Tag Archives: Abortion

More on cognitive dissonance and abortion. Pregancy from rape is ‘something God intended to happen’ !

29 Oct

A few weeks ago I wrote about an American politician Todd Akin, and suggested that the somewhat bizarre views about rape and abortion that he had expressed might have been a product of cognitive dissonance. I’ve now come across a second example of what seems to be the same phenomena.

Richard Mourdock is a Republican candidate for an Indiana Senate seat who holds very firm views on abortion believing that there are no circumstances in which it should be allowed. However,  the interesting stuff began when Mr Mourdock was questioned about his views on rape. As any right thinking person would be said that he ‘abhorred rape, as did God’. When the discussion moved to his views about pregnancy as a result of rape you see the dramatic ‘problems’ caused by cognitive dissonance. Mr Mourdock was confronted with on one-hand his ‘abhorrence’ of rape (and presumable the view that it wasn’t part of God’s plan) and on the other hand his opposition to abortion under any circumstances. It seems to me that cognitive dissonance can be the only rational explanation for Mr Mourdock’s subsequent statement that pregnancy as a result of rape was ‘something that God intended to happen’.

Both Akin and Mourdock’s statements over the last few weeks seem to me to be great illustrations of quite how powerful an influence on the mind cognitive dissonance is. It’s all to easy for European liberals to dismiss such statements as being slight ‘mad’, but I think that seeking rational explanations for them is much more interesting.

Equally, this seem like another useful example to get students to think about differences between American and Western European culture. All to often students are prepared to uncritically accept evidence from the USA when these examples seem to illustrate another gaping cultural difference. It’s difficult to imagine a ‘mainstream’ British politician of any party making statements similar to those of Akin and Mourdock without seeing a rapid end to their political career.

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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.

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