Abortion and cognitive dissonance

24 Aug

One of my favourite teaching topics is ‘why do smart people do and think dumb things’, and I was reminded of this during the week when I read about the latest, slightly bizarre, twist in the ongoing US abortion debate. As you will have undoubtedly read,  in a discussion  about pregnancy ( and thus potential abortion) after rape Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said “in cases of legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”. Avoiding, for the moment, the horrific use of the word ‘legitimate’ in that sentence I was draw to the question of why an apparently reasonably intelligence person could end up so confused about female biology as the available evidence seems to point in completely the opposite direction.

This made me think about a lecture I did last year, on the psychology of conspiracy theories. I spent a long time looking for an interesting example of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort felt when an individual holds conflicting beliefs, and in particular Festinger’s idea that individuals would modify their cognitions to resolve the dissonance.

It seems that Congressman Akin passionately believes that abortion should be banned, and no exceptions to this ban should be allowed. Equally he believes that rape is wrong. He is thus left with the dissonant cognition that a pregnancy might result from a rape. In order to resolve these dissonant beliefs it seems reasonable to suggest that Congressman Akin’s brain has concocted the seemingly baseless idea that the female reproductive system can shutdown in the face of rape in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance. There may, of course, be other explanations of this but it does look like a nice classroom illustration of the concept.

If you are interested in a rational look at the US abortion debate material is very difficult to find, as the debate is so polarised. However, I did come across this twenty year old paper from the arch-rationalist Carl Sagan that is well worth reading.

2 Responses to “Abortion and cognitive dissonance”


  1. More on cognitive dissonance and abortion. Pregancy from rape is ‘something God intended to happen’ ! « Teaching Rational Thinking - October 29, 2012

    […] A few weeks ago I wrote about an American politician Todd Akin, and suggested that the somewhat biza…. I’ve now come across a second example of what seems to be the same phenomena. […]

  2. Why do we shy away from teaching the psycholgy of religion to undergraduates ??? | Teaching Rational Thinking - April 30, 2013

    […] of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ is a product of an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance. I spend a lot of time encouraging students to think about everyday issues in a […]

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