Holy Fuck, Carol Tavris: Manufacturing Dissonance

[CONTENT NOTICE: Sexual assault]

The last time I encountered Carol Tavris was via her TAM 2014 talk on sexual assault. It didn’t go well; time and again, Tavris relied on anecdote or assertion, ignored the existing science, and flubbed the few statistical references she made. That also being my first encounter, I could grant her a bit of charity. Tavris does have a good track record as a psychologist, and some connections to false memory research, but no real understanding of the sexual assault literature. As someone who often works outside their area of expertise, I could sympathise with seeing nails everywhere and flubbing things up.

With her 2017 article about #MeToo in Skeptic Magazine, though, my charity has run out. The problems start early, and on the surface seem fairly innocuous.

Sarah Silverman recently made a video in which she described the painful conflict she was feeling about her good friend of 25 years, Louis CK. Watch it and you will see cognitive dissonance in action: on the one hand, she loves and admires the man, and values their long friendship. On the other hand, she detests and condemns the exhibitionist sexual behavior that he acknowledged. Many of the people watching this video wanted her to reduce that dissonance by jumping one way or the other: disavow their friendship, or trivialize his behavior. In this brave embrace of her emotional conflict and their friendship, she did neither.

Our whole country is living in a constant state of hyper-dissonance: “my political candidate/my most admired actor/a brilliant artist/my dear friend has been accused of sexual abuses and misconduct; how do I cope with this information? Do I support him/see his movies/enjoy his art/keep the friendship or must I repudiate him entirely?”

The problem becomes more glaring if I put it into a more structured form:

P1. Person X is someone I admire and look up to.
P2. Person X admits to sexual misconduct with other people.

This is an example of cognitive dissonance? I thought the term meant this:

Such behavior can be explained by a new theory concerning “cognitive dis­sonance.” This theory centers around the idea that if a person knows various things that are not psychologically con­sistent with one another, he will, in a variety of ways, try to make them more consistent.

Festinger, Leon. “Cognitive Dissonance.” Scientific American 207, no. 4 (1962): 93–106.

Cognitive dissonance is defined as the discomfort that arises when a person recognizes that he or she makes choices and/or holds beliefs that are inconsistent with each other (Festinger (1957)). We argue that investors feel a cognitive dissonance discomfort when faced with losses – there is a disconnect between the belief that the investor makes good decisions and the fact that the investor has now lost money on the position.

Chang, Tom Y., David H. Solomon, and Mark M. Westerfield. “Looking for someone to blame: Delegation, cognitive dissonance, and the disposition effect.” The Journal of Finance 71.1 (2016): 267-302.

There doesn’t seem to be any dissonance between P1 and P2, at first glance. People act differently around other people all the time; a heterosexual man on the prowl to “get some action” is going to treat me quite differently than he would a woman. Should I be shocked that someone who gets a kick from demeaning women never demeaned me? This should be no more surprising than learning a serial killer didn’t kill every single person they run across. These behaviours are so common that we’ve invented multiple terms to describe them, like “back-stabbers,” “ass-kissers,” and “two-faced.” If anything, the claim that someone used their power to silence their victims and kept you in the dark should be the opposite of extraordinary, for the same reason you put armour where there are no bullet holes.

What’s really happening here is that we’ve gotten new information, and based on that information we’re changing our assessment of that person. If there is any conflict, it’s an economic one. Should I stop paying for Louis CK’s work and instead reward other comics who don’t masturbate in front of women they hold leverage over, or is what he offers so unique that I cannot get it from another source? There’s no conflicting ideas here, just a general question about value. Cognitive dissonance is the wrong term to use.

But what if people could be perfect, though? Let’s change around the argument a bit.

P1a. Person X is someone I admire and look up to, because person X is good.
P2. Person X has been accused of sexual misconduct.
P3. People who have been accused of sexual misconduct is evil.
C1. Person X is good (P1a).
C2. Person X is evil (P2 + P3).

Now we have legitimate dissonance! But notice that we’ve been forced into a world of binaries, where people are either “good” or “evil” with no shades in-between. It’s a fair bet that this carries forward into how we think people act, pushing us to believe sexual assault perps are sex-crazed monsters who stalk strangers or people they just started dating. (Neither of those are true, if you were wondering.[1][2] )

Even this by itself isn’t enough to qualify for “hyper-dissonance,” though. Remember, if we’re confronted with two conflicting assertions, we “will, in a variety of ways, try to make them more consistent.” That’s trivially easy in this case: Person X is evil, not only because of sexual misconduct but because they fooled me into thinking they were good. The dissonance goes poof, just like that, and we’re back to normal. Yet Tavris spends her article suggesting increased dissonance is a virtuous thing. Emphasis mine:

Living with dissonance and complexity is not easy, but surely skeptics, of all people, must try. We hear a story that outrages us and, just like true believers and justice warriors of any kind, we’re off and running, and once we are off and running we don’t want to hear quibbles, caveats, doubts, complexities. […]

While many celebrate the courage of the accusers who are coming forth to tell their stories, let’s keep in mind that in today’s climate it also requires courage to raise dissonance-producing dissent.

So Tavris asks us to keep looking for the good in evil people, rather than ditch the good/evil dichotomy? At the same time that she scolds people for holding onto a good/evil dichotomy?

No hierarchy of abuse? Really? That is one of the universal symptoms of revolutionary zealotry: go for broke, ignore gradations of villainy, who cares if some innocents are thrown over the side, we are furious and we want everything at once.

This is all terribly confused, but at least there’s a way to salvage the situation: maybe Carol Tavris doesn’t understand cognitive dissonance? After all, she never gives out a definition in that article despite invoking the term multiple times. I could easily see myself flubbing the definition, in the heat of the moment.

In this terrifically insightful and engaging audiobook, renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look at how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right―a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

Except I haven’t written a book about cognitive dissonance. Tavris is an experienced psychologist, after all, and cognitive dissonance theory is a decades-old psychological theory, so it would be shocking if she didn’t have the definition down cold. She has no problems defining it elsewhere.

We’re left to conclude Carol Tavris believes the vast majority of the #MeToo movement is guilty of binary thinking. Yet despite the existence of a credible alternative out there, and despite having a strong motivation for invoking it, Tavris shows no evidence of thinking the alternative is plausible, let alone under-represented in #MeToo. Inadvertently, she’s revealed quite a bit about her own views, and given away that her own thinking is pretty binary.

But what sort of binary thinking? This blog post is getting long, so I’ll save that for another one.

[1] Swartout, Kevin M., et al. “Trajectory analysis of the campus serial rapist assumption.” JAMA pediatrics 169.12 (2015): 1148-1154.

[2] Ullman, Sarah E., et al. “The role of victim-offender relationship in women’s sexual assault experiences.” Journal of interpersonal violence 21.6 (2006): 798-819.