Rules of Engagement


When Prophecy Fails - Cognitive Dissonance (combined)

In 11 seconds this clip encapsulates what America has become

Moving the Goalposts

How could so many intelligent people turn on a dime to deny the patently obvious?

That’s what social scientist Leon Festinger set out to study almost 60 years ago. In December 1954 an article came out in the Chicago Tribune about a doomsday prophecy foretelling a cataclysmic flood. The founder of this fiction claimed that aliens from the planet Clarion contacted her and telepathically transmitted instructions for how to survive.

Obeying every warning would earn a ticket into outer space just a few hours before life on Earth would end. A small clan dubbed The Seekers heard her calling and wanted to be on board that ship. Festinger saw the perfect opportunity to put his theory to the test.

He assembled a team of psychologists to infiltrate The Seekers to see how they would react when time continued to tick.

He and his undercover operatives wrote When Prophecy Fails to document their observations. In the forward to a 2008 edition of that book, another famous psychologist named Elliot Aronson wrote the following:

Suppose that The Seekers are not wild-eyed kooks wearing white robes and carrying signs saying “REPENT!” — but are intelligent, sensible people with nice homes, loving families, and good jobs.

No doubt you had another image in mind — I know I did. So serious were The Seekers in their adherence to alien law that one member even removed a filling from a tooth — as no metal of any kind was allowed on their journey to the stars.

Another example of allegiance was the guy who “meticulously stripped tin foil from each stick of a pack of gum he was carrying.” The fervor in their faith fit right into the predictions of the study — that the disciples would double down on their convictions in the aftermath of unfulfilled beliefs.

When midnight arrived on the day of their departure, they opted to count on the slower of the two clocks.

Surely that was the reason the saucer had not yet appeared at the mandated strike of twelve.

Hope was fading fast by 4:00 A.M., but 45 minutes later The Founder received a message from above. As Cooper’s book tells it (while quoting Festinger’s):

A message shows the path . . . to restore consistency. The Clarions’ final message sage was brilliant. Through Mrs Keech’s trembling hand, it said:

“This little group, sitting all night long, has spread so much goodness and light that the God of the Universe spared the Earth from destruction.”

That very afternoon The Seekers sought the publicity they had previously shunned — and the theory of cognitive dissonance was born.

So that was it. The beliefs had not been wrong after all.

God had been planning to destroy the Earth. All of the preparations for the cataclysm had not been in vain. In fact, it was precisely and only because of the preparations, sacrifices, and faith of the group that the Earth still existed.

Festinger’s team had hypothesized that The Seekers — who initially shunned publicity and notoriety, would take their cause to the public following the disconfirmation — and they did that with gusto. As soon as their new belief was in place — as soon as they had generated the story that their actions had saved the world — they took their case to the public. They looked for social support for their story. They desperately wanted others to see that their actions had not been in vain — that their prophecy had not been disconfirmed, that there was no inconsistency in their belief.

Festinger had made a very basic observation about the social lives of human beings:

  • We do not like inconsistency. It upsets us and it drives us to action to reduce our inconsistency.
  • The greater the inconsistency we face — the more agitated we will be — and the more motivated we will be to reduce it

— Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory (by Joel M. Cooper):


My interest with psychology came through my own experiences — including cognitive dissonance. I knew nothing about it until I told a friend about a little debate back in college (ironically in COM 101). My classmate and I were disagreeing over who sang lead on most Pink Floyd songs. With every fiber of my being — there was no question that it was Roger Waters. But I can still see the look on Bill’s face as he had no doubt it was David Gilmour.

In reply to my story, my friend and fellow-Floyd fan said, “Sounds like cognitive dissonance.”

Ah yes, the power of “Hmm . . .” — followed by a little look-see into what he was talking about. And whad-ya know, he was dead-on.

It hardly gets more harmless than our friendly debate over Floyd, and there was nothing to be gained regardless of who was right. Aligning myself with Waters was rooted in my philosophical interests as a teenager in Cold War times. I still remember the exact moment when I was mesmerized by Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. I walked into a dark room down at some friends’ house and they had the album blaring.

Even cranked up there was a soul-searching quietude in the tunes that seamlessly flowed from one into the other. I had never heard anything like that before, but what struck me most was the imagery in Waters’ words.

Despite the gloomy lyrics — they had a thought-provoking purpose, and that was inspiring to me. And yet by overly identifying with the visionary behind the band, I became closed off in defense of him.

If I could blindly do that for no aims at all — imagine how discourse is poisoned when deeply-entrenched motives are involved

I was foolish for being so certain in my Pink Floyd perception, but had Bill brought in some liner notes listing lead vocals, I would have found it impossible not to take that information into account. As equally avid fans, I might have thought that our opinions were equal at first — but in the face of evidence to the contrary, I would change my mind.

But the absence of evidence is no excuse — I had other things that I could have taken into account to at least consider the possibility that I might be wrong.

Given that Bill was a good bit older, I suspect he knew far more Floyd history than I did (which wouldn’t be hard — since my knowledge was limited to a few albums). When I first revisited the lead-vocal question sometime in the early 2000s, it looked like I had been wrong all along — and if I could recall his last name, I would have tried tracking him down years ago just to let him know

I like to acknowledge error — I see it as a form of practice to be more careful in the future. And it’s a gesture of grace and respect to say, “Hey, I’m sorry I was so hard-headed about that — I wish I would have listened to you.”

Above all, it deepens your willingness to wonder:

“Is that true? Maybe there’s something to what she just said. Let me think about it. That’s interesting. Maybe I should change my mind.”

Life of the Closed Mind (Anna Quindlen)

Over a decade had passed since I re-evaluated my viewpoint, and a few years ago — just for kicks, I was curious to see just how far off I was. A lot more material is available online now, so I was able to easily compile the entire catalog to nail down a fairly accurate accounting. Imagine my surprise when my spreadsheet revealed that Waters came out on top by ten.

So was I right after all?


First off, I don’t know for certain that the numbers are right — I just know that they’re fairly close and that Waters came out ahead just a bit. But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the numbers are correct.

Would that make my right?

NO — Because my original belief was based on NOTHING!

Whatever the numbers, they don’t change the fact that in my ignorance I cast my conclusion with lickety-split judgment — letting my over-the-top loyalty shield me from listening. Without any knowledge of older albums, I had based my belief on a restricted domain of information — and yet I was completely satisfied that my knowledge was enough to express an opinion with certitude.

Moreover, even on the albums I had listened to a lot — the issue is in doubt, as I heard what I wanted to hear.

And now I hear differently . . .

The irony is that neither one of us was correct because it seems too close to call. But he was far closer than me (since he was basing his belief on actual knowledge). It wasn’t just that I believed I was right — I didn’t even think it was remotely close.

Through book recommendations and research, I become increasingly fascinated with the fact that there is a construct to the bizarre behavior I’ve been increasingly seeing over the years.

The short stories under Rules of Engagement are emblematic of the unyielding dedication to the demonstrably false

Most people generally see themselves as truthful, but it is the fog of intellectual dishonesty that most often obscures the truth. How we navigate that haze shapes our perception and impacts our integrity. captures the essence of intellectual dishonesty by describing it as such:

Intellectual dishonesty is the creation of false impressions or advocacy of false ideas and concepts using rhetoric, logical fallacies, or insufficient or falsified evidence. It often stems from self-deception or a covert agenda, which is expressed through a misuse of various rhetorical devices. The unwary reader may be deceived as a result. It is often very difficult to distinguish whether the intellectual dishonesty is due to conscious dishonesty by somebody or due to unconscious self-deception.

Volume 4 - resize

When Prophecy Fails

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. . . .

But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen?

The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view. How and why does such a response to contradictory evidence come about?

This is the question on which this book focuses. . . .

Let us begin by stating the conditions under which we would expect to observe increased fervor following the dis-confirmation of a belief. There are five such conditions.

Note: There’s one condition listed in each of the first 5 stories under Rules of Engagement (not necessarily in any order)

quote - Half the Harm

In Michael Strong’s The Habit of Thought, the author makes it clear that adults have infected the youth with the same attitude that is replete in the doubt-free characters in my stories:

Many students resist having their beliefs questioned by invoking the claim that “Everyone is entitled to his own belief” or “All opinions are equal.”

The corollary notion is that therefore no justifications for beliefs are necessary.

The difficulty with this perspective is that it implies that all disagreements concerning beliefs are personal disagreements or slights.

If there exist reasons for one’s opinions, then a difference of opinions becomes an opportunity for understanding how someone else’s reasoning leads them to a different opinion.

If, on the other hand, if there are no reasons for opinions, students are more likely to take differences of opinion as insults or as injuries to their self-esteem.

Rather than assert than all opinions are equal, students in seminar learn to judge opinions on the basis of the reasons given for those opinions

Habit of Thought - book cover -- with list - 3

Mr. Strong’s book is excellent — but there’s something wildly out of whack that the following is not at the bedrock of common sense:

judge opinions on the basis of the reasons given for those opinions

The flagrant failure to do THAT is the ever-widening faultline of America’s folly

There’s plenty of blame to go around on both the Left and the Right, but despite all those inherent disagreements (some of which will never change) — the depth of our decline lies in the institutionalized dishonesty that’s become our nation’s norm.

If you wanna instill some integrity into your kids — not cheering “4 More Years!” for pathological liars is a pretty good place to start


How to Disagree

March 2008

The web is turning writing into a conversation. Twenty years ago, writers wrote and readers read. The web lets readers respond, and increasingly they do—in comment threads, on forums, and in their own blog posts.

Many who respond to something disagree with it. That’s to be expected. Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing. And when you agree there’s less to say. You could expand on something the author said, but he has probably already explored the most interesting implications. When you disagree you’re entering territory he may not have explored.

The result is there’s a lot more disagreeing going on, especially measured by the word. That doesn’t mean people are getting angrier. The structural change in the way we communicate is enough to account for it. But though it’s not anger that’s driving the increase in disagreement, there’s a danger that the increase in disagreement will make people angrier. Particularly online, where it’s easy to say things you’d never say face to face.

If we’re all going to be disagreeing more, we should be careful to do it well. What does it mean to disagree well? Most readers can tell the difference between mere name-calling and a carefully reasoned refutation, but I think it would help to put names on the intermediate stages. So here’s an attempt at a disagreement hierarchy:

DH0. Name-calling

This is the lowest form of disagreement, and probably also the most common. We’ve all seen comments like this: u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!
But it’s important to realize that more articulate name-calling has just as little weight. A comment like The author is a self-important dilettante.
is really nothing more than a pretentious version of “u r a fag.”

DH1. Ad Hominem

An ad hominem attack is not quite as weak as mere name-calling. It might actually carry some weight. For example, if a senator wrote an article saying senators’ salaries should be increased, one could respond:

Of course he would say that. He’s a senator.

This wouldn’t refute the author’s argument, but it may at least be relevant to the case. It’s still a very weak form of disagreement, though. If there’s something wrong with the senator’s argument, you should say what it is; and if there isn’t, what difference does it make that he’s a senator?

Saying that an author lacks the authority to write about a topic is a variant of ad hominem—and a particularly useless sort, because good ideas often come from outsiders. The question is whether the author is correct or not. If his lack of authority caused him to make mistakes, point those out. And if it didn’t, it’s not a problem.

DH2. Responding to Tone

The next level up we start to see responses to the writing, rather than the writer. The lowest form of these is to disagree with the author’s tone. E.g.
I can’t believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion.
Though better than attacking the author, this is still a weak form of disagreement. It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what his tone is. Especially since tone is so hard to judge. Someone who has a chip on their shoulder about some topic might be offended by a tone that to other readers seemed neutral.

So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you’re not saying much. Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.

DH3. Contradiction

In this stage we finally get responses to what was said, rather than how or by whom. The lowest form of response to an argument is simply to state the opposing case, with little or no supporting evidence.

This is often combined with DH2 statements, as in:
I can’t believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion. Intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory.

Contradiction can sometimes have some weight. Sometimes merely seeing the opposing case stated explicitly is enough to see that it’s right. But usually evidence will help.

DH4. Counterargument

At level 4 we reach the first form of convincing disagreement: counterargument. Forms up to this point can usually be ignored as proving nothing.

Counterargument might prove something. The problem is, it’s hard to say exactly what.

Counterargument is contradiction plus reasoning and/or evidence. When aimed squarely at the original argument, it can be convincing. But unfortunately it’s common for counterarguments to be aimed at something slightly different. More often than not, two people arguing passionately about something are actually arguing about two different things. Sometimes they even agree with one another, but are so caught up in their squabble they don’t realize it.

There could be a legitimate reason for arguing against something slightly different from what the original author said: when you feel they missed the heart of the matter. But when you do that, you should say explicitly you’re doing it.

DH5. Refutation

The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It’s also the rarest, because it’s the most work. Indeed, the disagreement hierarchy forms a kind of pyramid, in the sense that the higher you go the fewer instances you find.

To refute someone you probably have to quote them. You have to find a “smoking gun,” a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it’s mistaken. If you can’t find an actual quote to disagree with, you may be arguing with a straw man.

While refutation generally entails quoting, quoting doesn’t necessarily imply refutation. Some writers quote parts of things they disagree with to give the appearance of legitimate refutation, then follow with a response as low as DH3 or even DH0.

DH6. Refuting the Central Point

The force of a refutation depends on what you refute.

The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone’s central point.

Even as high as DH5 we still sometimes see deliberate dishonesty, as when someone picks out minor points of an argument and refutes those. Sometimes the spirit in which this is done makes it more of a sophisticated form of ad hominem than actual refutation. For example, correcting someone’s grammar, or harping on minor mistakes in names or numbers. Unless the opposing argument actually depends on such things, the only purpose of correcting them is to discredit one’s opponent.

Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them.

And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is. So a truly effective refutation would look like:
The author’s main point seems to be x. As he says:
But this is wrong for the following reasons . . .

The quotation you point out as mistaken need not be the actual statement of the author’s main point. It’s enough to refute something it depends upon.

What It Means

Now we have a way of classifying forms of disagreement. What good is it? One thing the disagreement hierarchy doesn’t give us is a way of picking a winner. DH levels merely describe the form of a statement, not whether it’s correct.

A DH6 response could still be completely mistaken.

But while DH levels don’t set a lower bound on the convincingness of a reply, they do set an upper bound.

A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always unconvincing.

The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.

Such labels may help writers too. Most intellectual dishonesty is unintentional. Someone arguing against the tone of something he disagrees with may believe he’s really saying something. Zooming out and seeing his current position on the disagreement hierarchy may inspire him to try moving up to counterargument or refutation.

But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier.

If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in DH1 than up in DH6.

You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.

If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, that will make most of them happier. Most people don’t really enjoy being mean; they do it because they can’t help it.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell and Jessica Livingston for reading drafts of this.

Paul Graham