God, Doomsday, and the UFO: Why Your Friends Lie to Themselves

Why Your Friends Lie to Themselves

Your friends lie to themselves all the time.

You’re probably thinking:

“Why would anyone lie to themselves?”

It all comes down to psychology (and how irrational humans really are).

And despite what you’re thinking, these lies can actually help in music and in life.

Remember the Chronicles of Narnia?

It’s a series of novels where four kids discover a magical world inside a wardrobe, where the animals talk and magical creatures reign.

In one book, the kids bring Uncle Andrew to Narnia (inside the wardrobe), but he can’t hear the animals talk.

When one of the kids asks why everyone hears the animals but the Uncle, Aslan says something like

“People believe what they want to believe.”

And it’s one of the most profound quotations ever because it describes how people work.

God, Doomsday, and the UFO mystery

In the mid 1950s, a doomsday cult rose; they believed that a flood would destroy the earth and the faithfuls would be rescued by a UFO.

These people quit their jobs, left their families, and gave away all their possessions to prepare for their journey, generally avoiding the media.

Meanwhile, Festinger had infiltrated the cult mainly because he was curious. On December 20th, when the UFO doesn’t arrive and the world isn’t destroyed by disaster, a curious event happens.

The doomsday cult returns to society with renewed determination and approaches the media to tell the world that they had “spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction”.

Festinger documents the details of this event in his book When Prophecy Fails.

Why we’re okay about lying (sometimes)

Afterwards, Festinger and Carlsmith conducted an experiment (1959) that changed the way we see people and their behaviour.

There were two groups involved; group A was paid $1 to tell a lie and group B was paid $20 to tell the same lie.

  • They discovered that people in group A ended up believing in their lie while group B remained unaffected.
  • To justify lying for such a small sum of money, people in group A gradually convinced themselves that it wasn’t a lie after all.
  • Group B’s lie was justified because they figured that they were paid to lie.

This is the classic cognitive dissonance experiment. Since then, numerous experiments have proven similar results.

This is called cognitive dissonance

We each have our own views of the world, and when new ideas conflict with the existing views, we may justify the difference:

  • with a third idea, or a lie
  • by making one of the ideas seem less important
  • by ignoring one of the ideas

These processes are unconscious and people don’t actually realize they’re lying to themselves.

In fact, most of the time people have to consciously point out to themselves that they’re lying.

It happens everywhere

It could stop you from learning properly

“My poor aptitude in reading sheet music [for the piano] limits me. However, that limitation has directed my talents towards composing original music… For notation, I use ABC notation which is… not staff based and that helps me.”

— Joe*


Joe wants to learn how to read music and compose, but reading music is hard for him.

He decides that learning to read music isn’t really important and tells himself to compose music instead.

But if he can’t read music, how can he remember what he composes? So he counters the second dissonance by telling himself that the “ABC notation” actually helps him.

This is like saying “I’m going to live in Japan but I don’t want to learn Japanese, so I’m going to communicate by drawing pictures and inventing my own language based on Japanese characters instead.”

It works great if you find a place in Japan where they communicate with pictures and welcome your new language; otherwise you’ll have to be holed up in your room for this to happen.

  • Because he uses “ABC notation”, he’s composing one-line melodies that probably don’t vary rhythmically. This severely limits his creativity.
  • He quickly adjusts his values (reading music is not important and the “ABC notation” helps me) to accomodate his behaviour (giving up learning how to read music and using “ABC notation”).
  • All will be solved if Joe just learns how to read music.

Right now, anyone who attempts to approach Joe with contradictions will be told off.

He believes his own words and he won’t take anything else. He won’t even listen if you try to teach him to read music.

Joe is part of the 20% of people against what I stand for, and I’d much rather spend my time helping someone willing to learn and improve because I can probably help twenty people in the time that I help one Joe.

People with attitudes like Joe’s have to help themselves first by acknowledging that they need help because they don’t accept anyone else’s help before that.

This is a bad idea?

I had a piano teacher who was very particular about her taste; every time my playing didn’t suit her taste, she widened her eyes to demand, “Why? Why would you ever do that?”

I was uncomfortable with strangers in the first place but I remember being tense for every session we had together.

I began to dread practicing piano, and I practiced less and less because I started to believe that she’d shoot down everything I played, or that was the excuse I gave myself.

Granted, she had a lot of teaching experience, but my mom pulled me out when I started tearing up every session and breaking down even outside of the lessons.

I found a new piano teacher and that was best for the both of us. (I don’t know if that’s a lie, but I think I was better off.)

Makes you dumb?

Studies have found that kids who are bribed to achieve certain grades in school stop trying once the bribe is gone, while kids who find intrinsic motivation to achieve good grades actually enjoy their schooling.

Lesson here?

Bribing doesn’t work, not if you want to keep up the bribe for the rest of your life.

Dealing with Cognitive Dissonance

Here’s where it gets complicated.

There isn’t any one solution that’s perfect for every situation and in some cases it’s even smarter to let cognitive dissonance take its course.

For example, when your colleague is convinced that she needs an iPhone to replace her five-year-old phone (because her Blackberry just isn’t as good as the iPhone anymore) after seeing an ad, it’s cognitive dissonance working, but iPhones aren’t all that bad… or maybe she starts believing that her Blackberry is better (again, cognitive dissonance).

Or even in education, when kids actually end up enjoying schoolwork because of cognitive dissonance.

5 Whys

Dealing with Cognitive Dissonance

When you find yourself unsure of your decisions (is this cognitive dissonance?), play the “5 Whys” game.

If you find any ‘why’ to be unreasonable or something you don’t usually believe in, then you might want to make a new decision.

Let’s take the iPhone example.

  • I need to buy an iPhone. Why?
  • It’s more useful than my Blackberry. Why?
  • It has a lot more functions. Why?
  • I can work on the internet on the iPhone. Why?
  • It has a bigger screen and it’s quicker.

If I’m someone who never works on the internet, then the whys are lies, because the iPhone is not more useful to me because of its internet workspace capabilities.

Maybe I just want to play games.

I’d re-evaluate my decision and try to figure out why I need the iPhone, if at all.

I might decide that I don’t really want to invest in an iPhone because all I want to do with it is send/receive emails, and my Blackberry can do that perfectly.

Or maybe I like the display and I’m willing to get the phone just for its amazing screen.

Asking Others for Feedback

Sometimes it’s obvious to others that you’re not making the smartest decisions (for example Joe’s situation above).

Ask a couple other people what they would do in your situation and you might gain some insight.

Don’t let it run your life wild

Cognitive dissonance really explains why we do a lot of the things that we do; it’s simple yet complex in the way that it works without our knowledge.

Here are a couple great points from The Story of Psychology:

  • People adjust their values to justify their behaviours, even if it’s wrong or immoral.
  • People can’t harbour two different, contrasting ideas at once, so they’ll make up a lie, ignore one of the ideas, or make one of the ideas seem less important, so that only one idea remains.
  • People will interpret ideas differently to fit their own perceptions of the world.
  • The more barriers there are to joining a group, the more people will value their membership.
    To justify going through all the prerequisites to join an average group, your mind convinces itself that the group is fantastic.

If you’re honest with yourself, you can probably think of a couple times that you’ve encountered cognitive dissonance.

But don’t let it wear you down, okay?

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