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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