Monday, 20 February 2012

Self Justification, Cognitive Dissonance, and Confirmation Bias

Following a theme from a recent blog, and a recent article that myself and James Steele published, I thought it appropriate to talk a little about self justification, and cognitive dissonance.

In the article I briefly discuss the concept that many scientists appear unwilling to let go of deep-rooted beliefs even when evidence appears to prove to the contrary, and that this can effect the places of publication based on the philosophies of organisations and the like.

A few days back I started reading 'Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)' by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The first section starts with a really nice description of the concept:

"...mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly....And it keeps many professionals from changing attitudes, and procedures that can be harmful to the public."

The book progresses to discuss cognitive dissonance which is best described by the discomfort of holding conflicting thoughts. An example of this might be the decision to smoke, whilst knowing the harmful effects. Choosing to justify these actions with whatever (false) logic you can apply; "only a certain number of people contract cancer", "my Grandfather/mother smoked every day and didn't get cancer", "if I quit I'll eat more", etc , etc.

Of course then there's confirmation bias. I've blogged about this previously when discussing mathematical probability and randomness; this is the concept that we set out to prove correct pre-conceived ideas.

I guess the point in this blog is to relate this back to exercise. Maybe you're a HIT advocate, or maybe not. Maybe you still train for hours at a time, for multiple sessions a week, with multiple sets and not training to muscular failure. Maybe you're justifying your training for some reason or another and ignoring all the scientific evidence. Maybe this has always worked for you so why change it? (by far the most common reason to avoid change - fear of the unknown) - but what if there was something even better than what you're currently doing. Perhaps you reassure yourself of your workouts because of a friend or a bodybuilder or a trainer (ignoring the genetic factors that allow them to grow well, whilst you struggle to grow at all!).

Are you choosing to do what you do because you are justifying it to yourself. Ask yourself the right questions for your goals and whether you're getting anywhere. If you are then great, if not then don't give yourself excuses; make changes; improve your workout.

The reality of it is that there are always things that we consider and perhaps provide some self-justification not to do, or continue doing. Just in the past few days this has opened my eyes to things I personally justify doing or not doing because of pre-conceived ideas or deep-rooted beliefs.

Perhaps it's time for each of us to open our eyes and our minds and test things, honestly, for ourself.

Be Well

JF 

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