Creating Straw Men from Cognitive Dissonance

This article will address two separate yet sometimes related phenomena witnessed in various online exchanges (and elsewhere), namely the straw man fallacy and cognitive dissonance.  I’ll explain them one at a time, and then I shall illustrate how the two are at times combined.

Straw Man Fallacy

A straw man fallacy arises out of a presupposition, a misunderstanding, and/or an intentional mischaracterization, leading to a distortion of another person’s actual viewpoint or proposition.  There are four parts, though sometimes 2, 3 and/or 4 may be grouped together in the conversational exchange:

1)  Person A holds to or voices position or proposition X

2)  Person B distorts A’s stance (intentional or not) as Y instead

3)  Person B argues against distorted position Y

4)  Therefore, B concludes that A’s position X must be flawed – a fallacy

Person B’s argument is fallacious because person B is attacking the wrong position (Y instead of X).  Person B never really engaged with person A’s actual position.  This would be akin to burning a competitor’s mascot in effigy thinking that you actually destroyed the competition in reality.

Here’s an example:

Weather permitting, George golfs with his buddies about two to four times a month.  Jane, his wife, suggests George cut his golf outings down to one or two a month as a cost-cutting measure.  In response, George says angrily, “You just don’t like me going out with the guys!”

Jane is person A with proposition X, exemplifying part 1 above.  George is person B, with his response illustrating position Y, a distorted version of X (Jane’s proposition), and exemplifying parts 2 – 4 in his one-sentence reply (Y is Jane’s supposed ‘real’ position, therefore X=Y).  Observe that Jane has said nothing about whether she likes or dislikes George going out with the guys.  Jane’s suggestion is merely about reducing George’s golf outings in order to cut expenses.  For George to claim that Jane is opposed to him going out with the guys is presumptuous, resulting in his new, distorted position Y.

The words “never”, “none”, “always”, “forever”, “every”, and “all” are many times indicative of a straw man.  Here’s one from this site:

Bill and Jill are arguing about cleaning out their closets:

Jill (A): “We should clean out the closets. They are getting a bit messy.” (X1)

Bill (B): “We just went through those closets last year. Do we have to clean them out every day?” (Y1, also B’s X2)

Jill: “I never said anything about cleaning them out every day. You just want to keep all your junk forever, which is just ridiculous.” (Y2)

Bill’s response to Jill is an obvious mischaracterization (“every day”) of Jill’s initial suggestion; and Jill’s response to Bill is just as distorted (“You just want to keep your junk forever…”).  Jill’s calling Bill’s stuff “junk” is an overt exaggeration.  This exchange illustrates how a straw man can degenerate into even more distortions, and is an impediment to effective discourse.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance, which could be called “thought disharmony”, is that uncomfortable feeling when holding two contradictory thoughts simultaneously.  This comes about when something you’ve known to be true is contradicted, or seemingly contradicted.  Or, when something you thought to be true is contradicted.  As rational humans we instinctively seek to reduce such dissonance to re-achieve consonance; that is, we find a way to alleviate the contradiction.

It could occur in something like the following:

Fred, a man you’ve known for a long time and had been a friend of the family for the past dozen years or so is one of the most honest persons you’ve ever encountered.  He has demonstrated both his love for others and his integrity on many occasions.  Yet Fred has very recently been arrested for a bank robbery, with seemingly irrefutably strong corroborating evidence – to include eyewitness testimony from Ricky and Lucy, who, though a bit eccentric, you know and trust.  It’s also discovered that Fred has racked up large gambling debts and the robbery was apparently done in an attempt to pay these off.

You are now encountering cognitive dissonance.  You may think to yourself, “I knew there was something about Fred, but I couldn’t put my finger on it”, thus giving yourself an ‘out’ for not feeling totally betrayed and/or for thinking of yourself as a bad judge of character.  You ARE a good judge of character, aren’t you?  You may ask yourself, “Why did I not see this sooner?”  You tentatively conclude, “Fred was just really good about hiding this, he’s sociopathic!”

Alternatively, you could choose to disbelieve the evidence, including the eyewitnesses.  “There’s some sort of conspiracy against Fred”, you think.  “I’ve never been too sure about Ricky and Lucy, ya know, maybe they’re in on it; that Lucy especially is rather odd at times.”  Or, you could seek to minimize Fred’s actions, “He probably gambled to help someone else out of financial trouble and was somehow forced into the robbery by thugs trying to collect his gambling debts.”

The key thing to understand is that we all encounter cognitive dissonance at times in our lives, and that we all will use some sort of measure, or measures, to come to consonance again.  We want thought harmony, not disharmony.  We will also avoid situations, events, or information that could increase the dissonance.

From this link: There are three key strategies to reduce or minimize cognitive dissonance:

  • Focus on more supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant belief or behavior
  • Reduce the importance of the conflicting belief
  • Change the conflicting belief so that it is consistent with other beliefs or behaviors

Here’s another example from the above link:

The person who continues to smoke, knowing that it is bad for his health, may also feel (a) he enjoys smoking so much it is worth it; (b) the chances of his health suffering are not as serious as some would make out; (c) he can’t always avoid every possible dangerous contingency and still live; and (d) perhaps even if he stopped smoking he would put on weight which is equally bad for his health. So, continuing to smoke is, after all, consistent with his ideas about smoking. (Leon Festinger A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1957)

Creating Straw Men Fallacies from Cognitive Dissonance

Now we’ll illustrate how these two phenomena can appear together.  If a person encounters cognitive dissonance centering on a statement about a person or subject important to them (X), they may distort, intentionally or not, the statement put forth about this person or subject, thus creating a straw man (Y).  Then, the straw man (Y) is attacked, resulting in the straw man fallacy (X=Y, therefore X is false).  Thus, this straw man fallacy is actually the result of an attempt to alleviate initial cognitive dissonance.  In such a case, the straw man fallacy is the means by which the individual achieves consonance, or thought harmony, once again.

Using the quote above about the smoker, with X = smoking is bad for your health: The smoker reduces his dissonance by minimizing the effects of smoking (Y) and/or making cigarette smoking the equal of other ‘evils’ he’ll likely encounter (Y), so he might as well just continue smoking (X=Y).  Rather than quitting smoking he’s altered his thinking, making the habit of smoking “consistent with his ideas of smoking”.  Thus he’s achieved consonance.

Here’s another example:

N. U. Cantu (any resemblance to an individual about whom I’ve previously written on CrossWise is purely intentional) is a very charismatic individual – charismatic in the sense of friendly, likeable.  Cantu teaches that the earthly Jesus was a mere man devoid of divinity, performing all his miraculous wonders after receiving the “Christ anointing” immediately following His baptism by John.  In addition, this “Christ anointing” is what provided Jesus the “title” of Christ, for without this “Christ anointing” there could be no title.  Moreover, Jesus is our model in this regard, according to N. U. Cantu; so, Jesus did it, and you can too!  All you need is this same “Christ anointing”.  In fact, with this “Christ anointing” you’ll do even greater miracles than Jesus!

This is position X, put forth by person A.

An N. U. Cantu admirer, person B, reads position X, experiencing cognitive dissonance.  Cantu really seems like a nice, sincere guy, and B is absolutely ‘SURE’ the case (X) is considerably overstated.  Yet B never actually investigates the content of X to alleviate his dissonance. Instead, B emotionally attacks person A, stating, “You obviously hate Cantu” (position Y, a distortion of X), thus creating a straw man.  B continues, “You obviously have an axe to grind” (position Y, a distortion of X).  The implied conclusion of B is that because of presumed prejudice (Y) on the part of A, the entire statement (X) is false (because X=Y), thus illustrating a straw man fallacy.  Person B has achieved consonance, by eliminating his dissonance through erecting a straw man fallacy.  Person B now has thought harmony once again.

To alleviate any further dissonance, B may stop reading any other material put forth by A.  This accounts for those “hit and run” comments on blogs.

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23 Responses to Creating Straw Men from Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Craig says:

    One other way to alleviate dissonance is to embrace it! Become comfortable with it. That’s what jazz pianist Thelonious Monk – one of the greatest composers of the 20th century no matter the genre – did. He purposely played dissonant notes and chords on the piano as part of memorable (and tricky) tunes, in his inimitable style. A musical humorist, his tunes have been covered by many other jazz artists, as well as artists in other genres.

    A good example is the title track to his album Straight, No Chaser, which begins at 13:33 in the following. His solo, beginning at 17:57, is especially indicative of his style:

    Trivia: Clint Eastwood is a big jazz fan. He produced a documentary on Monk, using the same title as the above named release. I recall experiencing my own cognitive dissonance when I went to the theatre upon its release and finding only a relative handful of attendees.

    Miles Davis once (back in the 1950s) asked Monk to NOT play behind Miles’ solo, because he either didn’t think Monk could play, or couldn’t take the dissonance.

  2. Carolyn says:

    Just thinking….I wonder if people that throw out straw men arguments have an honest heart? Or is their main intent to “win”?

    Of course, the heart is deceitful above all things and who can know it? I suppose that answers my question to some degree.

    Scriptures that would create cognitive dissonance and a major conflict/disharmony in the thinking of a Christian? A couple of Scriptural examples come to mind that I have personally experienced:
    2 Corinthians 6:14
    Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
    Matthew 6:24
    “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

    Others?

  3. Craig Bridgforth says:

    Once again, you have identified the problem clearly and it is up to your audience to accept or discard your position. Thankfully, x=x!!

  4. Craig says:

    Carolyn,

    We have to take into account the spiritual aspect. A knee-jerk reaction may well be an indication of a spiritual stronghold. But also, human nature can come into play, as like you wrote “the heart is deceitful above all things…” For example, the individual who is told that their spouse is having an affair will sometimes ‘attack the messenger’, because it’s too painful to actually consider that this could well be true. It comes down what is known as the 5 stages of grief – ‘Denial’ is typically the first stage, followed by ‘Anger'; and, the two could be at play simultaneously, as the stages are not usually chronological, and most people flit between two or more of them until ‘Acceptance’ is reached.

    A straw many fallacy which is erected due to cognitive dissonance is, at root, dishonest in a way; but, we humans have an uncanny knack for justifying behavior in many areas. What we’ve done or are doing is not REALLY sin because ________________________.

  5. Carolyn says:

    Yes, it is uncanny. We are so ready to jump out of the frying pan into the fire because we want to escape something very unpleasant and painful. We forget that God has intentionally brought us out into the wilderness to test us and refine our faith. He has a destination other than the painful trial we are experiencing, but it is in his time and not ours. Considering Sarah and Abraham and how they took matters into their own hands, it should give cause for pause. At the same time, when you understand how long they were tested in this trial, (60 years), it shows how God is never in a hurry. He has a lot more at stake than just fulfilling our earthly wishes. Our own hopes and perplexities have to die in the process if we are to embrace the will of God enthusiastically.

    In the case of affairs and loss of partners, etc., time is the healer. If we deny the process, we can fall prey to our own cognitive dissonance. We make up nebulous justifications and excuses and try to manipulate God into doing things that we feel he has promised…..but on OUR time schedule. In the whole course of our history with him, he is using time to mould us into his image.

    Our need to belong to something bigger than ourselves, causes us to hook up with a leader, an institution, or a person who we admire, be it the Billy Grahams, the John MacArthurs, the Bill Johnsons and their respective organizations. Somehow, they have managed to gain our trust, and if we neglect our individual relationship with Christ we will cling to what it is we find appealing in their ministry, we will hang on their every word, and yes, we will create straw men arguments to protect our strongholds…with deadly consequences.

    We have lost connection with our true leader:
    Colossians 2:18-20
    18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

    Matthew 23:8
    New International Version (NIV)
    8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.

    For a few modern day strawmen arguments, I call your attention to:
    Billy Graham:

    http://ephesians511blog.net/2014/02/02/the-freemason-doctrine-of-billy-graham-video/

    In another video where BG is talking to Robert Schuller, he says something similar and Schuller throws back his head and exclaims , “There’s a wideness to God’s mercy”…ya, wide is the gate….

    Of course, there is the glaring straw man argument with MacArthur and Brannon House to do with the Mark of the Beast. They say that some will accept the Mark and still be saved, in direct contradiction of the Bible. Their justification? Ignorance. Is that an excuse you can use with God?

    And most recently, I noticed some straw men arguments in the debate between Michael Brown and Phil Johnson. If you know the Bible for yourself and you’re not just following your favourite leader, you can pick them out quite readily.

    1 Timothy 4:16
    Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

    Acts 20:30-32
    King James Version (KJV)
    30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
    31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
    32 And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.

  6. Craig says:

    Carolyn,

    Let’s try not to bring in too much outside stuff. I’ve heard the talk before about Billy Graham, but I’m not convinced at this juncture. Just because some author lists Graham in a book of Freemasons does not make it true. More convincing evidence would be needed (and not here please).

    Also, a faulty interpretation of Scripture is not a straw man; it’s a faulty interpretation. Remember, in a straw man it’s taking someone else’s position (X), claiming it is actually something else (Y) so that it can be claimed as false (Y=X, which is false). Not many Christians are going to take a Bible verse, distort it, in order to claim it’s not true. It would look like this:

    This verse states this (X), but I construe it means that (Y), therefore that Scripture is false (because X=Y)

    That would be a very obvious denial of the authority, or authenticity of Scripture.

    Now, cognitive dissonance can arise at one’s resistance to a particular doctrine revealed in Scripture, but to alleviate it, again, there are few Christians who would erect a straw man in order to claim it’s not true. Instead, they’d ‘reinterpret’ or ignore it.

  7. Carolyn says:

    I see where I made my mistake with the straw men but tonight my brain is too foggy to make any sensible statement. Maybe tomorrow.

  8. Craig says:

    BTW, all of us, bar none, at times suffer from cognitive dissonance, and most, if not all, of us have created straw men in alleviating them. It’s part of the human sin nature.

  9. Carolyn says:

    I watched a video clip last night on cognitive dissonance. It was about a pilot who is used to flying with his senses and his thinking. When he is first introduced to instrument flying, he is taken up by the instructor and by use of a special mask, is forced to see only the instruments and to put his faith in how they tell him to fly. Shortly thereafter, he turns his flying machine down to earth in a death defying plunge still thinking he is flying straight. His mistake was made when he felt that he was going in the right direction and disobeying what the instruments were telling him, he relied on his own instincts.

    Similarly, when we are used to approaching the Word of God by feelings, etc…(how does that make you feel? what do you think about that verse?), when put alongside the truth of the Word, in context, it creates a huge cognitive dissonance in our minds. We must decide whether we will align our actions with the Word of God under the light of the Holy Spirit’s instruction or whether we will continue to go with our personal instincts and cognitions.

    In order to continue to fly by our feelings, we will take the false teachers misrepresentations of the Word of God over the clear simplicity because it helps us to keep on flying by our own senses, which we prefer, since it is what we are used to.

    Here’s the part about false teaching being a straw man argument. God’s side of the equation says that Christ was God come in the flesh to be the perfect sacrifice of our sins. Here’s Bill Johnson’s “straw man” lie that he sets up to misrepresent what God says: “We need to have Christ consciousness so that we can also do the perfect works of Christ, therefore Christ was not really divine until after his baptism”. Now what just happened here? If I was God, this misrepresentation is not just a faulty interpretation, it has now become altered truth since he has erected a misrepresentation of God’s words and has erected a burning “straw man” throwing the whole meaning of why Christ came off balance. The flying machine is spiralling out of control. And of course, returning to the instrument (truth) will get us back on course.

    By this example, when does false teaching cease being faulty interpretation and become misrepresentation?

  10. Carolyn says:

    Here’s my take on the question and kind of ties it to some of the examples I used above:

    It becomes misrepresentation when false teachers use faulty interpretation to back up their straw men arguments. So in the case of other teachers who set up straw men arguments against the knowledge of God to back their Universal agenda or Socialist/Communitarian agenda or their UN backed, Globalist agenda, or Cabalist/Pharisaic agenda, then I believe that has passed simple false interpretation status and falls under misrepresentation. The change agents have misrepresented God’s words to their own destruction. Whatever Satan uses to separate us from the Word of God will eventually be used to set up his anti-Christ system because we are no longer walking in the Truth.

  11. IWTT says:

    I know a music pastor that came out of the jazz world and if you were on the worship team as an instrumentalist, watch out if you played anything that was dissonance or of certain “licks” that was either Rock and Roll or Jazz. Reason being is that he felt that the music needed emulate the attributes of the Father/Jesus. In other words, God is a God of peace and dissonance does not create a peacful atmosphere, so on and so on…

  12. Craig says:

    So, he certainly wouldn’t approve of music by Theolonious Monk (see first comment above, if you haven’t already).

  13. Craig says:

    I’d say that God has a sense of humor (just look at some of the animals!), and I found Monk’s music hilarious.

  14. John says:

    Carolyn, your post reminds me of a situation I found myself in some years back. I used a particular forum and interacted fairly closely, albeit online, with two individuals (I’ll call them X and Y). I trusted both, both seemed like Godly people, and both said the other could be trusted.

    Roll the clock forward a couple of years to much skullduggery, the sense I was being lied to but not knowing who was truthful and who was not, and X and Y both telling me the other could not be trusted. I had a fairly strong idea which of them could be trusted but wanted to check.

    In the end what I did was dig through a huge archive of conversations, cache logs etc. During the interactions I had always read everything through a “this is a good person” filter, so what I did was assumed that “this is a bad person” and re-read everything figuring how they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes and misguide me.

    With one of the people nothing made any sense at all – the paradigm “X is a bad person” just left everything falling apart. The paradigm “Y is a bad person” left everything still making perfect sense. So from there it was a simple decision, and although figuring that Y could not be trusted left me questioning all sorts of other things, coming to a clear decision in as objective a manner as I could imagine meant that the shift through to “accept, move on” was faster than it might otherwise have been.

  15. Carolyn says:

    John, ha….yes, the X,Y math equations really help us figure things out. Glad you were able to uncover the deceptions by such a painstaking methodology.

    In response, I was prepared to go off on a tangent about psychopaths being chronic liars and about people lying for usually one simple reason, to gain their own advantage and then segway into a few personal examples. But then I remembered on the one hand, I would be, once again, straying dangerously close to the edge of being off-topic and on the other hand, my computer is whining and breathing it’s last. If I don’t make it to the end of this comment, you may wonder no longer, why my blatherings trailed off into the dusky, evening sunset……

  16. Hey mate, you got me thinking about this topic and I wrote something on it too. I was a lot more arty and a lot less charitable than you, but if you get a moment to skim it I would appreciate your feedback.

  17. Craig says:

    I like what you wrote, and I’ll comment briefly on it in a bit. I don’t know how I even thought of the effigy analogy; it came to me as I was first writing the piece. I think it makes an effective visualization, and you captured it well in your article.

    On a totally different note, I’m hopeful that readers picked up the word play in the pseudonym “N. U. Cantu”. If not, just sound it out slowly. In addition, I made other more oblique references to TV personalities of old. For those who did not pick them up (non-Americans may be less ‘tuned in’), these include the words “Jane, his wife…” and “…Ricky and Lucy, who, though a bit eccentric…” with “…that Lucy especially is rather odd at times…”

    All work and no play make Jack a dull boy….

  18. wpmember7 says:

    I see great Cognitive Dissonance in Calvinism’s claim to believe in both the “Sovereignty of God” and the “Responsibiblity of man” concerning a man’s salvation and condemnation. Calvinism says that God ‘alone’ decreed the eternal fate of every man before any were ever born, God giving none of them a free-will (choice) in the matter….but that God holds man alone responsible for his own eternal fate to salvation or condemnation. Clearly, that’s a grave contradiction.

    But some of them try real hard to ‘resolve’ the dissonance by telling us that surely we’ll be convinced that their contradiction is true (unfaulty) if we just read an article about “Compatiblism”. Well, that article does nothing to resolve the conflict (nothing can resolve real contradictions). But by even trying to resolve it, the Calvinist has to admit that he understands to some degree the concepts of ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’, meaning that God being a just Judge (John 5:30) could hold no man responsible for a fate that God ‘alone’, and no man, was responsible for choosing.

    What is distressing is to find that some of my otherwise very nice relatives hold to this unjust idea of John Calvin. And God has not enabled any of them to escape from their clear contradiction (cognitive dissonance).

  19. wpmember7 says:

    I want to thank the author here for this very informative article. I really wish that I’d seen it about 20 years ago. I’ve seen others on forums speak of Cognitive Dissonance but never knew or researched what they were talking about. The author here explains both the Straw Man and Cognitive Dissonance concepts very plainly, explanations for which I am very grateful.

    I think that using those tricks to win arguments is disingenuous (insincere) and shows a weakness in the argument and a dishonesty in the person that would use them.

  20. mywordlikefire says:

    Thank your for warning about Bill Johnson. Your research has helped me a lot.
    John

  21. Craig says:

    You’re quite welcome.

  22. mywordlikefire says:

    Reblogged your article on Bill Johnson’s Christology. Thank you.

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