The cognitive dissonance of experts

I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about cognition, learning and unlearning because I feel like I’ve spent most of the past 10 years refuting the vast majority of anything sewing, pattern making or industry related that people ask me. Most of the people I’ve spoken with come with a set of beliefs and expectations that they’ve developed over the years and it’s extremely difficult to penetrate beyond this enormously heavy curtain that they leave lying between the window of their social brain and their silent analytical brain. Paradoxically, it’s more difficult to penetrate those who are most experienced, not those who are new. People who are just learning are the easiest to work with because they haven’t invested a lot of time or money into one way of thinking because they’re still sampling the breadth of what’s possible to know. It’s like a big ideas and projects smorgasbord for them and they’re eager to taste it all.


I’ve learned there’s such a thing as “cognitive dissonance”. Cognitive dissonance explains why “experts” through out history have -when confronted with ideas that are either new, or new to them- use negative or reductionist behaviors to refute the challenge to their existing belief system. For example, maybe you’ve heard the news that ulcers are not caused by stress. It’s been proven irrefutably that ulcers are caused by a bacteria and are easily treated with antibiotics. That’s why all of the advertising for over-the-counter ulcer treatments have changed. Now, none of those advertisements ever mention ulcers. These same products now stress relief from gas. The part of the story you may not have heard was that the researcher who figured this out –studied it extensively, did all of the lab research, it was reproducible– spent 10 long YEARS trying to get other researchers to even look at his work. But they wouldn’t even look at it, much less try to reproduce the same results using controlled experiments. Still worse, he was ridiculed.

Now, about cognitve dissonance, experts and sewing. I know something about sewing so I’ve gravitated towards people with the same interests and in some cases there have been discussions and I’ve gone to great lengths to explain the workings and logic of things, just assuming that when confronted with the facts, people will go with reality. Instead, I have been continually surprised by the level of antagonism and rejection I’ve gotten from people. I found that logic or the “correctness” of my answers had nothing to do with it. People’s responses to factual information was governed by emotion which is considered “normal” (it seems abnormal to me but then, I’m autistic). This is cognitive dissonance.

According to Aronson (1996), when people are confronted with opposing beliefs or ones incompatible with their own, they are likely to ignore or negate that belief. They do this in order to convince themselves that they have not behaved foolishly by committing to false beliefs. To assure themselves that they have been wise in supporting their position, they often convince themselves that those who oppose that position are foolish and truly objects for contempt and derision (Aronson, 1996 p.184-8).

Okay, I can deal with the factual existance of an arbitrary, counterproductive, behavioral response and not take it personally but what I want to know is, how can I do something about it and be productive in spite of it? What strategies exist to lower people’s defenses to new information? How can one “get someone to listen”? How can one get another “expert” to advance in their professional development by considering information to which they’d not had previous access? If doctors won’t listen to listen to another doctor, I have few expectations among my own. Still, I’m resilient and I don’t give up. I’m looking for real wisdom so I turn to -a most logical source- Robert Pirsig, author of _The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance_

Pirsig -whilst in the shadow of Phaedrus- was obsessed with this sort of brain-lock. He sought to identify it, explain it and ultimately, to work around it. He stuck this problem in a broad category he called “gumption traps” which I’ve loosely defined here as ways that we manage to mess up our own lives with no assistance from anyone (if you could kick the butt of the person most responsible for the problems in your life, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a month). He subcategorized cognitive dissonance -an unknown term at the time- as “value rigidity”, a mostly illogical/counterproductive inabiltiy to grow beyond one’s current competence through the dysfunctional deployment of mostly self-denial and similar psychological strategies. These days we’d just call those behaviors civil aggression, passive-aggressive, manipulative, or intentionally undermining another because it’s not enough to refute the ideas…the “expert” also becomes defensive against the person who brings the new ideas. An example of this would be if I were to say that Pirsig’s instruction regarding the method of dismantling subassemblies was “wrong” because the man -obviously- never owned a cat (any cat-owning mechanically inclined person would describe Pirsig’s advice as a deliberately inciteful way to store and display parts cum cat toys). The value of Pirsig’s advice is not measured by something so inconsequential as the differences in our lifestyle choices when the overall strategy is a most productive and effective one. BTW, it’s worth buying the book even if you only read chapters 25 and 26. Just substitute the appropriate sewing term as needed.

The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best — and therefore never scrutinize or question.” -Stephen Jay Gould

Still, well before I became interested in cognitive behaviors, I was challenged by what it was that defined an “expert”. How can one know the expert is an expert if one is not an expert? And also, at which point does someone realize that they are an expert? And lastly, assuming one is an expert, how does one know what they know? How do they know it is “enough”, enough to be an expert? These were questions that bothered me. I’d been looking for experts who could answer the questions I had but that was difficult because it was almost impossible to find someone who even understood what the problems I was describing were. I haven’t found anyone yet. That’s really when I lost faith in experts. Since I’m not an expert, I had a lot of expectations from them. I was disappointed for awhile because I couldn’t find an expert so I thought that just talking about these ideas could be a good strategy because it’d bring new people out of the woodwork -who weren’t famous- and who might have something to add to the debate. If anything, I was hoping their questions would be better than my own.

Then, another cultural change was brewing. Magazines specific to method and process of sewing for enthusiasts became a force. Personalities and products were needed to drive, reinforce and sustain this niche interest largely by less than accurate or scholarly-suspect work. This ‘information’ was printed, disseminated and digested by a willing audience and propogated by leaders who’d similarly “invested” in the information, further reproducing and reinforcing it with their own books. This was disturbing. Just because something is popular or everyone believes it, doesn’t make it true.

For example, it was…mind-bending to read articles written by experts who’d write about how a given designer had a nifty way to sew something and then the expert would explain how you could do it too. The first time I read one of these, I guffawed with laughter, I couldn’t help it! See, on this end, we all know that designers don’t sew, they are the last person you want to ask about how to do something because they don’t know. They’re the ones who come to us (and I don’t care if you don’t believe me, ask any pattern maker, production manager or designer, in any factory anywhere in the world; even Chanel said the only designer she ever knew who could sew or cut a pattern with any competence was Balenciaga). Anyway, the process described in the article was wrong because that’s not how the work was accomplished, not even close. Then, I started to think that maybe the designer (Claude Montana) would sue the magazine (Threads) because the author of the article made the company look like grossly incompetent idiots because it was a really lame, overly labor intensive way to do it -with worse results- than the way that they were really doing it. If somebody wrote an article saying I sewed like that, I’d assume they were deliberately trying to ruin my reputation and make me look like an idiot when a decent sample maker would know better than that-no expert needed. I don’t know why these authors just don’t ask. They don’t, you know. Reading their articles you’d think they were buddy-buddy with the designer but nothing could be farther from the truth. They don’t ask the designer ’cause they’re chicken. And I know that because a designer would take a call like that because it’s interesting, it’s different. They are far more approachable than you know. For example, a lot of famous people are listed in the public phone directory, they don’t have unpublished numbers. It’s just that people assume their numbers are non-published so they never bother to look to call them.

Then I wondered if the article’s author wrote the wrong information on purpose but I couldn’t figure out what the motivation for that was either. It was all so very perplexing. I was certain the magazine would catch the oversight and print the process correction in their next issue but it never happened! Not only that, but they printed even more articles like the one I’d read. I was absolutely s t u n n e d. When I said as much to others (who didn’t know any real life designers) they insisted that designers could sew and then I just began to wonder if I was stuck catty-corner parked into some kind of parallel universe where newtonian physics didn’t apply. In my world, designers didn’t even have sewing machines because they’re mostly afraid of them, so how could do they sew anything when they were too afraid to own a sewing machine? They’re generalists, not technicians and specialists. Usually you can train a designer to do something simple like draw up seam specifications or provide a correct technical sketch if you give them a baseline template with practical examples of each. I doubt that they were just pretending not to know the difference between a zig-zag stitch and an overlock. And it’s not that designers are stupid people for not knowing how to sew because that’s not their job -according to industry standards- not yours. Not only that, a designer would get fired if they did do the sort of things that home sewers expect of them, say, altering a pattern without supervision or oversight. It’s only in the world of homesewing that designers are expected to know how to sew and sew well.

Still, I was willing to assume I’d overlooked the sewing knowledge that was purportedly being hoarded by designers, so I started asking them. When a designer called me, it was on my list of things to ask, as sort of an aside. The responses I got were varied. Some designers laughed out loud and said that’s why they’d hired me, some became a bit defensive and asked if I were trying to “make a point” and still others laughed and said, “I used to think I could sew before I got into this. I just had no idea what there was to know”. In my quest, I did find one designer who could sew as well as I could. And cut her own production-ready patterns (she’d been a production pattern maker at Evan Picone for 13 years). So, I can literally count on one hand, the number of designers that I know or know of, who know enough to write those articles and still have 3 fingers and a thumb left over.

At some point I realized the hobbist press was off on its own parallel-universe tangent and stopped looking for answers there. Back on my end of things, I continued looking. This is when I began to reproduce the drafts or experiments of people who’d written the books. Unfortunately, my results didn’t look anything like theirs so it was back to the drawing board for years. and years and years of drafting the same problem over and over again for the umpteenth time when finally, a silent voice I’d never heard before said, “maybe the book is wrong”. It was a quiet still little voice with nothing to prove and I was absolutely shocked. It changed my life. I feel like I began to catch up quickly then.

I realized -from an indepth survey of available books- that a lot of authors had copied off of each other. That one author (as far as I could tell) made one error which was then reproduced by an author in a subsequent generation. Even tho the book may have illustrated the draft, the pieces would not end up looking like the samples in the book. I started doing quarter scale proofs. I learned the authors merely illustrated the draft but they did not prove it. After years of this, reality sunk in. All bet were off from anyone and anywhere regardless of prominance or preeminance.

And that’s where I am now. While I know enough to know that I don’t know anything, I do know enough to know whether you know anything too because I’m starting to be able to grasp just what it is that I don’t know. So, if you reject me, belittle me, ridicule or humiliate me or use any number of neurotic, unhealthy psychological behaviors, you’re not using science at all; this is a personal-emotional issue for you. Let’s assume you have the facts, if you’re right, you don’t need to get personal about it when you can just as easily prove it. And I hope you are right- because then maybe you’ll help me. I have plenty of questions.

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