Cognitive Dissonance and Wikipedia

How wikipedia is broken and how we can fix it.

Every once in a while, you hear about a "truth" that sounds so obvious you just can't pay attention to it. Here is one of those:

Your beliefs guide your actions, your actions change your beliefs.

The first part is something that anyone, anywhere, knows about. "What I believe will determine how I will behave."

The trouble with this is you often don't know what you believe since it's not accessible to your conscious mind.1

Bertrand Russell provides a partial-antidote to this problem. In his essay on the critical habit of mind, he writes that when you feel angry, you have a brief moment of insight into understanding what you actually believe. This is because at least one of your beliefs has been challenged.2
Bertrand Russell

So, the next time you are angry, take a moment to look inside. The clouds have parted, you can have the briefest of glimpses at your inner machinery, if you only choose to look. Try it.

Moving on. "Your actions change your beliefs". In psychological parlance, this is known as cognitive dissonance. This phrasing is accidentally clever. In reading the phrase, cognitive dissonance, the psychobabble flavour of its language might actually cause you to have cognitive dissonance.

To understand, consider two different people who have been duped by a psychologist. The first person, Mary, has been asked to join a club (full of psychology student actors). She agrees and upon joining is assaulted with an eye-glazingly boring meeting that lasts one and a half hours. The second person, Mack, has been asked to endure a number of haze-like challenges before he will be permitted to go to the same boring meeting. Mack is about to suffer cognitive dissonance.

When asked about their experiences, Mary says that "the meeting was boring", Mack says "it wasn't that bad". Mack's behavior prior to the meeting primed him to believe it was a worthwhile group. His actions changed his beliefs.

Here are some less mundane examples. Don't cheat on your partner. Otherwise, an automatic kind of psycho-magic will take place within your mind: your love (belief) for your partner will be diminished. If you believe in God, pray. Each act of prayer and thought is an endurance suffered to bolster your beliefs. At the heart of this idea is the notion of virtue. Think of virtue, as a thing that has been built up by many different actions to fortify a belief. If you are a Stoic philosopher, you will identify this as one of the few things that you can actually have and control.

Getting back to this cognitive dissonance phrasing. Cognitive, is a word that relates to thinking or the mind, and dissonance is related to music. Two different musical notes are said to be dissonant if you wince when you hear them played together.

If you haven't seen these words together before -- cognitive dissonance3 -- you might be inclined to wince right now. Upon suffering through the understanding process, you have endured a small labour and you are more likely to believe in the idea, it's juju, automatically.

Daniel Kahneman calls this "theory blindness".4

Daniel Kahneman As an effect, it has made human knowledge very slow to adapt to evidence, and very inaccessible to humans.

Consider a typical science article on Wikipedia. As someone who doesn't know a lot about this thing, I will scan it, and see that I have an endurance in front of me. A lot of the technical terminology is rooted in languages that I don't understand, Latin and Greek. If I labour to understand the article -- I become proud of my knowledge, recalcitrant to its criticism. So in a way, I have arrived at the boring meeting, and I think it's not that bad: I am inclined to believe what is written there because I suffered to understand it. Yuck.

So in a way, complicated articles hypnotize their audience into first suffering for them, then believing in them. That sounds like an abusive relationship to me.
wikipedia If I become a page-custodian of this article, I am partially blinded to how it might be wrong. Furthermore, I have no empathy for how hard other non-experts have to work to understand what I have written. The people who should criticize the article, don't because they don't know enough about it and they don't want to look stupid in public. Worse, they might not bother to read it in the first place because of its arcane presentation.

You would think hyperlinks would help, but most of the time, they lead to another cryptic endurance. A newcomer to an idea quickly becomes cognitively overloaded: They are trying to mentally manage new ideas, new language, and now, some navigational history.

Thankfully, it's an engineering problem that can be addressed with technology.

Here is the gist of how I would fix this problem - add a third dimension. I would create a redundant Wikipedia. Each page having multiple levels of access, with no upper limit. A lot of articles would not need this hierarchy since a single page would explain enough. The audience of an article could vote for more levels; you couldn't entirely trust the author of an article to know if its knowledge is inaccessible because they are blinded by their theory.

The audience could also vote for less levels.

Someone seeking knowledge would arrive at the top of the mountain -- it would describe enough so as to be understood by a lay person. If this person navigated down, they would see a page with a lot of the same information but with more technical language and more descriptions. A lot of writing might be redundant between the levels. This is ok! Hold back your deletionists.5
I would encourage the high schools and universities to have their students write for the upper levels of a technical subject. In being so fresh, they would have empathy for someone else who hasn't seen the information before. The general consumers of Wikipedia could fix all of their grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. The professors, researchers, and technical hobbyists could build out the bottom levels.

Then, we would have to adjust the hyperlink itself. It could point to any level, and it would have to be both easy and intuitive to navigate with.

As a seeker of knowledge, you would enter Wikipedia off of a web-search, then quickly identify your level of comfort (using hotkeys!). If you needed to freshen up on some language, Latin or otherwise, you could follow a level-link out. If you found a page was too dense, and there were no other levels to go up to, you could vote for it to be broken into parts.

As a teacher, you would approach Wikipedia in a different way, you would focus on the pages that you are interested in teaching, and identify the locations where the audience are seeking more of a hierarchy. You could assign your students to create new levels for something that they are trying to understand themselves. They would learn how to be custodians of their knowledge while effectively communicating it to people who don't know a lot about it. Both important skills.

Wikipedia would transform from a flat linked landscape to a complicated mountain range. The more complicated a concept, the higher it's mountain. The more you know, the deeper within it you would be.



  3. Wikipedia article about cognitive dissonance

  4. He warns his audience not to become blinded by his own nobel-prize winning theory

  5. A short film clip about a deletionist (and how to manage them)