor suggests.

If you look at ISIS, you may wonder how people who strongly believe their womenfolk must be loyal and pure, and not have “relations” with any other man, will also believe that having sex slaves is perfectly fine. You may see an inconsistency. Why would a person who values modesty in his own 4 wives then turn around and rape other women who simply do not belong to his religion?
Mohammad and his early followers would attack towns, kill the men, and take the women as slaves, and since Mohammad was the perfect man, and the prophet of Allah, that is good enough for ISIS.
To me this is interesting. They have a “fixed point” around which everything bends to fit. The fixed point is that Mohammad is the prophet of Allah, and all that is good and just comes from Islam, and they do their reasoning from that fixed point. If it was not such a fixed point, and if revulsion to making women suffer was a strong emotional point, they might question their religion, and modify or even discard it.

Leon Festinger
Leon Festinger

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger (1957), arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.

While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to “put it down to experience”, committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

Based on work by V.S Ramachandran and others, it seems that the right hemisphere of the brain has a “discrepancy detector” and when the right hemisphere is damaged, the left hemisphere has no brake on coming up with fanciful explanations to explain contradictions. Ramachandran sees a need to balance stable theories about the world with anomalies we sometimes encounter that might overthrow them. To take a personal example, I once heard that a Rabbi who I respected and seemed principled had many pre-marital girlfriends. I dismissed it as a rumor, but I didn’t make an effort to find out who was saying it, and on what basis. I did not take this piece of evidence and suddenly decide that the man was a hypocrite, and that all I had believed about him was false. And in general, we have to achieve a balance.
This raises a question to me about normal, non-brain-damaged persons.
What if people vary in the strength of their discrepancy detector? What if some people are more likely than others to embrace an anomaly? What would be the characteristics of such people? Would we call them open-minded? Would they be more tolerant of ambiguity? Would be they be more tolerant of different opinions? Would women, whose brains are somewhat different from men (for instance, the thick fiber of neurons connecting the hemispheres is thicker in women) react differently to contradictions and ambiguity on the average than men do?

Perhaps there are people who react violently when their world view is threatened.
consider the following:
I spoke with an old Italian woman who told me that a Nazi soldier shot her mother, who had been sheltering Jews. He had tried to argue with the mother and her mother made the mistake of arguing back that Jesus was Jewish.
Another example was in a book by neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor where she recounts the story of a Nazi who demanded a baby from its Jewish mother, and when the mother refused, he seized the baby and tore it apart.
Says Taylor “Faced with inputs that would force less committed others to adjust or abandon their ideas, a strong believer may find it less painful to adjust (or sometimes abandon) that bit of the world which gave rise to the offending inputs. World-shaping may lead to abhorrent cruelty, self-protective for the perpetrators.”

So here, she is saying that for some people, if they find the idea of you or me outrageous, or humiliating, or impinging on the way they think the world is, or should be, they may attack you or me. Actually she is saying more than this – if you simply threaten the coherence of their world view, they may attack.

We could ask another question at this point. Is intelligence correlated with the ability to see contradictions? I think it must be. An active mind that understands concepts on a deeper level than most is also more likely to spot contradictions.

That doesn’t mean that you should always overthrow a worldview when you hit a contradiction.  And it doesn’t mean that if you attempt to explain the contradiction while preserving your worldview that you are guilty of a “rationalization”  or a “defense mechanism.”

There are belief systems where even to question any of the tenets makes you a traitor.  I remember one Pakistani Muslim describing another who converted to Christianity as a traitor. If you come from outside a community and try to change certain principles, you can be regarded as a slimy corrupting influence.

I saw a video on Muslim children learning to “liberate” their land from the “Jewish Filth”. They were training with guns in Hamas territory. There were comments under the video, and one was from an Arab woman who cheered on those indoctrinated youths. I replied that the Koran says that “Israel is the Land of the Jews” (I had been surprised to find this out, but it does say that), and she replied that Jews are known to twisting words. Is this a rational response? The next day I saw another video, of Shiite Muslims in a Mosque being told to destroy America and Israel, and that curses should come upon the Jews. Then, in the midst of this hate-sermon, a Sunni Muslim suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest in the crowd. And it occurred to me the irony – these Shiites want to hate America, which just wants to leave them alone, and their real enemy suddenly hits unexpectedly. And I wondered how people can get to such a height of illusion where they hate the innocent more than the guilty, and see enemies in people who would rather be friends..
Conservative personality Jamie Glazov argues with Muslims, and he says that they tell him that Islam is a religion of peace, and when he quotes some Surahs showing its violent side, they get very angry and threaten him. There seems to be a missing awareness of contradiction between what they said about the religion of peace, and the threats that they then utter.

A former Syrian, Wafa Sultan, says that she sees a terrible anger in some Muslims she speaks with in America – their religion says they should not work for Christians, and make other compromises, but of course they have to, and this of course generates dissonance.
I would guess to that if your religion has “hadiths” that say the infidels should be dhimmis and pay tribute, and you live in Israel, where the Jew does not act according to your notions, that could cause internal dissonance as well.

From my experience in America, jealousy or just a sense of outrage makes some people want to pull others down, to reduce the dissonance between the way they think things should be, and the way things really are. This can happen even if the target did not actually hurt them.

Our worldviews have to be susceptible to revision, when facts or logic require it. Better to have your feelings hurt than to spend your life being wrong. And better to be exposed to many ideas, than to be saturated with one idea all your life – so that any threat to the validity of what you believe elicits a violent response.


A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance – Leon Festinger (1957)

Ramachandran tells you some of the biological evidence in a YouTube video:

Shiites chant “death to America” interrupted when a Sunni suicide bomber blows them up:

The Koran says this about Israel: “Pharaoh sought to scare them [the Israelites] out of the land [of Israel]: but We [Allah] drowned him together with all who were with him.  Then We said to the Israelites: ‘Dwell in this land [the Land of Israel].  When the promised of the hereafter comes to be fulfilled, We shall assemble you all together [in the Land of Israel].” Qu’ran, “Night Journey,” chapter 17:100-104.


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