Friday, 3 September 2010

A foolish consistency the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

 This morning, I heard somebody on the radio using a phrase that was new to me - "cognitive polyphasia".  According to Wikipedia:

The concept of cognitive polyphasia refers to the ability of people to think about the same issue in contradictory terms in different situations. From Greek: polloi "many", phasis "appearance"...

In his research on popular representations of psychoanalysis in France, Serge Moscovici  observed that different and even contradictory modes of thinking about the same issue often co-exist. In contemporary societies people are "speaking" medical, psychological, technical, and political languages in their daily affairs. By extending this phenomenon to the level of thought he suggests that "the dynamic co-existence—interference or specialization—of the distinct modalities of knowledge, corresponding to definite relations between man and his environment, determines a state of cognitive polyphasia".
Ah, yes, the good ol' "dynamic co-existence—interference or specialization—of the distinct modalities of knowledge". Really trips off the tongue, doesn't it? Both the phrase and the definition might sound better in plain language. I think, somebody came up with a very similar concept, plainly expressed, years before M. Moscovici:


The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies...

Orwell didn't do any formal research, but he recognised the general idea and expressed it far more forcibly.

Serge Moscovici didn't come up with a memorable phrase, but some of his research into minority influence sounds interesting:

  • Aims: To investigate the process of innovation by looking at how a consistent minority affect the opinions of a larger group, possibly creating doubt and leading them to question and alter their views
  • Procedures: Participants were first given an eye test to check that they were not colour blind. They were then placed in a group of four participants and two confederates. they were all shown 36 slides that were different shades of blue and asked to state the colour out loud. There were two groups in the experiment. In the first group the confederates were consistent and answered green for every slide. In the second group the confederates were inconsistent and answered green 24 times and blue 12 times.
  • Findings: For 8.42% of the trials, participants agreed with the minority and said that the slides were green. Overall, 32% of the participants agreed at least once.
  • Conclusions: The study suggested that minorities can indeed exert an effect over the opinion of a majority. Not to the same degree as majority influence, but the fact that almost a third of people agreed at least once is significant. However, this also leaves two thirds who never agreed. In a follow up experiment, Moscovici demonstrated that consistency was the key factor in minority influence, by instructing the stooges to be inconsistent. The effect fell off sharply.
Via. The idea that consistency + repetition = influence could explain a lot of the doublethink / cognitive polyphasia we see around us. Consider the desperate contortions politicians get themselves into when they need to change their mind about a policy, but don't want to be accused of that mortal sin against consistency, the "u-turn". Or the assertion that an obvious change in policy isn't really a change in policy at all. Or Governments' maddeningly wasteful insistence on stubbornly clinging on to unworkable schemes to the bitter end.  

With a government headed by two PR professionals, schooled in the importance of relentlessly getting a consistent message out there, I don't expect the incidence of cognitive polyphasia to go down any time soon. To quote from PR Week:

In its communications effort surrounding claims that its new Dry Max product causes diaper rash, P and G has shown the effectiveness of consistent messaging in a crisis. 

The company has held strong in its message that the diaper product does not cause diaper rash...

Our unshakable commitment to comfy bottoms and unconditional victory over Eurasia Eastasia continues unchanged.