What I Should Have Said Outside Ballroom C

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 2.44.04 PMAUSTIN, TX — SPSP CONFERENCE 2014.

When leaving Ballroom C after Hall and Wood’s talk on partisanship and dissonance affect I heard someone whisper to a colleague, “Wasn’t that just cognitive dissonance?”

I wanted to yell at them right there and shout that, “You just went to a session on the application and social extensions of cognitive dissonance! Of course it was ‘cognitive dissonance.’ But it was damn clever, insightful, and useful.”

I did not, of course, say such things in person. But now here I am on the Internet saying what I should have been said outside Ballroom C.

So let’s back up for a second and let set the scene.


Debrah Hall started her presentation by talking about how in the 2012 Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan stated, “My playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin.”

Debrah Hall and Wendy Wood argue this moment made many liberals uncomfortable. Why? Because liberals found themselves feeling similar to a conservative.

In a series of experiments, Hall and Wood show that partisans feel “dissonance affect” when they feel similar to members of an opposing political party. They conclude that their findings, “Demonstrate that similarity to the negative reference standard provided by outgroups can elicit the feelings of psychological threat that accompany cognitive dissonance, highlighting a dilemma faced by politicians who seek to appeal to voters by accentuating basic similarities that transcend party lines.”

Studies like these illustrate and bring a sense of clarity to the partisan problem (and also extend group psychology in general). Yet, in retrospect, after hearing Hall’s presentation, one might think that, “Of course this is true, a book in 1957 predicts this.” However before hearing Hall and Wood’s findings one might also assume the opposite. One might assume that accentuating basic similarities would easily “transcend party lines.” Hall and Wood give us a nice a lesson. Just because a book in 1957 might have circuitously predicted something, does not mean that today we are saliently aware of that something.

Hall and Wood provide us with findings that feel immediately true, despite the fact we’d never thought of them. They bring high definition focus onto the true nature of the political partisan problem. If we believed that partisans actually wanted to and would feel immediately comfort coming together and enjoy their similarities, then we would try to promote bipartisanship in a misguided way.

Many people walk away from SPSP talks like this one, with questions like “Didn’t we already know that?” or one of Michael Norton’s least favorite phrase “Isn’t that just cognitive dissonance?” In a video interview with Indecision Blog, Harvard Professor Michael Norton argued this dismissive critical attitude is the wrong attitude and academics should adopt a rather more positive constructive attitude.

Similarly, Cornell Professor David Pizarro laments that he was once told  not to do a project because, “Either way the results ended up, both theoretical conclusions would be obvious.” To which he responded, “Then is there not some value in knowing which one is actually correct.”

Researchers often fail to see the value in clever research projects that test two competing hypotheses and fall victim to a “knew-it-all-along” hindsight bias. On a similar note, Freakonomics author and economist Steven Levitt argues, “The sign of genius is the ability to see things that are completely obvious but to which everyone else is blind.” While there are definitely other signs of genius, our field tends to often dismiss this kind of “genius.” And unfortunately, it is genius of this kind that is often the most important type to immediate real world problems and is a fundamentally piece to developing rich vast theoretical models of nuanced behavior.

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