(please note – this is one of my longer blog posts – you’ve been warned!)
As a vegan, there are certain beliefs I hold about which foods are good for me and which foods are not.
When the results of new studies are announced that reach conclusions that are not consistent with my beliefs as a vegan, I experience cognitive dissonance.
As defined by Wikipedia, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
And since no one wants to be in mental stress, we look for ways to reduce our cognitive dissonance. One popular way to do so is through confirmation bias, which according to Wikipedia is the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.
And so today my cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias were both kicked into high gear as a result of the new set of recommendations from Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of roughly a dozen academics and nutrition experts which provides advice to the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services,
On the plus side (since these guidelines were in line with my prior beliefs – confirmation bias), were the recommendations for people to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less red meat. In addition, such a recommendation is not only because of the health benefits of such a dietary approach, but also because of its impact on the environment.
According to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, large-scale animal operations can generate large amounts of waste, pollute waterways, and produce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Thus, consuming less red meat will have a positive impact on the environment.
On the negative side was that the report scrapped guidance that Americans limit their cholesterol intake to no more than 300 milligrams a day—less than that found in a couple of eggs, saying that dietary cholesterol was no longer a big concern.
That certainly goes against much of what I have read, and so I had some cognitive dissonance. As noted above, one popular way to remove such dissonance is to look for evidence that either supports my existing set of beliefs or evidence that refutes the new information I have just come across, and so that’s what I set out to do.
One of the first articles I came across was from the Forks Over Knives web site which had a story posted with the title, “No One Eats a Cholesterol Sandwich—It’s Meat, Milk, and Eggs That Make Us Sick.” Since the argument put forth in this article supports my belief system, I am going to give it more credibility than the research that was used by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. I do realize though that confirmation bias is at work here, but since I have read quite a bit about the the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle, I am ok with someone accusing me of confirmation bias when it comes to being a vegan.
The committee’s recommendation that suggests fish is a viable alternative, both from a health perspective and environmental perspective, is also quite questionable in my mind. Here is a great article (I know, confirmation bias), on the problem with eating seafood, from the multiple perspectives of compassion for animals, health consideration, and environmental impact.
Another recommendation that surprised me was the committee’s recommendation concerning coffee. The panel said consuming three to five cups of coffee a day can reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
I question coffee as having any significant medical benefit, particularly when consumed in such large amounts. But since my beliefs about coffee are not as strongly held as my beliefs about eating meat, my cognitive dissonance was not as strong and so I felt little need to look for something to refute such a claim, and I can live with such a disconnect between what I believe about coffee (and have read elsewhere) and what the panel’s recommendations are.
But all this talk about cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias makes me think at what point do such behaviors become a serious problem. Should I just blindly refute everything that comes out that is not in alignment with my vegan belief system and continue to look for evidence to support my beliefs, even if such evidence is a little weak?
(In the case of being vegan, it would take a lot more than just some concerns about the health benefits of veganism. There are also the issues of animal rights and environmental impacts to consider, both of which also favor a vegan lifestyle. That is why I don’t ever see myself becoming an ex-vegan.)
But this type of behavior can be found elsewhere; think of the current vaccination issue. The evidence showing the value of vaccinations is overwhelming. But there is a group of people who already hold strong beliefs against vaccinations, and such people will continue to look for and find evidence, and pretty weak evidence at that, to support their beliefs. This is simply another example of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in action, and not with a good outcome. The same could be said with regard to smoking.
One final example I will mention, and one that is near and dear to me, is my use of Apple products. I love my iPhone; I think it is the greatest piece of personal technology that has ever been created. I feel just as strongly about Apple laptops and desktops.
But imagine that a company created a smartphone that many people believed was superior to an iPhone. If I read a glowing review of such a product, I would enter a state of cognitive dissonance. I would then immediately start finding articles that confirm my belief that the iPhone was still the best phone in the marketplace, even if such articles were a little weak in their arguments. Confirmation bias behavior like this could lead me to sticking with a phone that in reality could be an inferior product. (I know it’s a far-fetched example, there will never be a smartphone as great as the iPhone, but just play along…)
I will admit it took me a long time to switch from Windows to Mac computers, thinking that Macs were not serious computers for business types. And so despite the rising popularity of Macs, I stuck with my Windows PCs, finding lots of support for such a decision in on-line forums, articles, and web sites (confirmation bias in action once again). It wasn’t until one of my sons bought a Macbook and I got to use it, that I realized that the Apple computer was a superior product, and that it would meet my needs. So in this case my confirmation bias delayed by several years the gratification I could have had by using an Apple computer.
We all experience cognitive dissonance, often with beliefs that run deep with us. And we turn to the use of confirmation bias to further support those beliefs in such situations. To lessen the potential negative outcomes sometimes associated with confirmation bias, we need to keep an open mind, consider how important such beliefs are to us, and be willing to change when the evidence becomes clear that our old beliefs are no longer true.
And so to bring this full circle, let me close with this humorous clip from Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper”, which offers a futuristic view of how some of our beliefs from the past could turn out to be so wrong. Woody’s satire is, as usual, right on the mark.
Thanks for reading.