Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance

In response to a post about employment discrimination, James, a behavior analyst, made the following comment:


There is a sense of cognitive dissonance... If the employee was "exemplary" up to this point and all of a sudden they are deemed "unemployable," wouldn't that be illegal and unethical?


Cognitive dissonance, a concept developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, refers to the mental discomfort that people experience when trying to hold two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. They may deal with this discomfort by changing at least one of their inconsistent beliefs or by forming a new belief to explain away the contradiction.

It could be argued that prejudice is a form of cognitive dissonance because people who hold bigoted views often must deal with evidence that doesn't match those views. In the context of employment discrimination, however, I think the dynamics are somewhat different.

There are several ways in which an exemplary employee can fall victim to discrimination in the workplace without any cognitive dissonance being involved. Probably the most common way in which it happens is a change in management. The employee is hired by an unprejudiced manager and does well in that manager's department for many years. Then the employee gets a new boss who is prejudiced, doesn't know anything about the employee's past performance, and doesn't bother to look into it.

Another way in which discrimination can affect an exemplary employee is when a manager assumes, based on factors such as age or disability, that the employee's performance is likely to decline in the future. The employee's excellent record is irrelevant to this sort of prejudice because it is based on the stereotype that older and disabled employees, even if they once were good workers, are becoming less productive as time passes.

Because of the large global labor surplus, many managers also hold the view that employees are easily interchangeable. From this perspective, even if an employee has an excellent record, replacing him or her is no big deal. Companies with this sort of attitude see no downside to terminating employees who belong to an unpopular minority group, as long as the managers think they can do it without getting sued. For example, in jurisdictions where the employment discrimination laws do not cover sexual orientation, some companies have had inquisitions where they interrogated their workers en masse about their sexual preference and fired anyone who refused to answer. After all, there's always someone else in need of a job...

So I don't see much cognitive dissonance when it comes to employment discrimination. Sadly, there seems to be much more of it in parents' attitudes toward their autistic children. Like other parents, they see themselves as loving and caring people who adore their kids and want the best for their family. But at the same time, many strident voices in society are exhorting them to fear, loathe, and pity autistics. The emotional conflict in holding both of these views at once is, to use an all-too-familiar term, "devastating."

Some parents react by denying the possibility that their child could be autistic. They convince themselves that the doctors, teachers, or other professionals who recommended an evaluation had no idea what they were talking about. Any evidence to the contrary is explained away somehow, no matter how difficult it may be to rationalize.

Other parents accept the reality of their child's autism but seek to reconcile their conflicting views by insisting that it is not a permanent condition. They engage in magical thinking, such as believing that the latest fad diet or alternative treatment will make the autism disappear. Because they don't see their child as permanently autistic, they avoid having to consider the impact of their prejudices on their child.

In some tragic cases, parents who held these conflicting beliefs persuaded themselves (or were persuaded by others similarly inclined) that murdering their child was an act of love.

It doesn't have to be this way. Parents can free themselves from the cognitive dissonance trap by choosing to examine and reject society's ugly stereotypes about autistic people; but, as we know from other civil rights movements, it takes a great deal of time, effort, and mental toughness to challenge widespread prejudices.

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6 Comments:

  • ABFH,

    I often teach psychology, one way or another. It could be as part of a formal training event or it could be during the course of a session with my English language discussion group. In either case, because the Finnish have very little concept of what training and adult education really mean, I don't very often see anything like an assignment being handed in.

    When I have had one turn up for comment, it's usually been a basic regurgitation of the facts, with little of no critical thinking involved... no thought as to what the theory means in real life settings. The Finnish are not taught to think like that, sadly.

    I'd love to get a paper like this! You give a clear and concise introduction to the topic (cognitive dissonance, employment and, by impli cation, prejudicial behaviour on the part of the employer); you go on to say what the elements of the topic are (prejudice as a form of cognitive dissonance resolution, with employer prejudice probably falling outside this definition); you differentiate between them (cognitive dissonance in management or in parenting, and how that is resolved compared to the way in which employment discrimination most likely works), and you point out that there is another way to view things in order to resolve cognitive dissonance: a way which is probably a lot easier than ways in which prejudice can be eliminated.

    I'm not going to give it a grade: it would be insulting to do so... you haven't asked for one, and you're not my student. I will say, however, that this post was extremely uplifting for me (as a psychologist and as one who sometimes gets to teach psychology). I enjoyed reading it; I found that I liked how you made your points in it; and I was pleased to see a post applying social psychology to a very common pair of topics in order to explain why they are fundamentally different (even if they look the same).

    Do you by any chance have a postgraduate degree in a social science?

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 3:34 AM  

  • Thanks David. Your students are lucky to have you for a teacher. I wish my professors had given me such clear and encouraging feedback when I was a student!

    Yes, I do have a postgraduate degree... I'm not going to get into the details because I'm paranoid about posting too much real-life information, but I will say that it is not in psychology.

    At one point I considered becoming a psychologist, and I took several introductory courses, but I changed my major after coming to the conclusion that the field was woefully unscientific and backward.

    By the way, Blogger just forced me to change to New Blogger. So far everything seems to be working, but if you notice anything that doesn't work right, that'll be why.

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:53 AM  

  • "Thanks David."

    You're very welcome.

    "Your students are lucky to have you for a teacher."

    *blush* Thank you.....

    "I wish my professors had given me such clear and encouraging feedback when I was a student!"

    I really can't understand why many don't. I was very lucky myself with Glenys, my postgrad supervisor (who also has a physical sciences background herself... BEd in primary science teaching). It's really part of the job of a teaceher/lecturer/professor, when teaching and/or assessing students' work to give good clear feedback on what is working in the students' study efforts... more so than on what is not. In 'real' ABA, the reinforcer is only a reinforcer if the reinforcement is appropriate to the situation (basically, by definition). Vague comments about how good the student is and so on don't really help in that sense: I think that people get better feedback - and therefore reinforcement - if it it is focused on behavioural outcomes (e.g., topics discussed in essays, or reports written on practical inquiry and so on). Has to be specific and linked to concrete issues for it to make sense. And that's what I got from Glenys, and it what I try to give whenever I teach.

    You might actually like social psychology somewhat more than the clinical variant... hell, you might like developmental psychology more... there is actually more science in it than there is in clinical psychology; educational psychology is now getting more scientific (even if there's a lot of qualitative work in it now... it's still more evidence-based than it used to be).

    "I changed my major after coming to the conclusion that the field was woefully unscientific and backward."

    That's precisely one reason why I went into it: could I do it better, coming from a 'real' science background (maths/physics)?

    I think I can.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 3:12 PM  

  • Some parents react by denying the possibility that their child could be autistic.

    I saw this up close and personal last year. There was a boy in my daughter's pre-school class that was 3 and a half years old, totally nonverbal, not engaging peers at all, and stimming.

    The parents, educated professionals, were totally in denial regarding there being any problems with their kid. The pre-school director tried suggesting an evaluation, and they refused. My wife approached them once, and was rebuffed.

    As the child could not get the types of assistance he needed at the pre-school, finally an evaluation was done when the pre-school director refused to re-enroll the child without an evaluation being done, and the child's parents could not secure another spot at any other pre-school.

    By Blogger Club 166, at 8:49 PM  

  • Club 166: "There was a boy in my daughter's pre-school class that was 3 and a half years old, totally nonverbal, not engaging peers at all, and stimming."

    Been even closer to it.

    I used to be him.

    Club 166 (slightly altered to fit circumstances): "The educated professionals, were totally in denial regarding there being any problems with the kid."

    That happened to me too.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 8:58 PM  

  • The parents, educated professionals, were totally in denial regarding there being any problems with their kid. The pre-school director tried suggesting an evaluation, and they refused. My wife approached them once, and was rebuffed.

    There are surveys that document this phenomenon, which no doubt has an effect in prevalence stats. See here.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 10:44 AM  

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